Time To Celebrate International Women’s Day!

As this International Women’s Day comes around, I’ve been casting my mind back to women who have been my teachers over the years, right back to Mrs MacLean in Primary school who gave the shy, sickly little girl I was in those days space to shine.

In my early 20s I met Miss Rose Li, an elderly Chinese woman and Martial Arts master who I trained with for a over a decade. I’d get up at 5am to practice TaiChi and HsingI before catching the train to London – then I’d get home in the evening and practice again – oh for the energy of youth!

Miss Li is the girl on the right in the front row, flanked by her WuShu family. Miss Li taught me Mandarin too, on the commute I’d listen to language tapes, I’ve forgotten pretty much all of my Chinese but I still have the Beijing accent I picked up from her. Sadly I drifted away after I’d been through some big life changes and we lost touch. A generous and humble teacher, she was instrumental in bringing Internal Martial Arts to the West, at the time I didn’t realise how famous and revered she was! I wish I’d kept up the TaiChi, but I didn’t. I’ve recently taken it up again, and I have to admit it’s hard to be faced with all the skill I abandoned. I never let go of my love of Daoism which still influences my worldview today.

Judith Firman and Diana Whitmore were my Psychosynthesis trainers back in the 1980s . I’m no longer in touch with Judith, but forty years on I still work with Diana. We’ve been on quite a journey together and feel blessed to count her a friend as well as a wise and trusted colleague. Her dedication and her work with young people is an inspiration..

I first met the amazing Joanna Macy in 1987. She introduced me to Gaia Theory, Deep Ecology, Buddhism and a systemic approach; all of which continue to flow through the my work today.  I trained with her, and was part of a facilitation team working alongside her at the Findhorn Foundation back in the early 1990s. After a few years my work went in a different direction, but our paths would cross from time to time, at workshops, conferences and other events; meeting her was always a joy. She’s in her 90s now, and as inspiring as ever!

Then there’s Margo Russell. I joined Margo when she founded Psykosynthes Akademin in Sweden in 1989. She was an outstanding, inspiring trainer and a beautiful human being. Margo took me under her wing, mentoring, encouraging and challenging me. I wouldn’t be doing the work I do today without her. We worked alongside each other until her death in 2001. She was only 62. I still miss her humour, fiery intelligence, friendship and irrepressible, irreplaceable spirit. The Swedish Akademin was my core work for 25 years, an enriching part of my life that happened because of Margo.

Last but not least, Sue Farebrother, my oldest friend. Over the years we navigated births, and deaths, marriage and divorce, we saw the best of each other, and probably worst of each other too. She wasn’t a ‘teacher’ as such, but we never stopped learning together. Almost fifty years worth of friendship – such a gift. Sue died in 2022.

Having started this account I realise just how many women friends colleagues have inspired and supported me over the years. Too many to mention, but I will mention two; Sybille Schiffmann chair of Wise Goose who has just gained her PhD (she deserves a medal for putting up with my bad jokes about every meeting with her being a doctor’s appointment now.) The other is Josie Sutcliffe who, every International Women’s day hosts Occupy the Airwaves – a marathon 16 hours of live broadcasting from 8am until midnight on Phonic FM, Exeter’s community radio station. Josie definitely deserves a cheer for the amazing job she does.

The list could go on and on. Basically I wouldn’t be where I am, or who I am today without the generosity of a whole host of women and the gifts and love they have given to me. So, for this years International Women’s Day I want to celebrate the contributions of all the women I know and have known – you inspire me in so many ways as you work to forge a better world, and you have definitely made my world a better place.

Who are your women teachers past and present? I encourage you to join me in taking a few moments to celebrate them today.

Doors to be Opened: The Inner Development Goals & Wise Goose

Wise Thinking Partners is a hub and leadership development programme focussing on furthering the Inner Development Goals (IDGs).

Back in May, I visited Stockholm to launch a book and to reconnect with old colleagues and students. While there I was invited to co-lead a workshop on the potential of the Inner Development Goals (IDGs) to bridge the expertise of a community of psychosynthesis practitioners with the worlds of sustainability, business and leadership.  The workshop title was ‘Doors to Be Opened’.  

