The renovation of the Bergerac Hub began in earnest last month and we were delighted to welcome many new as well as familiar faces to the Building Festival.
Heavy building work was balanced with contemplation and interesting discussions. We began stripping the cement off the farmhouse’s walls to reveal the beautiful stone walls underneath, did yoga together every morning in the shade of the trees, and relaxed by the Dordogne river. We held a Quaker meeting and a Plum Village Sharing Circle in which we shared joys and difficulties encountered in our meditation practices.
We were also delighted to welcome Simran and Elisa to the team.
Simran jumped straight into the role of the festival producer and helped make the building festival a huge success, in addition to teaching us yoga every morning.
Elisa is currently leading a research project on the emerging field of ‘culture-making’ in order to learn more about the individuals and organisations focused on improving the world through shaping culture. If you work in this space and would like to contribute to our understanding, please take a look at Elisa’s blog post for more information and to get in touch.
We’re looking forward to publishing some other exciting work. We’ll soon be releasing Collective Wisdom, a book written by Liam Kavanagh, Director of our Research Institute, on the blindspots in Western culture that we urgently need to address if we are to avoid ecological and political crises. Sign up to be notified when the book is released.
We’re also making progress on Wiser, a newsletter that will provide curated information on how to live a wiser life.
You can now read about more of our work and projects on our website. If you’re an investor interested in getting involved, check out the information about our Real Estate Fund, a fund to support the creation of more Life Itself co-living communities.
What is it that allows groups of people to carry out intelligent collective actions? You can find our white paper on collective intelligence (by Life Itself Institute director Liam Kavanagh), and a number of issues in this area that relate to our work for a wiser society, re-published at this link.
We know there are individuals, organisations and initiatives around the world who share the values, principles and vision of Life Itself. We know that many of them are trying to create change, often by attempting to change the culture — a form of culture-making.
But that is more or less all we know about this newly emergent space, and, as such, it calls for exploration.What are its defining characteristics? How do organisations differ, and how are they similar? How do people work together? What is this space?
These are some of the things we are hoping to find out. We will start by talking to as many people as possible so if you’d like to talk to us or know someone or an organisation we should talk to please let us know by dropping a line to [email protected]. Finally, we’ll be sharing everything we learn back with the community.
What we know
The ecosystem of change-makers which Life Itself is part of has come to life primarily in the last 10-15 years, thanks to three key developments.
1. Recognising the shortcomings of Western societies
Although the last 100 years have seen incredible technological, scientific, social and economic progress, there is a sense that Western societies have failed to generate corresponding advances in human flourishing. Rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are rising; complex collective action problems and global catastrophic risks (such as climate change, nuclear war, the weakening of democratic institutions, global inequality, etc.) appear unlikely to be solved by technological or scientific innovations alone. As a result, more people are recognising the need for better ways of being and acting, individually and collectively.
2. Popularisation of wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism
The dissemination of Buddhist ideas and practices in the West over the last 60 years has led to a renewed appreciation of wisdom traditions. A growing number of people, including Life Itself, wish for these ideas and practices to be more widely accepted and embodied in our society and culture. As a result, many organisations have been created in the last decade whose aim is to push these ideas into the mainstream, in one form or another. Not everyone focuses on popularising Buddhist ideas, of course, and many appear to be doing completely unrelated things. However, ideas of wisdom and awakening often constitute core philosophical foundations, or at the very least have inspired the activities of actors in this space.
3. Acknowledging the connection between inner and outer transformation
Implicit in the activities of organisations in this space is also a belief in the connection between inner and outer transformation. At the individual level, this is relatively intuitive – in order to make lasting changes in your life, your mental state must change. External circumstances matter as well, of course, but if your intentions, values, beliefs and mental models are incompatible with your goal, you are much less likely to achieve it. The same holds at the collective level. A whole systems transformation requires some form of structural change (outer transformation), as well as some form of cultural change (inner transformation). The key point here is that the former does not guarantee the latter. Changing the external components of a system can indeed affect individual behaviour and is important, but it is much less likely to achieve the desired outcome unless people’s inner lives are appropriately aligned, especially when the system is complex and unintended consequences are difficult to predict. This is why culture is important: it regulates behaviour and makes it more predictable. It may sound obvious, but it is only in recent years that changemakers have started to take seriously the importance of inner transformation.
What we want to find out
Through our exploration, we are hoping to answer the following questions:
Who are the individuals, organisations, communities, etc. that make up this space?
