When I was in my late 20s, I went on my first ever vacation. I’d been working in jobs on and off for years, but never a salaried one, and never the kind in which you’re expected to take a vacation and fly off to Mexico for a pre-determined length of time to sit on a beach or have some kind of adventure with the deadline of a return flight.
But eventually a dear friend with whom I felt completely safe and accepted - a prerequisite for successful downtime together - suggested we take a vacation. And so we did. We went to Jamaica, found a little place away from the noise of spring break madness, and packed a stack of books each. Our plan, as I recall, was to sleep, read, soak up the sun, and perhaps drink some local rum. That was about it.
Now ethnically here’s how I describe myself: I was born in 1970 to a white mother whose family owned their house and at least one other, and to a black father whose family lived in a house that was actually one large room. My mom grew up in a suburb of Washington D.C., and my father grew up in east coast ghettos. They were both christians, of different styles. I was also raised by my godmother, and with another family whose father was the best friend of my own father. They were all jewish, in very diffferent ways, and I picked up a bit of yiddish along the way.
In my childhood neighborhood there were very few ‘mixed race’ kids. We were a new thing. I was often asked ‘do you feel Black, or White?’ Mostly I felt annoyed. My brother and I lived a unique existence in this way - while so many other kids could see others around them who looked like them, and whose families looked like them, our family was multicoloured. And while I was annoyed by the obviously irrational questions and the pointless ignorance of those insisting I take a side - “you’re Black. If you’re 1/8th Black, you’re still Black” - I wasn’t particularly troubled by them. I was introverted, introspective, busy between my big loving family tribe and my stacks of books. I was not interested in what other people outside of that tribe did. They had already shown themselves to be pretty stupid when it came to the things that mattered most to me, and stupid bored me. I suppose if I was asked, I would have to guess that all the race stuff probably had some impact on me, but I couldn’t have told you what that impact was.
So years later I went to Jamaica, on my first vacation, with my friend. And something quiet and extraordinary happened. In travelling through some of the urban and rural communities of that small island nation, I felt a kind of vertigo. It was as if my whole life, I’d been living in an atmosphere that put a bit of pressure on me, so that walking down the street or looking someone in the eye took just a bit of effort, like taking a walk in a pool of water. I had always thought that was simply what it was to be alive in the world of other people. But in Jamaica, that pressure was gone. I felt like I was floating, and also like I was almost always about to fall over. This wasn’t a result of the warmer weather, the sea air, or even of the relaxing effect of being on vacation. I knew immediately when I returned to the U.S. what it was. Because the pressure returned, and for the first time I could sense that thing I’d been living with every day of my life.
It was what people today call "identity". The felt phenomenon of being at the receiving end of the request to declare what team you're on, what group you belong to. Let's notice that if people are asking, it's because it's not obvious, because you’re exotic. But in Jamaica, I was typical. No one was interested in what team I might be on. No one asked, looked twice, or gave me any attention. Maybe they assumed I was on their team. In Jamaica almost everyone I saw looked ‘mixed race’ to me.
So here’s what I’m thinking about. Identity is a mark you are required to wear for the sake of someone else being able to comfortably negotiate the space around you. It’s something visible to others, and that’s it’s function. So you say you’re a Ravens fan, a New Yorker, a woman, Black, or, as I so often do, declare that the only box you’ll tick is the one marked ‘other’. Even that, though troubling to the box-makers, is a sort of identity mark. At the same time, you feel the impact of your own identity in your everyday life. And I think we feel it in (at least) 2 ways. We feel it’s impact in the socio-political lived state of being in the world. In the way that I feel more or less at ease in certain groups as soon as I share their space, simply because of the first few cues they give, as a group, as to their broad identity, and my place in it. If I go to a Black church, even if it’s a style of worship I’m not familiar with, I feel a certain way. If I go to a white church, I feel a certain way. These ways are different, and they have everything to do with my sense of how others respond to the sight and presence of my self. They present in my body, in my viscera. Sure there are thoughts that attend this process, but I know something is going on because of what I feel. My visibility, and my identity within their worldview, generates a quiet but palpable atmosphere that I can feel.
I don’t believe it’s about me. It’s about their sense of identity, and how my presence amongst them rubs up against it.
There’s another way I feel the impact of identity. And it’s not so much the result of the negative or positive associations with my visibility in any given context, it’s something else. It’s the feeling of being visible. Now in the world of positive psychology and affirmative and aspirational first-world existence, we are told that everyone wants to be seen. We deserve to feel that it’s safe to be seen. And we need to be seen, to get the recognition we apparently crave as part of our social human needs. Being visible in this way is a basic human right, I guess. But for me, the feeling of being visible engenders also a feeling of being challenged, of being responsible to the queries of others, and even - if you decide to ignore those queries (‘who do you think you are?’) of being required to choose to push those queries away. It all takes effort. It doesn't allow you to completely relax.