The buzz in the room that morning was great. The deep interest of this gathering of consultants, businesspeople, creatives, coaches and psychotherapists both energising and inspiring. By the time I got home I’d decided to see if anyone in our UK Wise Goose community wanted to explore ‘opening doors’ here by setting up an IDG hub. Since then, behind the scenes we have been busy co-creating Wise Thinking Partners – you can meet the team here.

 We are excited by the potential of the IDGs to contribute to purpose led, sustainable communities and organisations. The goals help us do this by putting the inner dimension on the map, providing an accessible language and framework for the transformative skills and qualities needed to develop our inner capacity to deal with today’s increasingly complex environments and challenges. Find out more and follow us on linkedin.

 Why do we need Inner Development goals – and how do they fit with the Sustainable Development Goals?

Worldwide we have known about sustainability challenges for decades, the Sustainable Development Goals or ‘Global Goals’ give a blueprint and shared vision and for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. But despite our knowledge not enough is being done to address pressing issues.  The IDG initiative is a response to the lack of progress, it maintains that part of the reason for this failure of progress is that most of us, especially leaders, need to be, think, relate, collaborate, and act differently.  

The European Parliament recognise this and have recommended the Inner Development Goals as an important framework to achieve Sustainable Development Goals.

How does this fit with Wise Goose?

Wise Goose was hatched over a decade ago out of the belief that we as individuals can influence a lot, and that coaching can have a role in supporting people in developing the self-awareness, communication skills, capacity for complex thinking and leadership that’s essential if we are to contribute to the larger systemic changes.  The IDG framework fits seamlessly with the coaching and training we have delivered from the start. We believe we have experience and expertise to contribute to the IDG initiative, as well as a lot to learn together with those who join us in our hub.

And finally, ‘Wise Thinking Partners’ is another way of showing our commitment to ‘walking the talk’ as a BCorp, where our certification is underpinned by the Sustainable Development Goals.

So, what will our ‘Wise Thinking Partners’ IDG hub do? We aim to:

  • Bring people together around collective exploration and action.
  • Learn, innovate, prototype, practice and share application of tools.
  • Create local events, action days or programs to support further activities within the Hub.
  • Ally with partner organisations to help fund local and/or global development of IDG.
  • Share stories, recordings of lectures, event designs and presentations with local and global communities.

Next Steps…..

5th December – save the date!

The launch of our hub coincides with COP28 climate summit.  Come along to explore and play. We invite the curious to a place free from expectations. A space to share your wise thinking and learn together how to make business, organisations and communities stronger for a better planet. Register here

Can’t make it this time? To hear about future events follow us on linkedin

Contact Wise Thinking Partners

We’d love to hear from you. You can send us a message if you have any questions. info@wisethinkingpartners.org

Trust and Permission

A leadership lesson in vulnerability

I’m delighted to share this post by Pam Billinge, writer, leadership coach, and specialist in Embodied Horse-Led Leadership Development. I always encourage coaches to use supervision, and this is a powerful story of how much of a difference it can make to coaching practice. Thank you Pam – being your supervisor is a joy and a privilege!

Late in 2021 I was delivering a client programme when, out of the blue, I received some extremely difficult news. My blood froze when I saw the 12 missed calls throughout the day from two different numbers I didn’t recognise. What I learned in the subsequent minutes folded me in two and knocked me to the ground. There was no question of me entering the classroom again, I was in deep shock and grief.

Five months later Spring 2022 dawned and it was time for me to get back to doing the work I love, facilitating Equest’s horse-led leadership development programmes. We had 20 international leaders coming to the farm where we are based in Wiltshire for a two day programme. As it approached, still feeling raw and emotionally spent from the aftermath of my bereavement, I began to doubt whether I was up to leading our team of 10 humans and 8 horses and facilitating an intense process for a group of this size.

The nature of the leadership development we offer plumbs the depths of human emotion albeit gently. We’d be talking about being authentic, connecting with the essential self, about being vulnerable and creating emotional safety. And here I was, the programme leader, on track to be perhaps the most vulnerable person in the room. I knew my feelings of trauma could easily be triggered at the location where my nightmare had started and I began to question whether I should do the programme at all. I was terrified of spoiling the experience for the group, of being hijacked by my feelings, of looking stupid, of losing control, of not being able to provide a safe environment for others.

‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’ My supervisor said to me in our session a couple of  weeks before the programme.

‘That I break down and completely lose it,’ I said.