How can the space be mapped? What are the key groupings and directions?
What are the major differences and similarities between actors in this space?
What, if any, are the areas of overlap and what, if any, are the gaps?
Answers to the questions above will help Life Itself and other similar organisations to better understand:
Who they could work and partner with
How they complement and differ from other organisations
Potential opportunities and future directions
Where to share and find ideas
Where to find like-minded people
In addition, exploring the space can help to establish credibility for the people and organisations involved. By better understanding it and finding appropriate terminology to describe it, public awareness can grow more easily.
Get in touch!
If you are an individual or an organisation active in this space, and you think you could provide insight into our research questions, get in touch! Send us an email at [email protected] with ‘Ecosystem research’ in the subject line. We would love to hear from you.
Join our new coliving community in the heart of Berlin. Grounded in purpose and presence, the hub is part of our international network of co-living spaces intended to create communities dedicated to fostering a wiser, weller world. Rooms are available from the end of August or November 2020 and start at €420 per month all costs included.
What: Join a coliving community in the heart of Berlin
Where: Gneisenaustrasse, Kreuzberg, Berlin
When: August / November 2020. Stays from a minimum of 3 months
Who: People who have a pioneering spirit and value community and making a difference
Cost: From €420 pcm (furnished and all costs included)
A growing number of us are seeking lives that are meaningful as well as productive, yet we often struggle to find a balance. We need a wiser way of living whilst remaining engaged in conventional society; a way to live in cities whilst being in community; to be present as well as purposeful; to be supported to be the best versions of ourselves.
We are building that way, starting with creating co-living communities across Europe.
We seek pioneers and believers in community to be residents of our hub in Berlin.
Our Berlin Hub
Our Berlin hub opened in September 2019. As one of the first residents you will be part of a small, supportive community and contribute to shaping its culture. You will live in a beautiful old building on the tree-lined Gneisenaustrasse in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
We have different spaces available with different price points, all inclusive of bills:
Four bedrooms (13m² each) on the ground floor attached to our community events space — €420 each
Three bedrooms on the first and fourth floor — €560 to €680 each depending on size
There is a communal space for events on the ground floor that faces the street and has a separate entrance. Here you can hang out with other members of the hub, hold your dream event and attend other amazing events curated by guests and the other hub residents.
You will be connected to our other hub in the beautiful countryside in Bergerac, France and be part of an international community that supports your personal growth and wellbeing.
You have a love of living in community and contributing to it.
You are a self-starter: you take initiative and manage your own projects.
You want to make a difference.
You have a meditative / mindful practice
You have done personal development work
You have past experience with living in shared spaces
More about the space
Open your window onto a tree-lined boulevard in Kreuzberg. The flat is in a 19th Century building with large bedrooms, wooden floors, high ceilings, large windows and a modern kitchen. The bathroom has a shower and a bath.
Life Itself has a strong aesthetic where we honour noble, natural materials. The bedrooms will be part-furnished and include a double bed. We provide a refrigerator, freezer and a washing machine.
What previous residents in our other hubs have said:
“Staying at the Life Itself London Hub was a lovely experience of living intentionally and in community.”
“The London Hub members were all awesome, and I felt like we had created a warm, open and trusting dynamic and atmosphere.”
“The interior itself was also exceptional, and it adds a lot of coziness and uniqueness to this centrally located space.”
More about Life Itself
A multidisciplinary initiative creating a wise and beautiful future
Life Itself is a multi-disciplinary initiative including artists, ecologists, researchers and technologists. Its goal is to foster a community of people making a wise, well and beautiful world. Activities include developing coliving spaces; building a network via gatherings and events; and sharing knowledge via education and research.
More about life in the Hub
We are forming a community where:
We stand for the importance of collective action, especially for issues like climate change. We take the role we play in these problems and the agency we have to change them seriously.
We are not shy about discussing everything from big controversial issues to everyday and personal ones. We interact with diverse groups from different social classes, different professions, different political views and different religions. We don’t run away from conflict and we create an environment where disagreements can be safely expressed.
We think carefully about why humanity is the way it is. We question the status quo and its direction.
We are on an enquiry into self-development and self-awareness and we value communal living to support that growth.
If our intentions resonate with you, here are some other things that will apply to you if you would be well suited to living in one of our hubs:
You value communality and participation. You’ll want to eat with your house-mates regularly and enjoy having the opportunity to extend your circle by meeting friends of friends who you would never otherwise encounter.