In Jamaica, I was invisible. For me, perhaps, I learned that to be accepted, to be an example of the norm, is to be invisible. And now I begin to understand why people struggle to stand out, to offer something unique about themselves, or to present themselves in the costume of that which is receiving praise and recognition according to the current social fashion. They are craving recognition, visibility, identity.
Perhaps once that easy invisibility is acquired, there is a different way of being seen. For example, when people say they don’t see your skin colour, they just see you - or when, for example, I forget that my most beloved friend is quite a bit shorter than me. But these factors are still present, and we live inside them, just as we live inside our bodies. We bump up against them with surprise if we've had the luxury of a little time spent inhabiting that place in which love lets us forget the practical and political limitiations of physical phenomena, like the length of our legs or the colour of our eyes.
I feel myself to be alive. I did not know until the pressure was relieved that I live most of my life under the pressure of visibility. You will hear people speak of how oppression makes its victims invisibile. This isn’t so. They are rendered into caricatures, exoticised, commodified, of course they are, and in that way their humanity is erased. But it’s those who are at the cultural centre who enjoy a delicious kind of invisibiltiy shield. No one pays much attention to their foibles, because they are typical.
I wonder how that feels. You see, it’s impossible for me to forget the Jamaica experience, or the experience of returning to the U.S. after Jamaica. I will always feel the pressure of people’s curiosity about me. And this is where it gets a little bit dangerous. Because as long as I feel that pressure, consciously or unconsciously, I will seen as a commodity, and exotic thing, a curiousity. And I will feel that aspect of my social existence, somewhere within my self.
So now, let’s take the task of communication. Something happens inside me that generates a desire to communicate to someone else. This isn’t just an utterance for the pleasure of making noise. It has a purpose: to reach someone else in a particular way. I’ve done this a few times before, so there’s an automatic process that comes. I take that spark, that desire for communication as it sits within me, and I scan the environment which I inhabit, and which my listener inhabits. I taste the air between us to see what I need to wrap my little spark in, so that it survives the space between us with all its distractions and distortions. I want my spark to be received on the other side of its journey and unwrapped from it’s protective materials and accurately interpreted by my intended listener.
This is the first half of the communication project. I want to be heard the way that love hears, behind the masques of ‘identity’.
Can you see some of the challenges? Especially if I don’t understand how their perception of my identity is likely to affect how they unwrap my little spark? And the more visible my contextual difference makes me, the more I’m going to have to alter how I wrap my spark, and the more information I need to understand their likely unwrapping process before I even get started.
No wonder I spent the first half of my life being misinterpreted, and the second half studying the pseudosciences of interpretation.
No wonder I don’t want to leave the house most days.
So today, what I want to know is - what does it feel like, to be deliciously invisible, or made visible by the problem of identity you pose by your presence? Where does that feeling reside? Can you point to it, like a pain in your knee, and say on a scale of one to ten how intense the feeling is?
I don’t know why I want to know this. Maybe it’s because the one thing I know about all of us, what makes us visible to any extent, and the primary source of all this identity stuff, is our bodies. And we point to them and use them for all sorts of meaning making, but what does it feel like, to be able to say
I’m a Black woman
I’m middle class
I’m a college graduate
I’m a foreigner
I’m a traveller
I live here
I’m a sister
I just got here
I’m a writer
I’m an economist
I’m a waitress
What happens in your body, when you say you know who you are? I want to know. I don’t know why. I just do.
Do you see? Do you see what I mean?
Do you see me?
I came to coaching sideways. One day, it seems, I was dropped from my own humble universe onto a different planet, fitted with a business suit, and put in a room with some Very Important People. I was told that they needed help doing some tasks. Tasks they had never learned to do effectively, and which I had already learned the hard way. So they considered me an expert on the matter.
However, I was heartily impressed by their status as Very Important People. So, when it came to the moment of action, in which I was supposed to give the great teachings that would magically make them better at stuff, I found myself doing three things:
I asked them - what do you want?
I asked that question to find a way through the daze I was in, to give us something specific on which to focus our efforts. Because I was so whelmed by their great Importance, I had ask a lot more: to understand exactly what they wanted, to unravel the jargon they used so easily, which was a foreign language to me, and to give them space in which to answer the question for themselves, because I certainly couldn’t answer it.
So I listened. I listened like a foreigner, like a child. I listened with all of my intelligences and none of my prejudices. I didn’t assess. I didn’t analyse. I didn’t believe I could. It wasn’t my world to judge. All I could do was listen, ask for clarification, deeper description, and honesty: What do you want?
And after I listened to everything, after they used my listening to clarify their challenges and elucidate their concerns, to refine the object and finally to answer it for themselves, I asked one more question:
What do you want to do?
Do you know what I did then? What else could I do? I listened. I listened to their frustrations, the emotions that nourished and entangled them. I listened to long lists of what they didn’t want to do. I listened to what they wished they could do. I listened and listened and listened. They used my listening, not my analysis or my assessments, to make decisions, to excavate what shackled them to inaction, and to commit to clear-headed whole-hearted precise and meaningful actions.
