Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:

Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you,
remember, brother,
man is not our enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion –
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone,
with your courage intact, your eyes kind,
(even as no one sees them),
out of your smile
will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, 1965


By the secret opening, the hidden space


My Dad offered me correction only once in my life that I remember. “You gotta learn how to bend,” he said. He was a master of that, gracefully flowing with life, whatever the circumstances in which he found himself.

I’ve been a different kettle of fish. I’ve had a way of being that is extremely stubborn. Sometimes, it shows up as determination or perseverance, other times, as rigidity and inflexibility. Whenever I create trouble for myself and others it’s always there at the bottom of it. While I may produce results with the more benign strain, they’re pretty limited and not anything new.

Never let it be said I let down my cohort born in the Year of the Ox!

This week I’ve had a breakthrough in this way of being. Suddenly, I’ve seen possibilities for acting I’ve never seen before, things to say, responses to offer that have never occurred to me before. In two particular situations where normally I’d wade in quite clumsily or else avoid the matter altogether (both wading in and avoiding wading in being two sides of the one coin), I discovered a third way, a way of responding that involved stepping around the leg trap rather than avoiding or evading it.

I discovered a way of responding that was skilful, adroit, full of ease. A secret opening, a hidden space, revealed itself.

I’m thrilled, and the following story from ancient China about another ox creates it beautifully.


Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance,
Like “The Mulberry Grove,”
Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!

“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.

“But now I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!

“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.

“Then I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
Sink in.
I clean the blade
And put it away.”

Prince Wen Hui said,
“This is it! My cook has shown me
How I ought to live
My own life!”

~ Chuang Tzu (369-286BC)

IMG_2999 *

Images: Henry F. Stone and his Durham Ox (1887), Thomas Flintoff (English-Australia, 1811-1891), Art Gallery of Ballarat


Number 6 again and again


A friend posted this on Facebook last week: “Something about to drag you down? Celebrate the absurdity!”

Do we ever need anything else?

Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him, ‘Peter,’ he says, ‘kindly remember Rule Number 6,’ whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologises and withdraws. Twenty minutes later, they are interrupted again by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly … Again, the prime minister says, ‘Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.’ Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology. A similar incident happens a third time, until the visiting Prime Minister can restrain himself no longer. ‘My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?’ ‘Very simple,” replies the other. ‘Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.’ ‘Ah,’ says the visitor, ‘this is a fine rule.” After a moment, he asks, ‘And what, may I ask, are the other rules?’ ‘There aren’t any.’

~ Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility


Three opening lines

BEGINNERS-articleLargeThis is a re-post from my business website. I thought you may enjoy this post too …

Look at these opening lines from three letters/emails.

I appreciate that some recipients of this email will not be directly relevant to this opportunity [sic]. If that is you, I am sending it to you with the view that you might have relevant people in your network you can refer. If not, then please disregard the email and I appreciate you taking the time to view it.


We appreciate that there are many reasons why you have not paid your fines. Whatever the reason, it is important that you pay your fines before the Sheriff takes action …


I’m an old, senior guy, 78, but I’m attractive and horny …

One is the beginning of an email from a recruitment company I received the other day; another is from a letter sent by the Sheriff’s Office of Victoria to people with unpaid traffic fines; and another, from a personal ad placed by a character in a movie.

The personal ad features in the 2010 movie called Beginners which I watched on SBS last week.

Starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor as father and son, it’s the story of a man named Hal who comes out as gay at the age of 75 after his wife dies. Just a few years later, he himself dies of cancer. After Hal’s death, his son is sorting through his father’s papers and finds the ad his father placed in the newspaper. The son and his girlfriend read the ad, marvelling at Hal’s courage and optimism. “He never gave up,” the girlfriend says.

Why am I discussing a personal ad from a fictitious character?

Because the ad does something the two emails/letters do too. It starts by acknowledging what is most likely a concern for the reader. And acknowledging a concern causes it to vanish.

First example

In the first example, if I put myself in the shoes of the reader, my likely concern on receiving the email is that:

  • it has nothing to do with me
  • I’m about to be asked to do something (about a matter that has nothing to do with me)
  • I’m about to have my time taken up with someone else’s concern.