You value contemplation and mindfulness and either have a meditative practice or would want to be in an environment which would support you in having one.
You want to live in an emotionally open and caring environment. You want to be able to depend on a shoulder to cry on and you’ll offer others the same.
You’ll be considerate of others and respectful of communal spaces when you have a romantic partner or friend to visit.
*Please also note we have a no-pets policy in our hubs.
Time for another update on some of the things we’re most excited about from our recent sprints. Last month the headquarters of Life Itself moved from La Cheraille to our beautiful new farmhouse in Bergerac. Rufus, Sylvie, Will and Bethany managed the mammoth task of packing and moving everything from La Cheraille in just two days.
Will, one of our newer team members, was visiting the hub to co-work with Rufus and Sylvie. You might have noticed the excellent updates Will has made to our offerings pages; if you haven’t attended one of our online calls yet, visit our calls page to become part of a wonderful community supporting each other to grow, get s*** done, have transformative insights and develop or deepen creative practices.
We’ve also been busy organising the building festival at Bergerac, which will run from Monday 3rd – Sunday 30th August. We’ll be transforming the farmhouse into a vibrant community space by revitalising the living areas, event spaces and gardens. If you haven’t already booked a ticket, there’s still time! The festival is free to attend and includes free meals and a camping ground with shower facilities.
Volunteers at the festival will spend four hours each day building and bringing the hub to life. The rest of the time might include swimming in the Dordogne river (just a short drive from the farmhouse), participating in workshops, taking part in communal cooking and exploring the surrounding countryside. You can come for any amount of time to build, relax, make meaningful connections and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
During the pandemic it’s been more important than ever for teams to have a supportive structure and sense of community. Petro and Sylvie have been continuing and expanding our organisation consulting this month, supporting the cultural development of organisations to increase teams’ connectedness, focus and clarity.
We’re also delighted to be curating and hosting the Untitled Imaginary Society forum, which will welcoming the multidisciplinary artist duo VestandPage on the 3rd September.
VestandPage will lead an evening called ‘Changing the Gaze: Moving beyond anthropocentric imaginaries’ during which they will share their artistic and poetic practices. There will also be breakout discussions in the group to explore the possibilities their work inspires for how we can listen, see and imagine differently to move beyond an anthropocentric view.
This month Liam has been working on setting up events around his work on ‘The Equality Complex.’ The highlight for him has been running an event inquiring into the role of equality in morality and culture, whether moralistic judgement of others has become a replacement for love in pursuing a better world, and whether this is truly the way to justice. If you missed it, you can still watch a recording of the event. Liam is running a followup event on skillful communication and ‘cancel culture,’ so keep an eye on our site to book a place in the near future!
Having spent 10 years working in financial markets for different investment banks, he has has now taken a complete 180 to become a (Maths) teacher. His vision is to use that as a stepping stone to open an innovative new school in the UK. He has traded working with UK Pension Schemes and Asset managers, for a 90% pay cut and working with teenagers. Indeed, his ex-colleagues think he may have gone mad.
Over the past year he has been immersed in the world of Education, absorbing the latest cognitive science of learning [which is coming Straight Outta’ Stanford], developments in edTech and fast moving tectonic plates in education policy. He would like to share with us the things he has learnt over the past year and his views on how education is on the cusp of a major revolution.
Join us for a conversation covering how schools are only at the beginning of their journey in preparing pupils with the skills they need to thrive in 21st century.
When you book, you shall be sent a Zoom link to access the Salon.
On Sunday 19th July at 3pm BST, we are thrilled to welcome Dr Liam Kavanagh, our Director of the Life Itself Institute. On the back of his ground-breaking paper on Collective Wisdom, this Sunday he will take one extract from it: The Equality Complex and discuss with you, our community. This is a Salon not to be missed. Here, Liam introduces this topic.
Equality is not a source of suffering but the equality complex is
Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh
We all say we want to be equals, but nobody wants to be average; in fact we want to distinguish ourselves in all ways, including morally. This involves treating others more equally than the next person does. This is an obvious contradiction woven into Western moral life. Being less egotistical is one helpful way of relieving the resulting tension, but in this talk I suggest a complementary, though taboo, route.
We can recognise that ideals of equality offer an amazingly effective moral ‘rule of thumb’ often pointing the way to desirable outcomes, but have, unhealthily, become enshrined as the truth, taboo to even question. They have also become a very unsatisfactory substitute for compassion and love, which in more ‘spiritual’ times were the center of moral life.