‘So? What would happen if you did?’ She continued.

‘I suppose one of my team would take over. I would trust them implicitly to carry on without me, to cover for me.’

‘And what would the impact on the participants be of you breaking down? What kind of example would it set?’

‘I guess it would be an example of authentic behaviour, and of being courageous enough to be vulnerable!’ I couldn’t help a wry giggle.

So on the morning of the programme I briefed my team that they needed to be ready and verbalised the trust I had in them. Together we devised a ‘Pam breakdown back-up plan.’

The classroom hummed with happy expectation as I stood to welcome the client group. I shared that I’d had some bad news the last time I stood there and that I was still fragile, which the tremor in my voice betrayed. But I breathed deeply, grounded my turbulent feelings down through my feet, looked outside to the tranquil herd, the beautiful landscape, the red kites hovering overhead. I felt calmer. I had done it. I had named my vulnerability and suddenly everything seemed possible.

My usual introduction didn’t seem appropriate. Instead I read to the group from my journal about why the leadership development work I do with horses is so important to me. I spoke of how our approach has evolved through the interconnection and courage and contribution of many, both human and equine. I held myself together, just about, and the emotional chord I struck continued to vibrate it’s beautiful harmonies throughout the following two days for everyone present. I hadn’t broken down as I had feared, but I hadn’t pretended either. I had let my emotions live and breathe within the group process. And the group’s learning experience was richer for it: safe, joyful and profound.

I had rested in Trust – of my colleagues, of the horses, of our clients, of the process. And I had given myself Permission – to be truly real, to shed the need to be brave, or infallible, or in charge. The heart-opening which I had no choice other than to embrace flowed through to the group – they trusted and they too gave themselves permission to be true to themselves.

This experience has changed the way that I lead forever.  Whilst the pain caused by my bereavement will lessen over time, I trust that the gifts it gave me – how to be openly vulnerable with grace, intention and fortitude and how to ask for help – will continue to grow and make me a better leader, practitioner and human being.

Pam is a writer, leadership coach, specialist in Embodied Horse-Led Leadership Development and Director of Equest Limited. Her books The Spell of the Horse, Stories of Healing and Personal Transformation with Nature’s Finest Teacher and The Spirit of the Horse, Finding Healing and Spiritual Connection with the Horse, are published by Blackbird Books and available from all good publishers.

COP26 Thought for the Day #14

How should we think about addressing climate change?

Over the past fortnight at COP 26 debate has circled around pragmatic questions; fossil fuels, net zero, eco-efficiency, green consumerism, conservation management, political policy, economic reform and scientific or technological ‘silver bullets’.

But what about other ways of thinking about solutions to the issues?  Amid all the noise, and with so many points of view vying for attention how do I make sense of my place in relation to it all?

Over these days as I watched the news, and published the posts, I noticed different ways of thinking emerge as different contributors from different worlds offered their thoughts about questions raised by the climate catastrophe.

As I tried to make sense of the voices I remembered coming across a paper by political theorist John Dryzek, this was back in 2007 while studying for a MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice.  It helped me understand and untangle different ways of thinking and talking about environmental challenges.  Dryzek argued that environmental discourses fall into four different buckets (my image not his!) or discourses, either reformist or radical, and either prosaic or imaginative.

Dryzek, J., The politics of the Earth: environmental discourses. 2005, Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

The top left, prosaic and reformist frames the challenge within the current economic and social worldview. In other words, we need to tweak business as usual but basically can trust technology and markets to rise to the challenge and fix things. This was the loudest voice inside COP.

Top right, prosaic and radical on the other hand argues that there are limits to growth on a finite planet and to avoid disaster we must cut back economic activity. This might look like the call to rethink Christmas that just dropped in my inbox today, to reduce consumption.

In the bottom left ‘bucket’ the reformist and imaginative discourse operates largely within the ideals, values and worldview of current consumer-capitalist mindset, saying we need to do business better. Tackle things more creatively and intelligently, cradle to cradle, regenerative design fits here.