So the writer handles all this in the first paragraph. He starts by acknowledging the possibility the email will not be relevant to me. Note, the actual sentence he uses is grammatically incorrect. It should read, “I appreciate this opportunity will not be directly relevant to some recipients of this email …”. Despite the error, he manages to communicate the sense of it anyway.

At the end of the paragraph, he closes simply, and with gratitude, “I appreciate you taking the time to view it.”

Second example

In the second example, the likely concern for me as the reader is that the Sheriff is about to demand I pay my fines and I don’t have the means/willingness to pay. So the writer’s opening line addresses this, acknowledging that fines are just one of many things I am dealing with. The message that’s communicated to me as the reader is “we understand it’s not necessarily easy for you”.

Bingo! There’s my concern acknowledged. Now, suddenly, there’s a space to start looking to see if I can pay or how I can pay.

Third example

In the third example, the likely concern for me as the reader (if I were a gay man) is that the writer is too old at 78, that I might not look good to my friends with an old guy and/or that he won’t be able to perform sexually. So, the writer, the fictitious character of Hal, acknowledges it simply and directly, “I’m old … but I’m attractive and horny.”

Again, bingo! The concern as concern vanishes.

Free to read without defensiveness

Now it may be that I as the reader don’t take up the writer’s offer (in each of the three cases), but it won’t be because I didn’t read. When the writer acknowledges my concern at the outset, it causes it to vanish, leaving me free to read without defensiveness.

It’s the same mechanism, and it was successful in each case:

  • in the first case, I read the email in its entirety (instead of not reading, and then deleting it)
  • in the second case, over 70,000 people paid their fines which recouped $57 million for the state of Victoria
  • in the third case – of course, a fictional one – Hal’s personal ad attracted suitable partners, and he lived with great love in the last few years of his life.

Next time you’re writing a high-stakes email or letter, put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Speculate about the likely concern of the reader when he or she receives your email, and then directly address it in the first couple of sentences.

Then watch what happens.

Take your business communication to the next level …

Arrange your coaching program or short session today by contacting Narelle on 0412 616 076, email:


Anatomy of an experience


Only the completely happy think that they are in the correct place.

~ The Right Attitude to Rain, Alexander McCall Smith

In our Creating Happiness seminar with Landmark, we’re asked to do one thing: to experience our experience. Our experience includes our thoughts, emotions, body sensations and attitude about whatever it is we’re involved in.

While it sounds easy or stupid or pointless, it’s actually difficult and confronting. As the seminar asserts, “human beings lack distinctions for experiencing.”

In this week’s homework we’re asked to experience the state of disempowerment and the state of empowerment.

Experiencing the state of disempowerment is not a fun time and it’s no wonder we don’t normally want to be with ourselves. I just want to run away or shut down or go to sleep whenever I’m about to experience that experience in the ordinary course of life. Anything not to experience it! Yet it’s a common, even the most common experience for me, as an average human being. No wonder I go through life largely sleep-walking.

So last Saturday night I’d decided I was going to a concert by a man I heard on the radio called C W Stoneking. From remote Australia, he plays Blues songs on his guitar that are influenced by artists from the American south.

I’d never heard him before and I hadn’t been to a concert for a long time, especially not by myself, but the songs were fun and I wanted to get out and do something new. So I bought a ticket and Saturday night rolled around and then I saw he didn’t come on till 9:30pm. Now normally I could be thinking about going to bed by then and I contemplated just giving the whole thing up.

“No,” I told myself, “we’re doing this.”

Next, I go to get in my car and the heavens opened with torrential rain. “Damn, now I’ll be slogging through the rain with my half-broken umbrella.”

“No,” I told myself, “we’re doing this.”

Then I get to the Arts Centre where I’d planned to park my car. “Car Park Full,” it said. “Ah, another sign,” I thought, “a sign I should go home.”

“No,” I told myself, “we’re doing this.”

Eventually, I found a car spot, walked down dark streets in the pouring rain and finally got to the Forum Theatre.

The place was packed, everyone was standing and C W Stoneking was in full flight. I looked around. There were plenty of people there alone, plenty in groups, and after five minutes I started to relax and enjoy the music and  atmosphere. For the next hour or two I had a good time, which is not to say I didn’t think about going home or “poor me, being here alone” or “what are you doing here, a 50-something woman?” or “my feet are hurting” or “I wish that man would keep his head still and not block my view” or “OK, I’m going after this next song definitely.” All that rubbish kept up its endless conversation.