However much ideals of equality have done for us, they are still only an ideal, an intellectualisation. No ideal can guide us cleanly through all moral decisions (can smokers and non-smokers have equal rights on a train car?) No ideal gives us the ability to actually live up to those actions they do guide us towards (such as sharing our wealth). Ideals are also a basis for psychological violence. Relationship psychologists have long said tell us that non-verbal contempt is the greatest predictor of relationship dysfunction, perhaps the turbulence in our social compact could have been anticipated long ago from this basis. I will invite discussion of the equality complex’s role in this dynamic.
This August, help us transform an underloved farmhouse into a bustling community hub in the beautiful south of France. Moments from the acclaimed Buddhist monastery Plum Village, our Bergerac hub will become a home for the community, complete with accomodation, event space, and garden. But we need your help!
WHEN: Monday 3rd – Sunday 30th August 2020. Come anytime, and stay for as little or as long as you want!
WHERE: Life Itself Bergerac Hub, Thenac, France 24240 (Map)
At Life Itself we organise our time into fortnightly sprints. This means we make plans together of what we’ll achieve every fortnight, and we update each other as a group on what we’ve been up to after each sprint. We decided that we’d like to involve you — our wonderful readers, members and supporters — and share some highlights of what we got up to during the last sprint.
It’s been a particularly exciting two weeks, because as you may have noticed we’ve had a rebrand, and are now Life Itself! Sylvie has done an amazing job with the new logo — it takes serious creativity and dedication to design something a whole team agrees is awesome — and we think it really captures the commitment to freedom and growth which characterise the Life Itself vision.
One of the major projects happening at Life Itself at the moment is the renovation of our new hub in Bergerac, France.
The highlight of the fortnight for Sylvie has been collecting the keys for the hub and starting the renovation.
You can see the Bergerac hub from the air here 🙂
This week Liam has been busy setting up and recording dialogues between Plum Village Monastics and neuroscientists as part of an upcoming online retreat hosted by Plum Village.
The highlight was an online tea with the monastics and neuroscientists involved in the retreat. Liam said:
We discussed the creation of a balance between contemplative and neuroscientific approaches to understanding the mind so that neither felt it could eliminate the other. Both sides were eager to speak more
Petronella and Sylvie have continued to hold Getting S*** Done calls, and places have been in high demand.
The new Write your Autobiography class has also launched. Every Wednesday, participants come together to share stories from their past, explore how these stories affect their present day decisions and write their own stories for the future.
Petronella shared her enjoyment at seeing people she has known in the past getting involved in Life Itself calls and community hubs:
Looking at the spaces that had the fertile soil that transformed my life is unsurprisingly where people who are excited by Life Itself are coming from.
Petronella, Expert in Getting S*** Done and Making Dreams Reality
The changes to normal working patterns and locations caused by lockdown have meant we’ve been working with organisations more, sharing our cultural practices to offer support and accountability for staff who are remote, especially those working from home for the first time.
The Berlin hub also hosted its first workshop, ‘How Do Systems Die Well and with Grace?’ organised by our wonderful Berlin hub member Jacques with the support of the hub manager Patrick, who we’re thrilled to have as a new member of the team — we know he’s going to help make the Berlin hub a huge success along with its amazing residents.
Here’s a summary of the focus of the workshop:
We are living in a time of transition. The fact that the systems we build are no longer serving humanity and the larger web of life on this planet is clear and plain to see. That means on the one hand that we have to build alternative systems that are serving life better and that help to sustain and regenerate the resources that are needed to let life flourish on this planet. That also means that we have to let the institutions, organisations and habits that are no longer serving us die. In natural systems, dying involves the disintegration, the unraveling of a system into its components, so that these can nourish and be integrated in a new system to arise.
We’re looking forward to multiple other events being hosted in the hub’s shared space in the near future, from movie nights and lectures to contemplative workshops and activism meetings. If you want to find out about future events you can follow the Berlin hub instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/lifeitselfberlin/
Sit beside me: I am in a circle in the back room of a small pub in North Oxford, under the shelter of a giant copper beech. Spring is unfurling its leaves. A man is talking. His name is Edward and he is the oldest person in the room, the unofficial guardian of the ancient common ground of Port Meadow. Edward is describing how at ‘rainbow gatherings’ people sit in council to come to a unified conclusion about how to proceed, how it differs from our combative democratic process.
