“The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands
but to possess other eyes”
In the shock of our break-up with Life in quarantine, we appreciated what was lost. Locked down and slowed down, we kept each other's spirits up. But emerging into a whiplash news cycle of collapsing economies, political disarray and climate chaos, we have been confronted with strangeness in our own lands that renders the disintegration of nature, our societies and ourselves heart-breakingly clear.
In Part 1 of this series I suggested the pandemic was a crucible moment to reimagine our lives in light of the larger crises we inhabit. In Part 2, I explored conscious curation of our lives as we sheltered at home and the practices that could help sustain us. In this final part in the series, as governments vie to revitalise economies, and bring us vaccines that will ‘get us back to normal’ I invite us to reflect on what this year has shown us about what matters.
This time of year is heavy with ritual around the world. Many of our traditions ask us as the year opens into a new one to reflect on what we want to put down and take up. We are asked to ‘ring out the old and ring in the new’. Can we in this year of Great Pauses ask what we really need to ‘wring out’? And what resolutions for new daily rituals can we revitalise ourselves with to bring forth a different way of living in these demanding times?
In the grip of this emergency of our times, like generations before us, we must persevere. We will continue to fall in love, work and raise our kids. This year has shown itself not to be a sprint but the beginning of a marathon on shifting sands. To keep moving forward we must renew acquaintance with the very ground of our being, as individuals and communities. Facing webinars one minute and wildfires the next we need to cultivate not just resilience but a radical responsiveness that allows us to embrace Life fully in extraordinary times and an inner resourcefulness that allows us to keep moving forward with hope and dedication.
Lessons from fallen giants and a little red dot
In the UK and US, cultures of individualism and exceptionalism have dogged efforts to control the pandemic. Uneven access to health care and economic benefits have highlighted how the interests of the powerful have been allowed to trample the rights of the rest, arguably a vestige of colonial cultures in which ‘‘might is right’ and coercion and collusion triumph over mutuality.
In former colony Singapore, mass infection among foreign labourers living in crowded dorms begged the question whether a colonial history of being ‘divided and conquered’ left us blind to the stratification of rights protecting workers and residents in our city state.
We are ever more privileged in our globalised world by what our neighbours can offer us - and yet also more vulnerable to each other, since what affects them, affects us. No man is an island and in a modern economy, no island is truly an island either. Those who stand on the shoulders of economic giants gained great power through access to resources procured before they were born yet often proclaim themselves ‘self made’ and deny responsibility to the systems they were lucky enough to be born into and rest upon.
How did we get here? Colonial-industrial centuries tore us from our biological and social roots. We now find it commonplace that rich and poor alike, through choice or necessity, live far from their origins, unlike the generations before us. Social circles may be wider but our communities shallower, based on what we do rather than who we are. The underprivileged are excluded from mass society by circumstance and the privileged by choice: either way we are cut away from the roots of our common humanity and we need to find our way back. As explained by South African social rights activist and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” In the South African concept of Ubuntu, “I am because we are”.
Furthermore, we do this at great cost to ourselves as well as our societies. The technological era has us bewitched away from nature, including our own. To play a part in the economic fairy tale we were thrown into at birth, we ignore health, emotional needs and our deep yearning to live with meaning and significance to others.
This year has shown us that the economic Emperors we have empowered have no clothes and it is no longer enough to call out the truth nor merely change Emperors: we must unravel and reweave our social fabric to distribute power and dignity more evenly. This is not the work of the few - it takes the participation of us all, gently re-wilding ourselves, freeing ourselves from the idea that we are consumers and users and reclaiming and contributing the essential qualities of human nature.
From routines to rituals
We are taught that routines will allow us to be ‘unconsciously competent’ in our tasks so in pursuit of productivity and mastery, we have learned to sleepwalk through busy lives. But were lives of apprenticeship and mastery what we dreamed of as children? Or did we hope Life would take us by the hand and on an adventure beyond routine kisses, routine jobs or routine lives? Did we not all feel that we had something to express and offer Life?
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections. And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance- long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
What if instead of daily routines we chose to consciously co-create our lives through engaging in practices that connect us to ourselves, each other and Life in a deeper way, that build our sense of inner resourcefulness and steer us towards contribution rather than consumption? What if we all started turning back towards Life with the reverence and respect she deserves and responding with our heads, hearts and hands to the ‘one wild and precious life’ we have been given?
