We don’t know what we’re doing – and that’s ok.

We don’t know what we’re doing – and that’s ok.

We don’t know what we’re doing – and that’s ok.

This is a picture of me, in the early days of my love affair with football. ‘The beautiful game’. It could also be so cruel. I remember standing next to my dad at Maine Road football stadium in Manchester, as thousands of men sang to the referee over and over again: ‘you don’t know what you’re doingyou don’t know what you’re doing‘. I have no idea how I experienced this at the time, but I think part of me thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and another part of me felt the excruciating shame of that referee.

The song stuck with me, to the extent that towards the end of my meditation this morning the song reverberated again around my mind: ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’ This time it wasn’t about a referee. It was about me.

Imagine, for a moment, a baying crowd of thousands of drunk and aggressive men surrounding you, jabbing their fingers and screaming ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’ You don’t need to have been a referee to know this feeling. We have all had experiences growing up where we were mocked, judged, laughed at, bullied. And as we grow into our adulthood, we have all had experiences where we really struggle with something – work, relationships, parenting, life. When we do find ourselves struggling, these early shame memories can coalesce in our minds like a gang of disembodied bullies lying in our unconscious waiting to pounce.

I often have the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing – as a father, as a therapist, as a charity CEO. And when this feeling comes up, I often notice a contraction in my chest – a bodily prism refracting all those moments I have been judged, criticised, or bullied for not knowing what I’m doing.

But this morning in my meditation, I transformed this chant into a full-hearted celebration. I owned it. I imagine standing in front of a crowd of thousands of drunken, angry people jabbing their fingers, and there I was dancing a little jig and singing out loud with absolute joy and freedom: I DONT KNOW WHAT I’M DOING! I DONT KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!

It is really ok to not know what you are doing. The practice of owning this is called humility. And humility is a lost art we need to rediscover. The part of us that feels it needs to know and control every aspect of our selves and our lives really gets us into trouble. The part that feels it needs to know and control, this is our inner controller. Beneath it is a scared child that once got bullied, shamed, or judged for not knowing what it was doing. Give that child some love, and join me in celebrating all the areas on our lives and in this world where we really do not know what we are doing.

This super duper powerful meditation will help you to gently let go of that anxious part of you that feels it needs to know and control everything. Some of my more recent subscribers may have received this meditation already, but this version I am sharing is a new one with healing sounds created by my friend Giovanni Bonelli aka Notte Infinita. Please check it out!


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

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

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

    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.

    Your Body Is Your Guru

    Your Body Is Your Guru

    Your Body Is Your Guru

    What is the body? That shadow of a shadow of your love, that somehow contains the entire universe”  – Rumi

    Your body is amazing. Not the six-pack or thigh-gap type of amazing. Across millions of years of evolution and through billions of tiny experiments your body has developed an exquisite wisdom. This wisdom is constantly speaking to you. It’s like having a 24/7 therapist or guru. When you smell off milk, your guru says ‘don’t drink it, it will make you ill.’ You didn’t need a sell by date to tell you that. When you have had a bad night’s sleep because you brought your phone in bed with you and you feel cranky and its hard to focus the next day, you don’t need a sleep app to tell you that. As famous trauma therapist Bessel Van Der Kolk says, your body knows the score. You can access this wisdom by tuning into your body in a certain way. In this article, I will teach you the basic formula for accessing the wisdom of your body.

    Why do I even need to write this article, I hear your mind ask? If my body is my guru, then why don’t I just book in a session with myself?

    The problem is this: in the 21st Century, there are deeply entrenched societal forces trying to either separate us from the wisdom of our bodies, or worse, actually manipulating the wisdom of our bodies to make profit. These forces condition us to a) misinterpret our body’s signals as ‘problems that need to be fixed’; b) look for truth and wisdom predominantly outside of our bodies; c) value the intellect over all other forms of knowing; d) override our body’s wisdom and allow our feelings to be manipulated by technology.

    Let’s look at this anti-body conditioning.

    When a baby cries, the parent has to interpret what this cry means. Because the baby has no words to express itself, interpreting these signals is a dance between two embodied features seeking a mutual resonance. When they find that resonance, all is well. Indeed, the cry emerging from the baby’s body-wisdom is so clear and powerful that it forces the parent to keep dancing until the problem is understood and solved.