‘What happens if they don’t all agree?’ I ask, rather defensively. There was a pause. ‘They wait until they do,’ he smiled. ‘Sometimes it takes days.’
I am not in my usual territory. Yesterday I found a notice on a lamppost that invited people to meet and discuss ways to prevent the building of hundreds of new houses alongside the leafy canal and its wastelands. Join in! declared the notice and my curiosity got the better of me. I don’t know this yet but I am about to shift position, from being an individual seeker on the road to being a community activist, rooted in place, a move that will define my life for the next fifteen years.
Sitting with the trouble and waiting for a solution to emerge however is something I do know. I know it from being a writer, and from working with medicine plants and dreams. I have been sitting with this essay, this subject, since the goat willows went into bloom and now the hawthorn hedges are at their height. I wanted to write something useful in these times of lockdown and uncertainty, to share practices from those years that might help others navigate this unknown territory. I’ve been sitting with this title, staring at the blank screen, or the pages of a blue notebook, as the cherry blossom drifts around this garden. I used to be able to write as soon as my fingers touched a keyboard. Sentences would tumble beautifully out of nowhere. Now they don’t. Sometimes in my life, when words stopped coming, it signalled a move of position. So, even though I don’t like to admit it, I know something inside me is trying to shift. I can only wait and watch the spring.
There is a scene in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Kean where the famous 19th century actor faces an existential crisis but he cannot find the right way to deal with it. As he stomps around the stage, he strikes different poses and each time finds himself in another Shakespearen character: Hamlet, Lear, Richard III. All of them from plays in which he starred. He can’t get to the man because the actor is in the way.
When things shift you throw off the costumes, nervous that perhaps there is nothing beside the roles you have identified with all your life. You start new paragraphs but they all sound dead and disjointed. You wince at the sound of your own voice. In the absence of the script you know by heart, questions come in you don’t want to face: who are you, what is your value, what are you doing here? Do people care what you think? Are you even a writer at all?
The dreaming practice
Before I joined that circle in Oxford and began to campaign for the neighbourhood’s wild and feral spaces, I worked with dreams, exploring them using a method called the five levels. The practice is simple. You tell the dream to your dreaming partner, asking the questions: what does this say about my daily life, my biographical life, my self on the social level, on the mythological level and from the perspective of the Earth? You tell the dream out loud. The visitor to the dream listens and can ask questions but only to prompt the dreamer to go deeper into the dream. Not as an inquirer, but as a fellow explorer. As you do the territory opens out between you; you discover its language, its topography, its mood. Something catches your eye, you both look at it and it opens up like a flower. It could be an object, a detail, or a feeling. Mostly though it is a position. Mostly it is a position where you are stuck or held against your will.
The visitor keeps asking: why are you stuck in the jaws of that alligator? I can’t move, you reply. Except that now you can, now you are outside the dream, as well as in it. You are no longer six years old. You can open your mouth, where in the dream you could not. Dreams, you have learned, flee from analysis. Given time however, as you weather their difficulty and speak what you feel out loud, they reveal everything. Agency is returned.
Even though we were stuck in the ‘nightmare of history’, we realised if you placed attention on the underlying darkness of our collective lives, we could learn to free ourselves and the world. Each dream is carefully shaped to fit everyone’s personal legacies, and yet all of them at some point reveal a small child, the heart, stuck in the jaws of an alligator, needing your liberating gaze. Our lives are pivoted around these events and replayed over time. You want to know why you are trapped, what the alligator means, but you learn to quieten the mind’s inquiry. You’re waiting for another kind of intelligence to kick in. What matters is making the move from a stuck place into a fluid open one. Sitting within the dream means waiting until that move is clear, and then making it. The feeling is what invites the dream to reveal itself.
There was a point in dreaming practice with others where the dialogue often became stuck: the moment when your perception needed to shift from the biographical level to the collective level. People could explore the mythological and the Earth level, but when they were invited to see themselves as a social being, as one of the collective, they closed down. When I became a community activist, I realised that even though people were talking about community, they were talking from an individual position, from a small me, rather than a collective we. The circles we held were not about coming to a conclusion in a group but about listening to a series of individuals being paid attention to by others, sometimes for the first time. Invisibly, we were surrounded by alligators and terrified children. We were set on changing the world, the food systems, the energy systems, our governance, but no one was dealing with those snapping jaws. They were not even seen.