Finally, bottom right, the imaginative and radical approach seeks to shift consciousness, transforming the way we experience ourselves and the planet. Here all life is seen to have value in and of itself, not just as a resource for humans to utilise. This ‘deep green’ approach might involve a panpsychic perspective. In their beautiful pamphlet ‘On Sentience’ Peter Reason and Sarah Gillespie put it this way: “What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world?” This discourse can take a spiritual turn, seeing the sacred or divine immanent in the earth. A key movement here is in a shift of identity from a separate self, towards a connected self, what is sometimes called an ‘ecological self.’

Though these different ways of seeing the climate crisis and the best way to tackle it can and overlap, they are often in conflict and competition with each other.  Think of the activists protesting outside COP26, angry with the prosaic reformist inside, or those inside wanting them to ‘go away’ so they can get on with the hard work of fixing the problem. Or, as we heard in posts here a cynical ‘your are away with the fairies’ or ‘in Narnia’ – a bemused ‘what’s the point’ of any of this in the context of business or a school of management?  

I didn’t organise the way different discourses presented themselves over these two weeks, but reading back it looks like I might have. Perhaps it’s because most of us are dipping our hands into more than one ‘bucket’ as we go about our professional and personal lives, giving us access to different ways of thinking.  I can easily name organisations and people I work with from all four discourses. This gives me hope, the challenges we face are complex, far reaching and systemic, we need to recognise, understand, accept, include, and co-ordinate all of these approaches. I have my own preferences and perspectives, but if we are to have any hope of tackling the challenges we’d best stop bickering among ourselves to link arms and work together.    

Dryzek’s analysis is useful, but I’d like to offer another way of expressing this, from Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in Active Hope https://www.activehope.info/the-book

They outline three dimensions of work that needs to be done to turn around the climate crisis: Holding Actions, Life-Sustaining Systems and Practices and Shift in Consciousness. They are mutually reinforcing and equally necessary, each one leads into the others.

Holding Actions focus on holding back and slowing down the damage being caused by ‘business as usual’. This can include raising awareness of issues, as well as direct action and protest. These voices are often outside conference rooms, out on the streets. The goal here is to protect what remains. Holding actions are essential; they save lives, species and ecosystems. But, though protest is vital, they point out that on their own, these actions are not enough. Along with stopping the damage, we need to replace or transform the systems and institutions that cause the harm.

Life-Sustaining Systems and Practices involve rethinking the way we do things, redesigning of the structures and systems that make up our society. The green shoots of these practices are all around us. We can all support and participate through our choices about how to travel, where to spend our money, what to eat, where to save. Social enterprises, sustainable agriculture, green energy and investing, all are small steps that contribute to the creation of a life-sustaining society. But like holding actions, by themselves they are not enough. These new structures won’t take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them.

Shift in Consciousness involves a deep transformation from the hyper-individualism that’s become a hallmark of a ‘business as usual’ mindset, to a deepening of our sense of belonging in the world. This is the emergence of a more connected and compassionate sense of identity. This shift in consciousness involves our hearts, our minds, and our views of reality. For me, the practice of paying attention to small things, here, with care, in this place, keeps my sense of belonging in the world alive and fresh, giving me the energy and nourishment I need to do the work I do out in the world. Chris and Joanna call this “the inner frontier of change, the personal and spiritual development that enriches and deepens our capacity and desire to act for our world.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the ‘Thoughts for the Day’ we’ve offered over the past 14 days – I’m going to take a break, head up to the allotment and be quiet now!

COP26 Thought for the Day #13

Management for a Sustainable Future

Todays Thought for the Day comes from Sybille Schiffmann. Sybille is Chair and a trainer here at Wise Goose and part of a team at Marjon University who have been collaboratively designing a new MSc in Management for a Sustainable Future. https://www.marjon.ac.uk/courses/msc-management-sustainable/

The main ethical question for our time is what kind of work we want to build together with the immense resources we have at our disposal.”

GRLI, 2008 (The Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative)

In my work with leaders from business and the social sector who are currently studying on Marjon’s MSc Management for a Sustainable Future, the question above is particularly relevant. 

At its heart it is about taking on new responsibilities, concerns for other people, and for our environment, while weighing those concerns directly against our self-interest and in relation to the primary activities, undertaken by our businesses and organisations.

It becomes a question of leadership – responsible leadership in other words.

As I work with students who have committed to this quite demanding path of study, while holding down their existing full-time jobs, I am really appreciating what a transformative journey this is for those individuals, as they seek to shift thinking and action in their workplaces, through the adoption and in time, integration of sustainable business practices.