    But the baby gradually emerges from her pure embodied state into a web of cultural meaning. She learns not to trust her body, and that her parents or her teachers or her society knows best. She will sit in a classroom as the teachers work on developing the intelligence of her mind, with an occasional break for PE. She emerges into what Francis Weller calls a ‘flat-line culture’ where only the narrowest band of emotions is deemed acceptable. She learns that what is good for her body is what ‘the latest research’ or the ‘experts’ say, instead of trusting in what her body is constantly trying to tell her. It’s becoming increasingly hard for her to even notice what is going on in her body, because abstract algorithms are endlessly seducing her attention away from her body and into disembodied realities created by powerful people who are deeply disconnected from the wisdom of their own bodies, but who know how to manipulate the feelings of millions of people. In these virtual realities in which she finds herself, the idea of ‘truth’ is splintering into a million shards of glass.

    In this disembodied, post-truth era, in an age of mass confusion and manipulation, we need more than ever to recover and protect the truth and wisdom of bodies.

    Here is an example of the wisdom of the body emerging in a session I recently had with a client. She said she needed some help because she was feeling paralysed and purpose-less. During the session, I guided her to tune into her body, and she noticed a lump in her throat. When we listened together to this lump, tears glided down her face. I then noticed her eye-lids were quivering. So we listened together to that quivering energy behind her eye-lids. Suddenly a memory of a significant dream emerged that she had not been able to remember before. In this dream, the client was standing in the Ocean. The Ocean was rising up and slowly submerging her. Standing in the Ocean, she had to choose whether she wanted to live or die. She chose to live. As she recalled this dream, the tears continued to glide.

    All of this information was encoded in her body — in the lump in her throat, in the quivering behind her eyes.

    Your body is a storehouse of wisdom. Your body is your guru.

    Let me tell you about the moment I remembered the wisdom of my own body. When I was 21, I won a scholarship to do a Masters Degree in International Politics at Aberystwyth University. They had an amazing programme there and on campus they had one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever seen, the National Library of Wales.

    National Libraries have pretty much a copy of almost every book you could imagine. So, I loved spending days in this peaceful space finding obscure books and obscure ideas and weaving them together into my own thinking and writing. People liked my ideas, and my supervisor was encouraging me to do a PHD. This all sounded very cosy. Peaceful days hanging out with dusty books and obscure ideas.

    But one day, I got a jolt.

    I was walking by the sea-front at sunset with the most exquisite views surrounding me, and my head was so full of ideas that I wasn’t paying attention to anything. This was my own accidental version of the Joshua Bell experiment. In a single instant, the discord between the view around me and my head full of ideas jolted me like a super-charged cattle prod, and I experienced something like a panic attack. I went straight back to my flat, flooded with fear, with this fundamental question searing through my nervous system.

    What is real? 

    Tucker Nichols I eventually came to this conclusion: the only thing that I can trust in this moment is my body. The body is real. The body is grounded in truth. The body is a storehouse of wisdom. (ps. I didn’t think in these exact words then. Just hoping to sound clever in hindsight).

    This jolt changed my life-course. I determined that I would never become an academic, and instead I would devote myself to working with people (not dusty ideas) and learning more about the truth that resides in the body. On that journey I have studied a whole range of practices associated with the body (my favourite is probably Focusing), and have had the honour to practice end evolve some of these techniques with the beautiful, brave clients I have served. And that one basic principle — of there being a wisdom residing in our bodies that we can access by listening in the right way — has stood the test of time and feels more true to me today than ever before.

    In our post-truth age, the question what is real? demands to be answered. Although there are lots of different answers that are valid in their own way, the answer that I have found most helpful is this: the body is real. Where ideas are abstractions forced upon reality, the body speaks directly and in a language that is accessible to every human being on the planet.

    So here is how I recommend you tune into your own body’s wisdom:

    1. Tune into your body’s sensations: if you haven’t done any mindfulness before, then you need to know the simple distinction between sensations and thoughts. Sensations are the raw experience of our body before we describe them in thought. You can learn to listen to the sensations of your body rather than the thoughts in your head. Even this most basic practice can be life-transforming. Many people get stuck in their heads and find this difficult. I discovered in my own practice a hack for this: notice the sensations behind the thoughts. We often imagine that our thoughts are in our head. If you find yourself struggling to tune into your body’s sensations because the thoughts are raging in your head, then see if you can actually notice and allow the energy behind these thoughts, the energy that is circulating around your head. Just follow this energy as it flows. Don’t try to stop it, or divert its course. Just follow its flow. Trust the flow of energy in your body. Leave yourself alone.