To come to a conclusion means you need time and commitment. If there is intention that you are doing something together, you can weather the storm that comes when people who sit in a circle in council decide to do something that is contrary to the status quo. This is not difficult in the sense of organisation, of making actions, even of getting on with several prickly strangers who think they have a better idea than you. What is difficult is negotiating with the invisible forces our culture has no ways of naming. Even though these threats of violence are felt palpably in the room, even though we know in our minds about the nightmare – our long history of servitude, the rulers who hold our hearts in their claws – we find it difficult to admit their influence on our human lives. We lack the language and the techne to deal with their dragonish behaviors, especially when they come out of our mouths in argument. When terror stalks the room and the children who might tell us what is happening fall silent.
Even when we sought advice on how to deal with the fall outs and ‘storming’ that befall all grassroots groups when the start-up honeymoon period ends, we were told to go to psychologists or conflict resolution experts, as if these divisions were a personal defect, rather than an encounter with the shadow forces of civilisation. But from the practice I knew that to withstand the push back from the conventional world, the feudal hierarchies that still rule the world within and without us, another kind of contract was needed.
Then one day I stumbled upon two books I had loved as a child: one of English fairy tales and another of Greek and Roman myths. In these old familiar texts, I found the lexicon I was looking for. And, as if my life were a dreaming practice itself, I found myself moving from the social to the mythological level.
The boy with the strange haircut
The boy is not a god but a daemon. But when he enters the room, the winds of heaven blow through your house, throwing your desk papers into the air. Startled, you look outside the window and feel the enclosing walls around you. You find yourself in time’s prison. He crosses your path at strategic points, a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, interrupting a line made by the old timelord Chronos with his relentless ticking clock and calendars. You stop, and time opens up, revealing past, present and future all at once. Suddenly you realise you can take a different direction.
Like all daemons, embodiments of the human condition, Kairos, the force of destiny arrives in a moment of crisis, unexpected. His moment of appearance is quick and you have to seize him by the forelock. If you hesitate, the time for that split-second all-moments-now encounter will be gone. You will lunge to grab him from behind, but your hands will slide down the back of his smooth shaven neck. You will fall back into linear time.
Afterwards you have to make time to realise what has happened and integrate that all-at-once time into everyday life. When the pandemic interrupted our Chronos-ruled civilisation, the official story of progress, by which we have measured our worth, was revealed to bear false promise, and although the forces of empire rally to continue to broadcast its all-powerful narrative, although these mortgaged walls still hold us, we now know there is a place outside this house of history and a road that leads to nowhere we have gone before, yet feels like home.
When the merry-go-round stops
Last summer behind the pier in Southwold one rainy afternoon, I heard a familiar tune and found myself following it. It was the sound of a merry-go-round, the old fashioned kind with gaily-painted horses and curly Victorian lettering. Two children in anoraks were riding the coloured wooden creatures, as they went up and down, as their parents called out to them and waved. The fairground hand scowled bitterly at the rain and his lack of customers.
I watched entranced for a moment, pretending it was merrier than it was. The song had pulled me somewhere wistful. A sadness washed over me. It sounded like an old Nina Rota film score, or the kind of plangent accordion music you used to hear in Paris, and maybe still can. Loss. Times I had and wouldn’t find again. A tear fell down my cheek.
Why are you crying, for no reason? I asked myself sharply. As if a force pushed me away, I turned and headed swiftly home. Something inside me had shuddered. The song was taking me into a dead end, into a timeless realm where everything keeps going round in a circle.
When Childe Roland goes widdershins into Elfland to rescue his sister, Burd Helen, he is given his father’s sword and instructions not to eat or drink anything there. If you speak to anyone you need to cut off their heads. When the boy asks the way to the Dark Tower from two herdsmen and a henwife, he cuts their head off – and in some versions, Burd Helen’s as well – and breaks the elven spell. In the old Scottish tales if you were lured by music under the fairyhill you were warned not to tarry, for you would never return to Earth. You had to leave a nail in the door of the hillside, so you might break out of the dancing ring and find your way back again.
The lockdown was that nail in the door, it was the quick boy at the crossroads, the sword that can cut us away from the enchantments we are trapped in: the nostalgias of nations, of lost times of Blitz spirit and suburban post-war paradises, when victory was assured, when our status as superior human beings shone with an Olympian light. You could dismiss the merry-go-round as a mere glamour or entertainment, but that would be to ignore the power of the music’s spell, the desire to be somewhere apart from this present moment, away from the tedium and threats of an industrialised life. It would be to forget the manufacturers of fairground rides and their scowling mechanics. Those who warp time and take it out of the realm of the heart.