Such responsible leadership requires far greater cognitive understanding of the complexities of addressing sustainability matters. As one small business leader, who produces sustainable swimwear while actively adhering to Circular Economic Principles and practices put it: “The easiest and most sustainable thing to do would be not to set up and run a business at all”.

Responsible leadership also involves being visionary in the sense of waking others up to the future that is being debated furiously at COP 26, and to help orientate others in their workplaces towards potentially very different business activities, or entirely new business ventures for that matter.

My hope for our leaders on this programme is that they fully embrace their unique potential to create a positive difference, and impact, for the people, or customers they serve and for the planet they inhabit; be that large or small.

Their job moving forward is to “ build muscle” as Mary Gentile puts it and apply ethical decision-making in their workplaces. All this while facing the demands and challenges of day to day business as usual, where they must now present the ‘voice’ for those environmental and societal stakeholders not conventionally represented on the Balance Sheet, or the Profit and Loss account.

In essence they are creating the path to new possibilities, new products, services or even whole new ways of doing business. Walking this path requires restless curiosity, resilience, courage and a willingness to act at times contrary to the status quo; or as Jacob Bronowski once said “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”

It is a great pleasure to be on this journey with them.

Another quote that aptly describe the mind and heart of our students:

“The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.”

Jacob Bronowski

COP26 Thought for the Day #12

Awe and Wonder

“It’s my deep sense of wonder that keeps me hopeful.”

Alice Walker

It was pelting down. Fat silver drops that fall straight down to bounce and splatter, soaking shoes and trouser bottoms. The water flowed fast, bubbling along the gutters, skimming the top of the kerb and gurgling down drains. Shoppers huddled in shop doorways waiting for it to ease or hunched and hurried to whatever could not wait for the cloudburst to pass. I made my way up the steps of Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum to escape the rain.

On the floor plan I pick up there’s an invitation “Find your way or lose yourself”. I stuff it in my pocket and let my feet take me up the stairs, past the statue of Prince Albert where, ready to lose myself, I take a random left turn.

Disoriented, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. On shelves specimens in ground glass jars are suspended in alcohol, there are old-fashioned mahogany display cases with neat labels. For a split second I’m in the Hancock Museum in Newcastle sixty years ago. A rare treat, just me and Dad. Every time we went I’d stand spellbound for what seemed hours, gazing into the eyes of the stuffed American bison.

Back in the present, in this museum, I’d stumbled into biologist Walter Percy Sladen’s study, unchanged since it was installed in 1910. It’s the home of his echinoderm collection – marine animals that include sea urchins and starfish.

I wander over to the shelves, examining the jars. Inside float delicate curling arms covered with fine hair that I discover are tube feet. In the centre, cases display dried starfish, all sizes, collected from all over the world. From Teignmouth just down the road, to New Zealand. The labels record the depth of the finds and the kind of mud; blue mud, volcanic mud, coral mud and gravel and stone. I wander absorbed, struck by their fivefold radial symmetry, I remember learning as a child that starfish have an amazing power – they can regenerate their limbs. Surprised by how moved I feel here, surrounded by what are after all dead specimens, I realise what is stirred in me is a sense of wonder at a vast otherness that puts my own small place in the world into perspective.

I glance up and see there are words written around the cornice. Craning my neck and turning around in the centre of the room I struggle to read; with no spaces and no punctuation and it takes a while for the letters to make sense:

“Look on the frame of this wide universe and therein read the endless kinds of creature which by name thou canst not count much less their natures aim which are made with wondrous wise respect and with admirable beauty deckt.”

Back home, I remember the sea urchin shell that sits on the windowsill of my office. Taking it in my hands, I turn it, running fingertips over the bumps where spines were anchored, tracing the delicate peachy-pink lines and darker mahogany stripes, seeing for the first time the curved fivefold symmetry, like a closed tulip. Here, in a room I work in most days; wonder rises again. Awe doesn’t require travel to distant lands. It does need space and time and perhaps, a willingness to meet life with openness.

I often find myself writing about what I think of as ‘micro-practices.’ A colleague once dismissed this as ‘Narnia’ irrelevant, not real world ‘work’. That was 15 years ago, but the barb still sticks. Last week, Chris Nichols, in his post ‘Reaching for the Stars,’ mentioned the time the CEO of his business school declared he was ‘away with the fairies.’ I smiled when I read that, taking comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. Smiles aside, I still carry a secret, lurking fear ridicule.