The concert ended and I went outside. The rain had eased up a bit, and I started walking back to my car on the other side of the city. It was around midnight and everywhere I looked there were couples and groups heading home or heading on to the next place. I was just getting geared up to have yet another “poor me” party in my head – “what are you doing? A 50-something woman alone on a Saturday night, walking through the city at midnight?” – and then I caught myself.

Hang on a minute, this is crazy. You’ve just been to a great concert. You’ve had a good time. You did what you said you were going to do despite the temptations not to do it. You are absolutely free. You can do what you want. How great is that? Hey, maybe I’ll go home and watch movies till 4am. How brilliant!

And all of a sudden, it was brilliant. All of a sudden, there was nowhere I’d rather be than walking through a city at midnight with homeward drifting couples, the world at my feet, in complete freedom. How fortunate I was! How happy! This, this, was happiness. Me, suddenly, at the source of my experience. Me at the source of my life.


Image: Illusion by Joseph Jastrow (1863-1944)

Ode to Friday

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
               before ribs of shelter


To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.


And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
                      Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.


To float, upheld,
                as salt water
                would hold you,
                                        once you dared.


To live in the mercy of God.


To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
                              to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
                                                   O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
                              To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
                              Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
                      flung on resistance.


~ To Live in the Mercy of God, Denise Levertov (British/American, 1923-1997)

Day of Buddhas

Went to Hobart yesterday to run a workshop. It was an excellent day.

I decided to go by public transport to the airport, and on the bus I had a great conversation with the man next to me about rock-climbing in New Zealand. I learnt that the rock in NZ is extra-special granite which is far superior to Australian rock which is really not rock at all, but sand. Australia, the country built of sand.

On the plane, the man sitting next to me was a senior official in the Chinese Embassy in Canberra who was part of a delegation visiting Hobart. We had an excellent conversation about the Universal Law and philosophy and something passed between us when we looked into each other’s eyes. I learnt there is a figure in Fujian province in China which once was a man who discovered the Universal Law. Although he died a thousand years ago, his body is sitting upright, in place, with flesh intact.

In the taxi from the airport I had a funny conversation with the driver about Pakistani politics and General Mushurraf who I learnt was not in prison for his overthrow of the government some years ago. I also learnt that one truly becomes an Australian when one has “the price of houses” conversation.

I had a couple of hours to spare before the workshop so I asked the driver to take me to MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art). I had coffee and cake in the sun looking at the spectacular view. Then I went into the gallery and saw great artwork, including the one below by Chinese artist, Zhang Huan.

It’s called Berlin Buddha. The artist shipped to Australia the huge aluminium mould for the Buddha which you can see on the right, along with a tonnage of incense ash which he had collected from Chinese temples.

Gallery staff then filled the mould with the ash, tamped it down and took away the parts of the mould to reveal the ash Buddha on the left.

So diligent were the gallery staff with their filling and tamping that the ash Buddha is only now starting to crumble away almost a year after its birth. I learnt from the attendant that the artist and gallery staff had expected the figure to last for weeks only. Soon, the Buddha will go the way of all Buddhas. It will be crushed and taken away so a new exhibition can go in.

After MONA, I delivered the workshop, went back to the airport and flew home.

What a happy day.


Nine women in a gallery: Lucretia


Is that a dagger I see in Lucretia’s left hand? Yes, it is. She’s about to thrust it into her breast and die in her father’s arms, following her rape by Tarquin, son of the last King of Rome.

Lucretia, a “semi-legendary figure”, who suicided around 510BC is the fourth of my Ballarat Women.

When I saw this print I didn’t know her story and didn’t see the dagger. What struck me instead was its beauty. Look at the way her body occupies the frame, the beautiful classical stance with the right hip pushed out, the rounded draperies and best of all, the anguish in her profile, the flying hair, that right hand flung open. It’s exquisite. She’s on the cross, she is the cross, right there in public, with Rome behind.

There are several versions of her story. Here’s one.

Lucretia lived in a time before the Roman Republic was established, when Rome was still ruled by kings. She was married to Lucius, and was the daughter of Spurius Lucretius, the first Prefect of Rome. One day, the king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus sent his son, Tarquin, on an errand to the region where Lucretia lived. He was received into their home, and he and her husband went off on a hunting trip.