    2. Find a place in your body that wants to ‘speak’: once you have grounded your attention in your body, see if there is a place in your body that wants to speak. This is often a place where you feel some kind of tension. Don’t overthink this. Remember, this is your body’s wisdom, not your thinking mind. If you notice the mind coming in with judgments just notice these thoughts and let them float away like golden leaves on an autumnal breeze.

    3. Listen to the tension: when you have settled on a place in your body that you want to listen to, first give it a space to be there just as it is. Let go of any wish to fix or change anything about this experience in your body. Just let it be exactly as it is. It can really help — especially with big, raw feelings — to put a hand on this part of your body and let the feeling know its ok for it to be there, as though you were approaching a scared child.

    4. Go with the flow of the body: in my experience, whenever you wholeheartedly do step 3, the energy behind the sensation will transform. Sometimes it might just feel a bit less tense. Sometimes it might transmute into a totally different sensation. Sometimes it might transmute into an image or a memory or an epiphany. The key here is to trust the body’s wisdom and to go with the flow. Sometimes this trapped energy in the body just needed a space to be, and then it gets released. Listening to the body in this way can be compared to opening the door of a cage and letting trapped birds fly free. At other times, there may be some deeper intelligence coming from the body that you need to listen to. Go with the flow of the body’s energy. Follow it like a tracker on the Savannah following footsteps looking for clues.

    5. Write down your reflections or share: as soon as you have finished listening to your body in this way, write down your reflections. If you have a supportive friend or therapist bring these reflections to them.

    There is one caveat to this practice: there will be times when the wisdom of your body is difficult to work with on your own, particularly if you have experienced a lot of trauma. In these cases, look for someone skilled like a somatic therapist, or a focusing practitioner. If money is a worry, you don’t need to pay. There are focusing partnerships to be found.

    May your body serve you as your most trusted guru.

    Wildfires: a review of 2020

    Wildfires: a review of 2020

    Wildfires: a review of 2020

    Thank you for being here now. Below I will share some of the best books, podcasts and songs I discovered and enjoyed on repeat in 2020. But first, would you join me for a moment of reflection?

    Let’s cast our minds back to January 2020. 

    Do you remember that photo? Flying from one screen to another, this image gripped our hearts and set the tone for the year. A baby kangaroo burned to death against a barbed-wire fence. Over one billion animals died in those bushfires.

    Wildfires spread through California, the Amazon, and even the Arctic, leaving a charred reminder of the fragility of life on Planet Earth. The Wikipedia entry for ‘Wildfires’ reads: “Earth is an intrinsically flammable planet.

    And then May 2020, the footage of George Floyd’s murder emerges, and wildfires rage through people’s hearts. I remember at this time working with a number of clients who were really struggling to process the intense emotions, the rage, the grief they felt. As we reeled from one fire to another, it felt like we were reaching a tipping point, the fire of all fires.

    For Carl Jung, the ancient tradition of Alchemy provided the most accurate model for psychological transformation. In this tradition, fire is an energy of purification, and calcinatio is a vital stage of transformation that involves burning impurities down into a white ash. From the ashes, we will find what is true, what is incorruptible in our spirit. It is often the King (or Father Figure) that needs to be burned. 

    As governments around the world began to respond to Covid-19 with increasing restrictions on our freedom (Kate Orson described the lockdown measures as a ‘house arrest’), we have all been called to look at our own relationship to ‘the King’. This is not about questioning the reality of Covid-19. This is about looking directly into the perfect reflection — the 2020 inner vision — that this year has gifted us. How do you relate to authority? Do you tend to hand over your power and let someone else take the lead? Or do you criticise all authority, and end up feeling powerless, adrift? When I was a teenager, I fought a long and hard battle against authority of all types — my dad, school, the police. But I soon began to feel the pain I was causing the people around me, and the pain I was causing myself, and it did not feel good. Since then, I have — very slowly — been learning to trust my own inner authority. 

