Peeping Through The Stained Glass: a story about optimism versus realism

by | Jun 28, 2022

So last night in Manchester I was headed to my Five Rhythms class and was really looking forward to it. (For those who don’t know, Five Rhythms is a dance movement practice designed by a brilliant therapist called Gabrielle Roth in the 1970s.) But, I had to stop off on the way to get someone to look at my computer. The computer guy was taking ages. I was running very late. By the time computer man was done, I knew I would almost certainly miss the class, but I thought ‘fuck it, let’s take a risk’ (I’m pretty wild like that). I arrived outside the Methodist Church in Whalley Range 20 minutes late, the door was locked, the class had already started, and as I peeped through a stained glass window I could see a room full of people gyrating. “Oh well” I thought to myself. “I’ve missed it this week. Never mind.”

So I walked back to my car and bumped into a red-headed woman walking towards the church with a fold-up bike and a huge smile. She told me she was looking for the Five Rhythms class and that this was her first time. I said: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we have missed the class for this week.”

She smiled at me and said: “I’m a relentless optimist. I’m sure we can find a way to get in.”

And so, she proceeded to walk around the whole church building, looking through every stained glass window to see if she could catch the eye of one of these gyrating bodies. After 10 minutes of peeping through stained glass windows, she managed to catch the attention of one of the organisers who very kindly let us in. We spent the next two hours dancing, gyrating, shaking, moving our bodies to work through fears, anxieties, insecurities, grief and trauma and, at points, reaching states of pure ecstacy.

There is a lesson in this story I want to explore with you: it’s about optimism versus realism.

You see, I have in the past described myself as relentlessly optimistic. I have believed in the (almost) infinite potential of human beings. And I’ve been a subscriber to the school of ‘anything-is-possible-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it’.

​​But over the years, as I experienced a number of losses and heartbreaks, my optimism lost its sheen. I’d probably describe myself these days as more of a ‘realist’. The type of realism I’ve been subscribing to more recently is best summed up by this quote from the I-Ching — which I currently have written on a pad next to my desk:

It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are,

without any self-deception or illusion, that a light will develop out of events,

by which the path to success may be recognized.

Turning to face things exactly as they are — that’s the mature response right? That’s the necessary counterpoint to all this spiritual bypassing and saccharine, Pop Idol, positive thinking, manifest-your-destiny type of stuff.

But let’s just think about this together for a moment. What does it really mean, to face things exactly as they are, without any self-deception or illusion?

When I turned up to the locked door of the Five Rhythms class, I thought I was facing things exactly as they were, without any self-deception or illusion. I’d accepted that there was no chance I was getting into the class now the door was locked.

​​Why did I accept this?

​​Because in another Five Rhythms class in London, I had arrived similarly late and wasn’t let in. My mind recorded this experience as ‘reality’, made a rule about it: if X then Y.

But this red-headed woman with her big smile (she is called Madeline by the way) was bringing to the church a different version of reality. She had never been to a Five Rhythms class. She was arriving in this experience with what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi famously called a ‘ Beginner’s Mind’:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Unlike me, she had never experienced being late to a Five Rhythms class and not getting in. And she self-described as relentlessly optimistic.

So, who was being more ‘realistic’ here? Me or Madeline?

The way we view reality is conditioned by our past experiences. Over time, and especially through painful and traumatic experiences, our optimism can contract into a kind of ‘realism’ that we might convince ourselves is more mature, more ‘realistic’. When we have painful experiences like not getting into an event we were really looking forward to, or having our heart broken in a relationship, or losing someone we love, our minds create rules designed to protect us from future suffering. Why would I spend 10 minutes trying to get into a Five Rhythms class, when I know from past experience this is most likely to lead to disappointment? Why would I open my heart in a relationship, when I know from past experience that opening my heart leads to me getting hurt? Recently, I worked with a client who lost her mother when she was young and couldn’t let herself get too close to her nine-year old daughter because she was terrified about dying and leaving her daughter heart-broken.

We of course need rules to make sense of this complex world, and to protect us from suffering. But sometimes, we need to shake ourselves free from these limits or rules. Sometimes we need a dose of relentless optimism, to believe that anything is possible, because who knows what might happen if we just kept peeking through those stained glass windows. We might find a way to open a door that we were convinced was locked. (NB. A message to the cynical part of your mind: opening up to optimism doesn’t mean denying the reality of things like death. We need to use our discernment to judge in what situations we could benefit from an extra dose of optimism).

So here is a simple, but powerful exercise for you:

  1. Think of one problem area in your life where you have convinced yourself you are being ‘realistic’. An area where you have settled on a belief about how things ‘really’ are. It might be in your work, your finances, your relationships, your ability to overcome obstacles.
  2. Imagine in this moment you are opening your mind and heart (as much as you feel comfortable), and as you read these words imagine you are receiving a direct turbo-charged infusion of beginner’s mind optimism for that area of your life you have chosen.
  3. With this turbo-charged, beginner’s mind belief that there is a solution out there, that you can unlock the door, decide one action you will take in the next 24 hours.