The possibility of possibility

A Sentimental Journey, 1971This post is dedicated to Amal.

Like many people, I find myself in situations and circumstances in which it appears only one way is possible, and it’s the way that’s hard, undesirable or requires loss. Recently, I heard three people speak about what they’ve been facing in the last eight weeks, and I was reminded there is never only one way. Even in the worst of situations something else is always possible and frequently it’s the miraculous. In listening to their stories I was also reminded that we rarely know what people are really dealing with, even those closest to us, in fact, maybe especially those people.

The funeral

The first, a woman in her 50s, who I’ll call Anne, spoke about a close friend who is facing the end of her life due to cancer. On a previous occasion, Anne had spoken about her friend and her illness, and how she had asked Anne to go ahead of her and prepare a new house for her in another state on a beautiful beach in which she would spend the last period of her life.

She had given Anne a blank cheque book, and Anne had spoken about the unexpected joys and surprises of furnishing a house for her friend’s last days. Fast forward a few months, in which the friend and her husband moved to the new home, and Anne spoke about what had happened recently.

Just before Christmas, the friend’s husband accidentally drowned. Now, her friend asked Anne to arrange the funeral. And that’s what Anne did. She and her friend talked about what they wanted for the day, and her friend asked that it be an occasion for laughter and weeping, and that people be free to be however they are, be free to express themselves in whatever way they cared to. And the day came and Anne brought her friend from the hospital, frail and bereaved, and they had the most magnificent day in celebration of her husband’s life and the self-expression of all.

The birth

The second, a woman in her 30s, who I’ll call Kate, had previously spoken about her mother who was suffering from cancer and facing the end of her life. Now she spoke of what had happened in the last eight weeks.

In that time, she and her family had been shocked to learn her father had also contracted cancer. Around the same time, Kate learned she was expecting her first child and being aware of her mother’s situation, she established she was having a baby girl and was able to tell her mother of her granddaughter-to-be before her mother passed away. As she spoke of her family’s closeness and the waves of grief she was experiencing at her mother’s death, Kate stood straight and tall and beautiful and put her hand on her belly and said she will make sure her daughter knows who Kate’s mother was.

The gift

The third, a woman in her 60s, who I’ll call Simone spoke about a situation that had occurred in her birth family. She and her siblings were dividing up a property or bequest. The eldest had earlier wanted a larger portion than the other siblings because of some circumstance, but had subsequently dropped his demand. Just recently, Simone said, he had resumed his previous position and was again wanting a larger portion than the others.

Fast forward to last week, and something shifted. Simone said one of her younger brothers who I’ll call Peter had unexpectedly come forward and told the eldest he could have what he wanted and that he, Peter, would give it to him from his share. Suddenly, the eldest brother realised what he’d been doing. “You can’t do that, it’s unfair,” he told Peter. And right then and there, he dropped his request for unequal shares for good.


Image: A Sentimental Journey, 1971 by Nobuyoshi Araki

“we encounter a pitiless machismo…”


Nine months ago, I met a man in immigration detention in a camp in the middle of prosperous, comfortable Melbourne who’d been held there for over five years. He had committed no crime, been given no comprehensible reason for his detention, had no access to defending himself by law against the unspecified charge. What had brought him to that place was the action of seeking asylum in Australia.

He was one of many I met that night in a similar position and it he who touched me most. He handed me a sheaf of photocopied poems, held together in a plastic sleeve, and told me to keep them. I could read only three or four because their despair and grief and hope was too much to bear.

I just heard that that man has been freed from detention. After six long years, he is finally living in Melbourne as a free man. My friend, C, who gave me the news, had visited he and his colleagues in the detention centre once or twice a month for more than a year; to keep them company, to take food, to assist them, to show them there are Australians who cared about their plight. She is elated at the news. This is what she said of him, and several others in the same situation who’ve been freed in the last few months:

“You brave, courageous men. You are my heroes.”

He was given no reason for his release, just as he was given no reason for his detention.