Nevertheless, I want to take a stand for these glimpses of another way of experiencing my place in the world. The world needs more awe not less. Specifically, the wonder that rises in response to the natural world, transforming the way we understand the world.

As COP26 moves into its final days, my thoughts turn to Sir David Attenborough’s opening address. His sense of wonder, his capacity to engage and marvel has touched millions, opening a crack where love for the natural world can enter. Awe matters because the more we lose our capacity to be awestruck, the easier it is to look down on the world with superior, self-centred over-confidence.

Wonder is an antidote for the self-absorption that creeps up when I become too busy, speedy, preoccupied or fixated on personal concerns. A few moments at the end of the day breathing cool air and looking at the stars, a cup of coffee on a bench where I can smell honeysuckle and listen to bees, or pausing to watch the birds on the feeder outside the kitchen window – these presences work together to soften and melt a tendency to see myself as the centre of my own universe.

The lines in Sladen’s study are from ‘An Hymn of Heavenly Beauty by Edmund Spenser.

COP26 Thought for the Day #11

Cutting Leeks

Todays thought for the day comes from Pat Fleming. Pat works in conservation education, and currently teaches and mentors on the ‘Call of the Wild’ courses at Schumacher College. She co-authored ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’, a deep ecology reader with John Seed, Arne Naess and Joanna Macy and has led groups in deep ecology and ‘Work that Reconnects’ for over 30 years.

Cutting Leeks as COP26 opens

I stand by the compost heap, bottom of our Dartmoor garden,
wielding an old bone-handled knife,
slicing muddy white roots off long fat leeks
just heaved from the earth.

Above the pines, in the evening’s apricot sky
the mewling of a young buzzard, high-pitched,
insistent, cuts through the quiet. Alarmed, alone.

I carry on dropping leek tops into warm wormy compost,
a tangle of rotting leaves-peelings-weeds-paper
that yield such blessing, keep our garden in good heart.

Suddenly from the south, a wide-winged buzzard
swoops over my head, feather tips swish air down my neck.
It’s heading home, the Dart valley woods nearby.
I try to call back, but my language is lacking.

At this moment, five hundred miles north, there’s a buzzing of heads of state,
COP 26 opens to address our broken world,
important people talking serious turkey in Glasgow,
calling each other out, making more promises to be broken.

I would be there, I wanted to be there, for my alarm cries to be heard
by someone, anyone, maybe no-one. But at least like the young buzzard,
give everything for my voice to cry out.

But I didn’t get on that train, or sleep on the floor of friends,
nor stand in a windy wet street handing out leaflets,
maybe dressed as a turtle, or a puddle, or indeed anything
that wants its voice heard in the melee.

Instead I slice the last leek, satisfied with their perfect long shafts,
marvel how anyone would love them, sweet, lightly steamed.

Boris rattles on the 6 pm radio about “The last chance saloon”
as if he’s some sheriff in a dodgy ole western,
rattling his spurs, cocking his pistol, to save the world.
Why does he sound so hollow, so desperate to project gravitas,
whilst wearing a cowboy hat?

I hear the Island nations – Pilau, Philippines, Pacific, whose women speak
so eloquently, passionately, concisely, about what needs to happen
“Or we will get angry!”

Actually we are already angry, very angry. I wave my knife.
Angry at my species, in our stupified thrall of stuff,
turned away from our legacy, from future generations
whose soil and sea and air we hold in our hands,
within our smallest of actions. Angry how
our endless reckless hunger is more important
than the magnanimous recognition of our belonging,
of all our belonging.

Deep down, aren’t we, like young buzzards, mewling for home,
for safe places to rest and return? No need to holler any more,
but to quietly embrace, be embraced, belong.

Pat Fleming
1st November 2021

COP26 Thought for the Day #10

Salmon, Systems and Survival

It’s that time of year, time for the salmon run.  This year I almost forgot.

Every year I wait for a few days of heavy rain , that’s when salmon surge upstream heading for the gravely shallows where they were spawned. Many will die after, but not all.