In this pause, alongside the death and suffering the pandemic brought, there was also the possibility that Kairos awakens. For months the borders to our neverlands of celebrities and stars, of parties and festivals, theatres and concerts, of cruises and holidays in the sun, were closed. Instead, partners and families spent time together and had to make their own amusement, while the pressure to be somewhere else at all times disappeared. The time of the heart, where all things can be considered, replaced the rush of 24/7 culture where nothing can be. Our fellow workers became the people we cared about, we heard birdsong as if for the first time. Goats and deer and sheep roamed through the empty streets. On laptops and phones, we realised we were all ordinary people in ordinary rooms, sharing the same crisis. As politicians still strove to divide and conquer us, to push their nation’s illustrious story ahead of everyone else’s, we still felt for the people we did not know on the other side of the world. We still longed for mountains when we could not climb them, enjoyed the quietness of a spring without traffic, and the blue untrammelled sky.
As everything is rushed to return to ‘normal’, you feel pushed to get back on schedule again but something in you hesitates. Something in you has stopped. Once where there had been a great noise now there is a kind of silence.
In my community activism years, I was part of a small theatre group in Norwich. One day, rehearsing for an Earth Day performance, we picked different futures out of a hat and improvised who we were and what had happened between 2010 and 2110. Some of the futures were already mapped — the dystopian, the techno-fixed – but some were not. Mine was Unknown Quantity. When I took the stage I found myself saying: one day people just stopped and started to do something completely different.
For thousands of years the merry-go-round of civilisation has whirled ceaselessly – the wheel of fortune, the wheel of karma, the wheels of commerce and capitalism. It whirls generations round in a frenzy of speed, music and colour. It seems like everything happens at that funfair: everything fashionable, interesting, important. Relinquish the wheel, advises the Buddha. Don’t linger in fairyland, warn the ancestors. It’s all an illusion. But no one takes any notice. The pace of our lives is tempered by that glittering speed. We are compelled to go faster, bigger, buy more houses, more clothes, more holidays, more movies, more machines, more cake. If we step off the ledge for one moment we can’t wait for our next turn on that great production line.
The world is made of that speed and that drive. The drive of the will to succeed, to overcome, to conquer. The force runs rampage over the globe, through all our lives like Alexander. We drink to keep up with it, always late, on a perpetual deadline. 24/7. We cut corners, skip facts, betray our friends, forget the green world outside the window. We are restless, never satisfied, never sure what we want, looking over our shoulder for the powerful people, to be invited to the right party, to wear the perfect suit, to walk with the gods. We fight time and nature with that drive, with our passionate intensity, our desire to escape into all the fun and fantasy of the fair.
We are holding that drive, that inhuman artificial energy, in our bodies and sometimes those bodies, those minds, break down.
Sometimes Kairos crosses our path and we real human beings break through. A moment when we align ourselves with everything else on Earth and powerdown. The drive stops suddenly, the way going to night-clubs once stopped when you were young. You wake up and you can’t do it anymore. It’s not that you decided to. It just happened: it happens because something else has begun to go on in your house, in the neighbourhood, something our unkind minds and ruthless wills had not considered. A harmonious way of doing things, of engaging in the world, that affects our inner and outer lives in ways we never imagined. Focusing on the small things of daily life and the kindness that can exist between people. Remembering what really matters about being alive on the planet.
The uneasy chair
There is a writing class I teach called The Uneasy Chair. The Uneasy Chair is not about becoming a professional writer, but about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, involving collaboration and time and imagination. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, in this chair, which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to find their true material. You don’t want to sit there of course, but you don’t get the story if you don’t. This is the dual position where you sit in the chair and experience everything going down in the room, and also stand behind the chair, directing and making sense of what you-in-the-chair are experiencing. All chair, and you lose the plot, all observer, and you lose the reader.
The lockdown interrupted our lives like a koan and discombobulated time. We still hold its hermetic effects within us, even as the doors open, as children run out to play around the deserted fountains and broad walks of European cities. It has begun a process past seekers might recognise as alchemy, not of the individual soul, but of the collective. We live in small spaces, like battery hens, but feel more connected to the people and planet outside than ever before, to the birds and the mountains showing their snowy faces for the first time in decades. The more we are held tight in our crucibles, the more our imagination reaches out, the more we remember, the more we reach out to touch others in our longing. The paradox of the hermitage and monk’s cell. Of not moving and yet moving.