The white, Western nation of Australia was established as a convict colony, a place where Britain could send the effluvia of its overflowing jails and the prison hulks that floated on its waterways. More than two hundred years later, Australia continues to be a convict colony.

* “… we encounter a pitiless machismo, that does not seek to understand, let alone express sympathy over the plight of weaker peoples. These must now submit, often at pain of death, expulsion, and ostracism, to the core ideals of the tribe dictated by the history of its religion and territory. The revival of such sectarian fanaticisms hints not so much at the vitality of medieval religion as the sad mutations in the heart of secular modernity.” Pankaj Mishra, writing in last week’s Guardian about the effective failure of the Western model as we experience it now.


Image: Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour by Ambroise-Louis Garneray

“You’re in trouble”


Where was I? I’ve just crawled out of the bog of social media for business purposes, a terribly determined place.

It’s customary to say if I’d known what it takes to start a business from scratch, I wouldn’t have done it. Only I would have done it nonetheless, because I’m stubborn and bonkers, and because working as an employee I was often bored out of my brain. Very late in my so-called “career”, I cracked the secret of being satisfied and happy at work, and as soon as I got that I was done. Nothing more to prove!

Building a business is terrifying. There’s a neverending list of things I need to learn, things I need to get better at, constraints to be broken through (fear of being seen, fear of marketing) and lots of lean times and flying by the seat of my pants. I also feel proud and satisfied to be building something that didn’t previously exist and something that makes a difference in the world.

It’s the right-sized task for me where previous jobs were always too small (as is the situation for many in the workplace; we all need issues that are big enough, that are a match for us, that call us forth).

Boredom is a thing of the past. I’m alive and happy.


Speaking of fear, one of the biggest things that happened recently concerns fear. I assisted at a Landmark Forum for Teens in early December. There are three types of “forums”: one for young people (ages 8 to 12), one for teens (ages 13 to 17) and the adults forum.

I’ve assisted on many adult forums, and it was my first time on the teens. Assisting means helping with the event management on a voluntary basis. It’s equivalent to providing “service” at Vipassana.

It was one of the great experiences of my life.

I didn’t foresee that I would be doing my own forum for teens. It was like getting into a time machine and going back then. The issues that were there for me as a teen, especially as a young teen or preteen, came up in such a way that I experienced them as if I were a child again.

The biggest thing I got concerned an incident that happened when I was 10. It was a sunny morning and I was coming back from Sunday School. I walked in the front gate of our house and my mum was sitting on the verandah and as I walked in she said something like “I’ve got to talk to you about something.” I don’t remember the exact words, but I distinctly remember the voice she used to say them. It was the voice she used when I was in trouble. I remember the feeling of dread and terror come over me. She told me I had won first prize in an art competition for Girl Guides (I drew a vase of purply-blue flowers), and I remember feeling confused that I had done something good but I was also in trouble.

It’s not that I’d hadn’t remembered this incident prior to assisting that weekend; what was new was that I touched it, my child’s fear and dread and terror. It was incredible.

This isn’t about blaming my mum for what she said or her tone of voice. It’s inevitable that children make meaning from wisps, glances, mishearings, overhearings. It cannot be avoided. It’s how we’ve put together our identities!

When I touched it again, I got with a force like a blow the extent to which my life has been given by fear, especially the fear of receiving the communication, “You’re in trouble.”

I saw that I’ve lived my life always vigilant, always alert to the risk it might be coming in my direction; that I’ve quit jobs because of it, ended relationships, and tried really really hard to be good and pleasing in whatever I did. All in service of the fear that that communication might land on me.

I shared it with the assisting team and afterwards several of the women in particular came up to me and shared their fear too. When I shared it, the person who was in charge of the event, a wonderful woman named Sue said,

Now you’ve got it. It’s no longer got you.

The weekend was a brilliant experience, and the children, wow, they’re magnificent! We cried at their beauty. And in case you don’t already know it, they’re a thousand times smarter than us adults. The forum leader could go places with them in the famous denouement conversation that the adults can rarely go.