When he was nine or ten, I’d collect my son from school, and we’d head for the salmon leap to watch them hurl their bodies at the falls. Cheering whenever we saw one, close enough to see the shimmering copper-pink and silver scales. Then another and another; sometimes as many as fifty in less than an hour, sometimes only one or two.  I remember him saying “I like breathing the air here.” Sweet, moist, cool and rich with autumn smells. We would sit side by side in silence for a long time, sharing flapjacks and a thermos of hot chocolate, bearing witness until the light faded.

That was fifteen years ago. How much longer will the salmon return to our watershed spawn? I wanted my son to see, so he could carry their story in his memory. I’d say “some people go their whole lives and never see this” and he would laugh, because every year I repeated the same words.

Though they seem numerous, around the world salmon populations are collapsing, all Devon’s rivers have seen a substantial decline. The reasons are various and systemic; overfishing in the Atlantic West Greenland, Faeroese and Irish Costal fisheries; poaching locally; pollutants from agricultural run off; contamination from treated sewage;  escaped farmed salmon weakening the genetic strains of wild salmon; escaped farmed trout competing for habitat; pests and diseases from farmed stock infecting wild fish; alien invasive weeds leading to too much or too little shade along the riverbanks; ocean pollution and of course warmer waters brought by climate change. A fragile balance being broken.

This place asks for engagement with issues that takes me far beyond one species in one river. The flourishing of the salmon can only be understood in terms of patterns and networks of relationships, connectedness and processes. There is a whole community of embedded relationships: the ecosystem of the river; the bioregion; the oceans; the biosphere. 

The recognition at the COP26 talks last week that the climate change and biodiversity are intertwined crises is welcome, but it’s also shocking that they could ever have been thought separate.

Relationships and context don’t lend themselves to our conventional scientific framework, rooted as it is in a world of measurable and quantifiable things. Though quantitative knowledge is essential, the qualitative, subjective, interpretive, artful, poetic, imaginative and exploratory is so often neglected. Unfortunately, analytical thinking can only take us so far. Systems evolve, change, develop, grow and transform, we need to look deeply at relationships.

Every year at this time, others are drawn to the salmon leap.  Stopping, listening and watching. We stand sharing a sense of wonder, touching the spirit and magic of the place. I play with the notion that each in our own way we are answering an echo in our soul, a temporary softening of tired old ways of seeing and feeling, leaving us, for a few moments, more permeable; open to a world that is alive and awake and aware.  The roar of the weir, the salmon, the falling leaves and soft air speak a language we are briefly able to understand.

When Gregory Bateson spoke of consciousness, beauty and the sacred as an ‘aesthetic’ I wonder if he meant this resonance with place; a recognition of the relationships between things, the ways place acts upon us; a mutual responsiveness, encompassing not only biological interdependencies but also heart and mind.

It’s often argued that community involvement leads to protection and care of a bioregion, might this ripple outward from these moments at the salmon leap? When I’m full of doubt and leaning towards despair I fear we simply don’t have time for the subtle, gentle and less obvious action which might flow from here. It’s not enough, much more is demanded of us. As a friend put it last week, only partly in jest “I feel like I should be out there, gluing myself to a motorway.”

Then again, I also see how a culture of haste infects our personal, social and political worlds. There is unrelenting pressure to decide, react and act and not enough time to engage with the complexity of life. Perhaps the urgency is so great we don’t have the time not to go slowly.

COP26 Thought for the Day #9

Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path

“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment is not that we are on the way to destroying our world–we’ve actually been on the way quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millenia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves, and to each other.”

In the 4th of these COP26 posts I mentioned Joanna Macy – environmental activist, author, scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. She describes her work as aiming to “engage and expand people’s moral imagination, bringing wider perspectives on our world, while fostering both compassion and creativity.” That has certainly been my experience of being with her.

It’s 35 years since we first met on a course she was running in Cumbria, an early workshop where she was experimenting with rituals like the Council of All Beings and developing work that would later spread around the world. Then, our concern was the nuclear threat – this was during the Cold War. In the years that followed I facilitated alongside her a couple of times, participated in her trainings whenever I could, and occasionally bumped into her at conferences, the last time was back in 2009.

Meeting her was a pivotal moment in my life, I’d just completed my training in psychosynthesis, the following year I went on my first retreat with Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The combination set the trajectory for pretty much everything I’ve done since! Although I moved on from facilitating Joanna’s work here in the UK, her influence remained, finding its way into my approach both explicitly and implicitly.