What we practise has the power to redefine our days, our lives and who we become. We become runners by running, we become writers by writing. Practices don’t make ‘perfect’ - they make a path to our future selves and conscious practice has the additional power to make us more mindful. We are living through a nightmare we co-created in our sleep - the first thing we need to do is to find ways to wake up and stay awake.
In fairy tales, spells of enchantment are most often broken by ritual acts performed with a pure heart. With a simple kiss, a prince or princess may be awakened and the keys to kingdoms earned. Rituals are a way of expressing and stirring something in our hearts. Placing a ring on another’s finger or putting a flower on a gravestone are acts simple in themselves but important in meaning. By taking up practices in a ritual way, we bring our consciousness back into what we do and create lives richer in meaning. Our daily rituals are our everyday mindfulness practices.
In Part 2 of this series, I suggested we need to curate our lives to make room for new practices. Conscious curation means protecting what is meaningful for us and paring away what is not. It’s keeping the fences strong and weeds from growing in the garden of our days. During quarantine many of us found supportive practices that we need to re-dedicate ourselves to even as more choices crowd back in. If you are looking for some things to take up in the New Year, think about some key practices of cultivating, connecting and creating which bring us into a fresh relationship with Life.
Choosing these practices is like writing with a non-dominant hand, strengthening capacities within which are innate but forgotten and overlooked. Essential human capacities which we need to regenerate in ourselves and societies. These practices, though simple, over time empower us to regenerate not just our way of doing but our way of being.
In quarantine we instinctively turned to cultivation. We grew, we baked, we learnt new languages or musical instruments. We bought and consumed less and generated more. As consumerism beckons again all over the world, one way to resist the temptation to fall compulsively back into its grip is to keep a daily practice of cultivation in our lives, to remind ourselves that the richest things in life take time and effort and ‘next day delivery’ is a symptom of our malaise not a remedy.
Each plant, or sour-dough starter, or skill that we cultivate brings us back into step with the natural pace and rhythms of Life. Where industrialised agriculture and education try to control, cultivation teaches us a process of observing and responding to the needs of another living being. Cultivation requires us to slow down, to work within biological time and to better listen to Life.
In growing something we also grow ourselves. We cultivate our patience and powers of observation: we nurture and affirm rather than exploit or deplete. In working with nature rather than against her, we become more generative.
During quarantine, connections were our lifelines. We reached out to refresh and deepen connections we had lost to our busy-ness. We saw strangers risking their own lives for ours and clapped and cheered and felt the truth of our fundamental connection with each other. Connecting more deeply with both friends and strangers reminds us of our fundamental worth, irrespective of what we do, what we have or the colour of our skin. Choosing to connect and not transact refutes the narrative in which we are only consumers, producers and products. When we truly connect to others we assert something fundamental about what wealth really is and what it means to have a rich Life as a human being.
Connection has the power to take us out of the stories we have been told about who we are and what we are worth and tell new stories to each other, stories about who we can be.
It is in the eyes of others that we can meet truths about ourselves we’ve forgotten and unfurl our own myths.
Deep connection builds meaningful community and meaningful community builds deeper connection. Making the effort to truly connect each day with a friend, family member, colleague or stranger will remind us just how much we mean to each other and how important each of us is in shifting the collective course we are on.
When we add our unique expression through some form of creation, we enrich our culture. In each recipe for jam from our grandmothers that we re-create, we leave footsteps for the next generation. In each oil-painting, knitted hat or viral video we express something of ourselves into the world. Creativity is a way of being deeply responsive to Life: to inhale what we are given and exhale something new containing something of ourselves. Whether a painting, a garden, a meal or a game, all creation is really co-creation: we take the raw materials bequeathed by nature or culture and re-combine them in ways that generate new meaning.
The reality is that Life has always been beyond our control and to believe otherwise was an illusion. In creating something small daily we remind ourselves that we still get to dance with her in the short time we are given.
Practise, practise, practise
Engaging in these practices as daily rituals, we start to spin a new story of what matters and stop colluding in the stories told by the giants and wizards of our age about who we are and what we are capable of. We are all inherently creative, resourceful and whole and when we remind ourselves of this every day, we are more confident to contribute whatever we can at this time of existential and ecological crisis
This year those doing the truly essential work of our societies have humbled us with their contribution. In this season of peace, hope and joy may we all find ways to make meaning from what has been wrought this year and motivation to keep reconnecting to our own essential natures and co-creators with Life for a future that is more individually fulfilling, socially just and ecologically sustainable.