Image: courtesy of Drawing for kids

Freedom of speech, debate, having the right to be a bigot: A conversation

Greg (in US)

I know of no place where it rules absolute, regardless of language. Exceptions! Many exceptions…

Me (in Australia)

Exactly. Even where it’s legislated, it’s not usually the bottom line. Cannot be, for good reason. However, the public conversation discusses it as if it were the bottom line. It’s as if people are trying to erect an ethic, a morality, on this tiny platform.


Hard to debate with people who don’t sweat details!


Debate. Another spurious concept. “We have to debate in order to arrive at the truth.” Yeh, right. Debate=fastest way to move further away from the truth.


Really? What’s your sure path to truth?


A path to truth is real conversation, ie, deep listening and compassionate speaking. Debate is predicated on scoring points, winning, being right (and when we’re being right, someone else is being made wrong).

We are fully stocked with debate and then some. Debate is not what’s missing. What’s missing is deep listening and compassionate speaking.

“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” ~ Martin Heidegger


Ah. I have a broader notion of debate, I suppose. Real interactions are certainly best, and the best sort of argument involves just that: conversation, and listening.

Mrs D (in Canada)

I guess the danger comes when individuals can be beaten up, jailed, sent to concentration camps or even killed for making even the mildest criticism of those in authority. I hear what you’re saying about deep listening and compassionate speaking, but on another level I am deeply concerned about the loss of civil and human rights brought about by the “war on terror”.


I get your concern about the loss of civil and human rights. Our concern and fear can only grow while ever we fail to generate solid ground on which to stand.

Mr B (in US)

There are generally three recognized limits to free speech – and their respective slippery slopes, at least here in the US:

1) Public Safety – you cannot yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and call it free speech. The slippery slope can lead to not-quite-so-direct matters of affecting public safety, but this is the first category.

2) Slander / Libel – you cannot make untrue statements that discredit a person’s character. Public figures seem to be somewhat exempted from this, but not entirely.

3) Obscenity – not covered by free speech. Again, like the other two categories, the interpretation of what this is – is up for debate and court rulings.


Thanks for outlining the situation in the US. Have they ever discussed adding an exception for something like “inciting hatred”? Just curious. Or maybe that would come under the “obscenity” ground?

Australian lawmakers have tried (maybe even succeeded?) from time to time in “reading in” to the Constitution a prohibition on inciting hatred (or similar).

My concern at present is that the US conversation for freedom of speech is being imported wholesale into Australia without close thought or attention to detail or context. It concerns me because, looking in from the outside, it seems the conversation doesn’t always serve the US. I get my view is limited and you may have a different view.

A few months ago, the Aust Attorney General proposed changing the constitution with some “free speech” clause. He proudly stated that everyone “should be entitled to be a bigot.” This is the depth to which our parliament has sunk. This nonsense was entertained for some months.

Me (later)

There’s been discussion in Australia in the last day about whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would have been able to be published here. Various legal experts have said “no” or “highly unlikely” based on section 18(c) of the Racial Discrimination Act (not the Constitution as I implied) which states:

“It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:
(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

It is this section which the Australian Attorney General was previously trying to water down in light of the proposition that people “had the right to be a bigot”. Incredibly, since the Paris massacre, one or two members of the Government have revived their calls to water down the clause. They see the massacre as a reason to loosen limits on free speech. This shocks me.


Vanishing evocations


The finest piece of writing I know on music, creativity, life and the whole damn thing by James Baldwin. “Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.”

Originally posted on Solid gold creativity:

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air …

I just watched Sonny’s face.  His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it.  And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realised that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing…

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Freedom of speech

When did freedom of speech become the highest value a country can aspire to?

So essential is it that here in Australia we don’t have it as an explicit right. It’s absent from the Australian Constitution and we have no Bill of Rights. This fact doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of Australians on social media talking about rights they don’t actually have.