But the time I remember most warmly, was when she and her husband Fran stayed at our house. It was 1998. In our conservatory, Fran hosted a meeting with activists protesting against the transport of MOX nuclear fuel in Europe. Joanna was ‘off duty’, just hanging out. I was very pregnant, my son arrived a couple of weeks later. Nothing much happened. I don’t remember what we talked about, in fact I don’t think we talked that much. Joanna went walking on the moors. It was May. The sun shone. We drank tea and coffee. Cooked together. Ate together. Ordinary, everyday things.

Joanna is over 90 now and her fierce, passionate, bright spirit shines through as powerfully as ever in this video.

COP26 Thought for the Day #8


Today Peter Reason shares his practice of asking deeper questions, not only about what we do but how we experience ourselves.

Peter is a writer and Emeritus Professor at the University of Bath, where he co-founded the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice. I was a participant on this pioneering programme, the collaborative, experiential and action-oriented forms of inquiry deeply informed my practice as a coach and later, the development of Wise Goose. Since retiring his focus has been linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources. We need, he believes, to discover whole new ways to be a modern human.

As part of my ongoing inquiry, and specifically a current cooperative inquiry with sentient Rivers, I drive early to my regular Spot where I have been sitting these last months.

It’s very dark, very wet. The sky is murky, colourless. I wonder to myself what kind of an idiot would be out in heavy rain like this on a Sunday morning when the clocks have gone back, and everybody is supposed to appreciate that they get an extra hour in bed. But you can’t just visit river at those times when it’s beautiful for humans! I leave the car and trudge across the field. About halfway across I realize I am not attending but rushing, as if achieving something against the elements. So I slow down and start to walk more intentionally, not just getting to a place but taking it more like a pilgrimage.

I have my first glimpse of the Frome flowing below me, glistening in what little light there is. A few yards further and the narrow peninsular between the Frome and Avon is in front of me. Many more leaves have fallen since I was last here just a week ago, so the place feels open and naked and slippery, a touch dangerous.

I bow and introduce myself, “Good morning Rivers, Good morning River, this is Peter, Wolfheart, D* come with thanks for the teaching of a few days ago which has affected me profoundly. I come with no expectations. I come to pay my respects”.

I call the Four Directions. To my surprise I find myself praying for success in the COP negotiations taking place in Glasgow. “I call the powers of the East. I call for illumination, for the spark of new life. I call, particularly at this time, for new visions of how we can create a stable climate or, I should say, stop destabilizing the climate of the planet. I call Fire. I call the masculine… I call the power of the West, Grandmother Earth. I call the deep feminine, introspection and intuition. I call the bones of the world, you who take the new spark from the east and ground it, make it real.

At this time with the COP conference, we humans need to make our speculative plans into something real…. I call the power of the South. I call emotions. I call water. I call everything that flows. I ask that we may learn to harness our emotions, our emotions of fear, our emotions of hope to bring these together in creating a new human world that’s in harmony with the greater whole. I ask we do this for the children, for all the children… I call the power of the North. I call for that intelligence that links heart and mind, that draws the other powers together. I call on the fourfooted ones to show us how to do this. I call with passion; I call for your help this morning. Here I am, just visiting River and hopefully in some small way adding to the work of the larger whole. Blessed be.”

I scramble down nearer the water. It’s still really dark. What I can mainly hear is the raindrops falling on my umbrella. In all my gear comfortably warm and dry hands a bit wet there’s a wind outside. I pour my tea and make an offer to river, like the Aboriginal elder throwing a handful of sand to show her seriousness with the River. I may have no plans, no expectations, no ceremony; but I feel I am here in all seriousness and all joy. And now I am here I feel it’s absolutely right. Absolutely right.

The water flows in the ripples and eddies create a texture on the surface which reflects the lightening sky in a kind of dark silver. And there’s that owl again

I sit and watch River. A dark mystery of the water flowing and taking the rain back to the sea (and unfortunately taking all our shit and waste back to the sea as well). I sing the Morning Song to River, drumming on my thigh to the heartbeat. I don’t ask for much; I am just sitting alongside River companionably as you might with a human person.

I thank the Four Directions and walk back to the car.