Tarquin and Lucius “were debating the virtues of wives” when Lucius volunteered to settle the debate by having them all ride to his home to see what Lucretia was doing. She was weaving with her maids. The party awarded her the palm of victory and Lucius invited them to stay but they returned to their own camp. Later that night, Tarquin “entered her bedroom by stealth, quietly going around the slaves who were sleeping at her door.” When Lucretia woke, he identified himself and offered her two choices.

She could submit to his sexual advances and become his wife and future queen, or he would kill her and one of her slaves and place the bodies together, then claim he had caught her having adulterous sex.

The next day Lucretia went to her father’s house in Rome. She first summoned witnesses, disclosed the rape and called on them for vengeance, “a plea that could not be ignored, as she was speaking to the chief magistrate of Rome.”

While they were debating, she drew a concealed dagger and stabbed herself in the heart.

Lucretia’s rape and death is credited with causing the fall of the last Roman king and the establishment of the Roman Republic.

Her body was taken to the Forum and put on display while a general election was held.  The vote was for the republic.

The constitutional consequences of this event were, formally at least, to reverberate for more than two thousand years. Rome would never again have a hereditary “king”, even if later emperors were absolute rulers in all but name.

On hearing of the vote, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his sons rode for Rome but their entry was barred. Tarquin was eventually assassinated and the Tarquin clan became outcasts.

There’s so much in Lucretia’s story. The aspect that stands out for me is the awful and persistent questionability of women’s virtue. Why does she stab herself? To restore her “honour”? To restore her father’s honour? What does that even mean? To protest her innocence? To overthrow the Tarquin clan? To be avenged? To cauterise the enormity of the act?

And lest you think any of these questions have gone away, I draw your attention to the thousands of examples of the abominable crime – so-called honour killings – being practised in many countries right now. In an example last month in Afghanistan, a religious mullah was convicted and sentenced for raping a 10-year-old girl. It was reported that, after the attack, the young girl’s family was planning to kill her. Her life was only saved by the intervention of a group called Women for Afghan Women.

I cannot think of any act as terrible as what this young girl has had to endure. To be raped and to have one’s family plan to kill you as a result. What desolation!

More Ballarat Women to come …


Image: Lucretia’s suicide, engraving, 1541, Enea Vico (Italian, 1523-1567) in the studio of Marcantonio Raimondi (Italian c. 1470-1527) after a drawing by Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520) from the exhibition, Radicals, slayers and villains: Prints from the Bailleau Library, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Rounded with a sleep


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, Sc. 1

Featured in the radio program called Edge of the World about the remote island of St Kilda, the island at the outer reaches of the Outer Hebrides off the north-west coast of Scotland. The island was inhabited for centuries by people who subsisted on the sea birds that breed on its steep cliffs. It was regarded by writers of the time as a kind of Utopia. In 1930, the last 37 people living on the island were evacuated and the island was left to the birds.

The program was made by sound artist, Francesca Panetta, and you can listen to it here: Edge of the World. It is magical at the 32-minute mark and beyond.

That kind of Utopia? You have to be receptive for it to reveal itself to you. That’s what I mean.


Nine women in a gallery: Witch


From the man who brought you art history’s most charming figure, the disconsolate cherub of Melencolia (1514)


comes the witch


riding backwards on her goat

She had to be there, right?

See her “unusually muscular torso”

And the “distaff that rises from her crotch”


“her appropriation of male power”

More of my Ballarat Women to come …


Image: Witch riding backwards on a goat, engraving, c. 1500, Albrecht Dürer from the exhibition, Radicals, slayers and villains: Prints from the Bailleau Library, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Nine women in a gallery: Kathe Kollwitz


As I walked through the wilderness of this world I lighted on a certain place where there were the images of nine women and I laid me down in that place to sleep, and as I slept I dreamed a dream of woman’s greatness … *

Käthe Kollwitz made the etching above in 1899. It’s called Aufruhr (Uprising) and it’s characteristic of her work in its power and subject matter.

What caught my eye is the source of this power: the enormous tenderness she generates. Below, the crowd, sickle in hand, darkness all around, struggles mightily; above, the woman, symbol of renewal and creation, of the crowd’s hopes and dreams, flies free, one hand to her breast in comradeship.

Look how she does it. It’s all in the hands.

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