And even if it were enshrined in Australian legislation, and in every country in the world, and were enforced to the letter (which is also questionable), so what? Is that all there is? The freedom to say whatever one likes?

Freedom of speech as an aspiration is spurious, paltry, a diversion from the main game.

It’s too small an aspiration for human being, and provides no ground on which to stand.

Generosity. Peace. Understanding. Love. Compassion. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Mercy. Courage.

There’s ground.


This action matters and this and this …

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

― Mahatma Gandhi, courtesy of Madeleine Lobsey


Image: River of Fundament, Matthew Barney (US, 1967 – ), now showing Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, Australia

Continuous beginning


“When the context of your life shifts from becoming satisfied to being satisfied, an essential shift has occurred. You no longer seek satisfaction – you are satisfied. You no longer seek completion – you are complete. You shift from chasing satisfaction and completeness to expressing or manifesting satisfaction and completeness.

Life shifts from a process of becoming complete to a process of being complete. The process of life doesn’t stop, or end, or finish. Life goes on. And, from the space of completion, instead of life seeking itself, life begins to give of itself. It shares itself. It causes life. It brings satisfaction to life. It creates life and shares the ‘experience’ of life.

In that sense, transformation reveals itself as a continuous beginning. Each experience is a fresh beginning and a complete ending, because it expresses satisfaction.”

~ Werner Erhard (founder of est, forerunner of the Landmark Forum)


Image: The Island Bird by Ernesto Neto (Brazil, 1964 – ), now showing NGV, Melbourne

Watering the other’s flower: How to begin a high-stakes email


Following is a re-post from my business website that you might enjoy …


A participant in a workshop talked about emailing the local branch of a national retailer to request financial support for her employer, a not-for-profit engaged in assisting people in need.

It had been a few weeks and she hadn’t received a response.

With her permission, we looked at what might have been missing from the email. She outlined the email, and after some discussion, we determined she had launched into her request without first acknowledging the reader.

Acknowledging the reader

Acknowledging the reader means finding something to say about the reader which is real for you.

You might acknowledge the contribution the reader makes to the community. Or you might talk about something the reader has done that has meant something to you personally. Or, as it was a retailer in this case, you might talk about something you appreciate in their shops.

When beginning a high-stakes email, it’s important you spend the first few sentences acknowledging the reader; then, and only then, move into your request or whatever it is you’re writing about.

Watering the flowers

I was thinking of this recently when I read a description by a Zen Buddhist monk called Thich Nhat Hanh.

He talked about a practice called “watering the flowers” which occurs when one member of his community needs to restore communication with another member, perhaps following a disagreement or misunderstanding.

As part of the process of restoring communication, the person begins by “watering the other’s flower”, meaning he acknowledges the other person for his special gifts, talents or contribution. Only after he has sufficiently watered the other person’s flower can he proceed to talk about what has upset him.

Beginning your email by acknowledging the reader serves the same purpose as the monks’ flower watering. It opens up the lines of communication. Without it, the recipient cannot hear your communication.


During the workshop, the participant undertook to write to the retailer a second time and to begin her email using acknowledgment.

A few weeks after the workshop, I saw the participant again. She had indeed emailed again using acknowledgment, and the retailer had responded and agreed to donate funds.

Start your business year with a new level of power and effectiveness in the area of communication

Contact Narelle on 0412 616 076 to arrange your inhouse coaching program or short session.


Gotcha! Pope Francis on “committing the terrorism of gossip” and other acts of unwellness

Pope Francis Curia

On Monday, the clergy and bureaucrats of the Vatican got a rude shock when Pope Francis used a routine address to launch an “excoriating” critique on the way they operate.

It’s priceless stuff, and will gladden the heart of anyone who’s been on the end of gossip – “committing the terrorism of gossip”, as he calls it – or watched, in fascinated repulsion, a colleague or associate shamelessly sucking up to a person of influence.

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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.

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