This is how I came to coaching. With humility, With respect for what I can and cannot do, and know. And this is why I love coaching. For me, it’s about embodying a deep compassion for another human being. It’s about listening. It’s about respect.
I want to coach you to understand how your own perfect inner compass works. To find ways to honour that perfect wisdom with practical action. To gain clarity, to trust yourself, to live to your own code, to make choices that honour your personal ethics. It’s a challenging process. It will probably change who you think you have to be.
You can coach yourself, you can get your friends to do it. And sometimes it works wonders. And sometimes it doesn’t. There’s quite a lot to listening with humility and faith in a person’s life. It’s a real feat to leave aside your personal agendas, especially if you’re full of hope and the desire to see someone happy, especially if you’re clever and good at solving problems. Especially if you can sympathise. So now and then, you need a coach. Not someone who knows you. Someone who knows more than you do about what is possible for you. Not a mentor who can tell you what they did. A listener. Not a teacher who can tell you how to do it. Someone who will ask all the questions that really matter.
What do you want.
So, in the interest of transparency, I will admit that I do have one agenda on your behalf. And this is why I coach. I want you to feel heard. I want you to know you are understood. I want you to have a life you can be proud of.
How do we deal with change and the instability it brings?
Does change always feel like a threat? We seem to be in the habit of resisting change, and seizing up or tightening down around something fixed when we feel unstable.
We know that humans habituate quickly. If an environmental factor, like the noise of your neighbour’s boiler, happens regularly enough, we stop giving it our full attention and absorb it into our global picture as background noise. This is useful, because without this mechanism, we would be exhausted before we left the house each day, processing every piece of stimulus as if it were important information. Unfortunately, when we overuse habituation, we become desensitised, rigid, and lose our responsiveness to more than just the inconsequential noises of the neighbourhood.
We entrain to certain rhythms and patterns and experience them as fixed, and therefore reliable, things. But nothing is in fact, fixed. Everything is in a state of change. At different rates, of course – the tree that your grandfather climbed will look almost exactly the same when your grandchildren climb it, except for a few more branches and a bit of unnoticeable girth. But it’s not static. The pattern of the sun, rising and setting every day, is pretty reliable. But over the course of a year you will see that pattern shift to allow longer days and shorter nights in the summer time. The sun will rise again tomorrow, but not in quite the same way as it did today. Even your body isn’t the body you had seven years ago. Your epidermis has been with you for less than 35 days. Your liver has only been there for six weeks, and even your skeleton is regenerated every 3 months.
The problem is that because we have habituated so much, we cease to be attuned to the fluid nature of things. So when the life cycle of an oak tree turns a corner, we are shocked to find a strong wind can knock it down.
We have habits of moving through the world in a particular way. Repeated movement in a restricted pattern, like sitting in a chair for most of the day, or typing on a keyboard, will set up a rigidity in the body. When we seek to reclaim the full range of motion that is in our design, we often find resistance in the soft and connective tissue. Even the nervous system can effectively seize up around the action – instead of the acetylcholine that initiates a muscle contraction being used up and effectively replaced with adenosine triphosphate to allow its release, the bodymind can refuse to let go. And then we have rigor, or rigidity. You sit for too long and you feel stiff when you stand up again. And if you have to jump up quickly? Not likely.
I know a woman who went live in Seattle, Washington in the early 1960s. This was during the height of the Cold War. The threat of nuclear attack was part of the daily experience, with educational films shown to schoolchildren about how to ‘duck and cover’ in case of nuclear war, and bomb shelters being built by every homeowner who could afford one.
Seattle is notorious for it’s weather – low cloud grey skies and soft rain for months on end with no sign of the sun. One day, while she was riding a bus to work, and there was a sudden blinding flash of light in the sky. The bus stopped. Everyone held their breath, wondering if this was the day that history had prepared them for.
After a moment, the bus driver spoke into his public announcement system. “Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t be alarmed. There’s nothing to worry about. That was the sun.”
What do we do when we have to face change, and the instability it brings? We have to cultivate the ability to sit with discomfort. Listen to it, and relax around it. Tightening down around mere discomfort will only create the pain we fear. We must cultivate flexibility, so that we can access a fuller range of our potential for movement, expression, communication and connection. Because the habits we have now won’t address tomorrow’s needs. And the aspects we imagine to be fixed, around which we anchor our lives, are changing.
If we don’t learn to breath into the discomfort of change, we will suffocate.
We need to differentiate more effectively between what is actually pain: a signal that some threat to our well-being is present and needs addressing, and discomfort: a sign that change is allowing us a chance to practice our flexibility and enjoy the stretch. We must learn to value the experience of being alive in our bodies, with this gift of perception and interpersonal connection. We must become more of what are: living, moving, becoming creatures.
I am fascinated by the ways in which we do and don't embody our selves. I do my own kind of research, and coach people to live their truest lives. I practice healing and communication arts, and I write about all these things. I am a nomad, these days living and travelling on my boat in the U.K.
phone: +44 (0)7963898806