    Fire needs air to burn. And Covid-19 has spread rapidly through the air: not just virus-carrying droplets borne by the air, but also a pandemic accelerated by air-travel and our increasingly interconnected planet. To be born in the 21st-century is to be borne by the air. We spend ever more time in disembodied states, staring at screens, seeking to escape the mundane and often painful reality of this embodied, earthly existence. Much of what we call ‘progress’ is driven by a desire to escape from the suffering inherent in life. We can find some obvious clues in the Silicon Valley elite: Google recently spent almost $50 billion on an immortality project. A desire to escape from suffering can be deeply compassionate. But as the Buddha recognised, a greater suffering is created when we attempt to deny the dukkha innate in a human life.

    In the alchemical tradition,sublimatio is the major transformational process based on the air element, a process that releases the spirit hidden in matter. You might recognise in here the word ‘sublimate’, which in psychology refers to the transformation of socially unacceptable impulses into more socially acceptable forms. 

    In his book Anatomy Of The Psyche, Edward Edinger summarises perfectly the challenges of being too ‘air-borne’: “The higher we go the grander and more comprehensive is our perspective, but also the more remote we become from actual life and the less able we will be to have an effect on what we perceive. We become magnificent but impotent spectators.

    The internet has given us a comprehensive perspective on events in the world. Billions of people are instantly affected by an image of a burned joey — even from the opposite side of the world. But this virtual connection to everything can leave us feeling like impotent spectators. 

    For 2021, my wish is that we bring balance to this year of fire and air, by remembering the power found in the other two elements — Earth and Water. I particularly feel a calling back to Earth for 2021. In alchemy, the process for transforming air into something solid, into earth, is called coagulatio. When our skin is wounded, the blood flows until coagulation causes the blood to harden into a clot, a necessary step in healing. Coagulation doesn’t work if we keep picking the scab. Sometimes we need to stop interfering with our wounds, and instead find healing by letting Nature work through us. So here is to a new beginning, a return to Earth, a continual letting go of the part of us that wants to pick the scab, and an ever deepening appreciation of all that is good about nature, and all that is good about our precious, earthly human bodies.

    So this is my Spotify playlist for 2020.

    Highlight is the song by the Bensons, which I watched one night just before going to bed and felt my whole body vibrating with the joy, the grief, the passion, and the truth coming through this creation. Here is the video.

    My top 5 podcasts from 2020:

    1. I recently discovered Margaret Wheatley’s work. She is a very wise woman, and has beautiful things to say about leadership in these times. FYI, we all need to step into leadership roles in this time, no matter what our age, position or job title.
    2. Naval Ravikant is not for everyone, and is a bit less left-leaning than most people I listen to, but he also is a deep thinker about business, meditation, self-improvement and anyone I have shared this podcast with so far this year has been bowled over.
    3. I found this story about Jo Malone randomly on a long drive (she built a world-famous brand selling deluxe candles). It’s such a beautiful story about how a woman with a fierce and creative spirit rose from a humble, challenging start.
    4. Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia, and a man I really admire as he has completely bucked the Silicon Valley trend of tech companies greedily taking over the world whilst losing touch with any values. This is a great show about how he experimented to get the values right.
    5. It wouldn’t be a top 5 without at least one Ram Dass talk. Ram Dass is my favourite spiritual teacher by a long way. He died just over a year ago. In this talk, he talks about the path to awakening and how to work with deep challenges.

    My Top 5 books from 2020:

    1. Rob Burbea — Seeing That Frees. Definitely the book that has had the biggest impact on me this year. Rob is a rare gem of a Buddhist meditation teacher, who died this year. This book contains some perspectives on meditation that you don’t find anywhere else. Highly recommend for anyone who already has a bit of meditation experience under the belt.
    2. Kamal Ravikant — Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It. This is a simple but impactful from the brother of Naval (mentioned above). The title says it all.
    3. Natalie Goldberg — Writing Down The Bones.I had a period during lockdown number one of reading books about writing, and this one is by far the best. Really enjoyable to read, and it feels like your writing improves by osmosis.
    4. Mark Silverman — Only 10s. This book contains a really simple methodology for managing overwhelm and prioritising the ever expanding to-do-list. I have experimented with a number of systems over the years. They usually don’t last. This one has stuck.
    5. John Higgs — The KLF. Such an enjoyable mind-bending story about the iconic rave band who burned a million pounds.

    And finally, my Playlist For 2020 called Wildfires. Enjoy!