The old gods and governments of course, do not want us to sit with the trouble, to consider this paradox, to reach out to our fellows in what Jeremy Rifkin calls the shift towards an empathic civilisation, where we become biospheric, in tune with the planet and all its denizens. When the individualist ‘psychological’ dynamic of the 20th century cedes to the ‘dramaturgical’ age of the 21st, and we are able to step into another’s shoes and feel their joy and suffering because we have not denied our own.
Even if these controllers of our destinies, push us back towards the factory lines and depots and the merry-go-round cranks up for its summer season, we have stepped into those pivotal roles already, seeing ourselves as players within a global plague tragedy, whose small scenes are enacted each day on screen in our kitchen-sink theatres. The chorus and spear carriers, all who have been standing in the wings, have taken the stage. We cheered them from the balconies.
Once you have seen, you cannot unsee. Once you have sat with the trouble and withstood the drive that forces you out of your heart, out of that uneasy chair, you do not rush to ride the carousel again. You can see what lies outside the door. You remember how it feels not to be alone, even when you were alone.
One fine day
I have sat with this essay since the lockdown began, as if trapped in its very title. It wouldn’t move, the door would not open and the sentences did not tie up. Then I remembered how it is when you visit a plant or a place and try to discern its dreaming, You can’t do that until the visit is over, when you look back with what the writer about history and myth, Robert Calasso calls, the douceur of time. I was still in the chair, experiencing what it felt like to undergo the uncertainty I had been writing about from behind it for a decade. Then today a scene came back to me and I realised that the door was already ajar. Because there is a third position in the uneasy chair teaching that can make writing protean, which is to say, connected to life beyond your self. I call it the eagle’s position, where you fly up and perceive those small moves you make in your practice and see how they affect the fabric of the world.
Follow me: I am cycling one early May morning across the harbour bridge, over the river flowing seawards, towards the sleeping village of Walberswick. Along the ridge path towards the marshes, barley fields either side of me, and the sea dark blue in the distance, listening out for nightingales in their thorny gorse fastness, singing up the dawn. I am walking towards the sea, through the wavy reeds, toward the sun rising and the light glancing off the water like a mirror. I am running into the bone-cold salty waves, into the light. There is space all around and singing, immense blue sky, horizon. I open my arms and breathe deep.
I am imagining the people I know in lockdown in London, dreaming of the wide spaces of Montana, of swimming places they cannot go, the lidos and lakes, of the artist who stood in the crematorium alone with her dead husband, without mourners or celebration, of the sick women who struggle to recover, of all the people I don’t know in places where I once loved to go – in Venice, in New York, in the city of Guayaquil by the Pacific ocean. I am remembering how it has been down at the harbour for the past months without visitors, with only the local people walking along the river, towards the bluebell woods in the evenings, the fishermen and boatmen working in a landscape you have only seen in an 18th century painting, standing in the deserted town streets, like a 1970’s sci-fi novel by John Wyndham. How everyone has been greeting each other and waving in the lanes, how a part of us doesn’t want this present moment to end.
I wish I had learned when I was in those gnarly grassroots meetings that what really matters is not how we deal with power or find reparation (which we never could) but how to be able bring this space of light and air into those constricted spaces. Because exposed to this sunlight and fresh air, in this sense of expanded time and connection, the invisible forms that have governed our every move for aeons have no power over us. We thought for years our enthusiasm, our well-meaning natures, would be able to bring a different future into play but we forgot the will that drives the ancient machinery forward, that fuels the whirligig culture: our unconscious snarling dragonish selves. Our hearts were not strong enough on their own. We needed our free wills to make that move.
There is a deal you make with life. We made it a long time ago with the beasts and the plants, only our civilisations buried it in sand to further their own interests. For a long time I was not sure how we could remember this deal together. I was waiting for the perfect group, the right time, the right place. And then I realised it didn’t matter. Because I was already in contact with the people. They were just not on the beach standing beside me.
What I wanted to say in those classes and councils and never could, was that we endure the uneasy chair, the exigencies of the crucible, to remember this deal. How this remembering can cohere the fragmentation of the collective we see and feel all around us – its broken heart, its confused mind, its twisted and enraged will. We do it to remember what was embedded in those ancient stories, once called Original Instruction, the right way to engage with earthly life. We do it to liberate our fellows, trapped in the small places. We do it for the luminous planet that hosts us. So we can finally all find our way home.