“Wave your hands if you think that life has an invisible dimension which is beyond the normal intellect” I said. I was holding a webinar about “Shifted” the virtual transition ceremony we have been running since Covid-19 took hold. Everyone started waving vigorously. Where are you on this one?
“Wave your hands if you think that you should explore both the visible and the invisible to navigate the transition we are all facing”. A few moments delay greeted this. I could almost hear people thinking about it then most people began to wave their hands.
At the beginning of the lockdown, I posted an article called “Global Transition – Let’s Not Waste This Crisis”. The article argued that the more chaotic and unpredictable the outside world became, the more important it was to look inwards to gain inner clarity. I went on to point out that the nature-based cultures of indigenous people had developed a very powerful way of navigating important transitions by integrating the visible and the invisible. In modern personal, organisational and spiritual development these ceremonies of transition are sometimes called vision or purpose quests.
The pandemic was making us all re-evaluate what is important and this calls for some form of personal transformation. But could we do this type of profound work online? The web is adequate for business meetings, education, for sharing information and keeping in touch with family and friends (but we all miss the hugs). Yet for me, any deep self-realisation depends on a shift in our four ways of knowing. We need to rebalance our normal reliance on the intellect with far greater presence to our embodied, intuitive and emotional ways of knowing. This opens us up to the presence that is both with and around us.
After years of working with the purpose quest process, I am very confident that it is a great way of doing so. It provides us with resources which gives this rebalanced way of knowing a better chance of becoming sustainable. But was it possible online? Could we use constellations, gestalt, ceremony, and all the other practices necessary to shift us out of our normal sense of being a separate self? What about the circle of fellow travellers necessary to give us the courage to journey inward? And what about time alone in nature? How on earth could we replicate that? I would never have believed it possible but the pandemic gave us the motivation to try. I took the questing process that I have developed over the last twenty-five years and with my friends and colleagues in Fieldwork adapted it so that it could be delivered online. Working with partners in different places around the world, we delivered four of these virtual purpose quests between May and July; two in Europe, one in China and one in Brazil. We are in the middle of another one in Europe now and the next one starts in China next week. The experience of holding these virtual purpose quests has been far more powerful than I could have imagined when we began. Sometimes I felt that we were all in the midst of a sort of virtual miracle.
“Shifted”, the name we gave to the Transition Ceremony, was firmly based on the transition ceremonies of the indigenous peoples of North America. This process has three stages each of which presented different challenges for delivery in the virtual domain.
The first stage is called Severance. In this stage, the challenge is to connect with the underlying patterns that keep us stuck in who we think we are. Having connected with these patterns we then need to integrate and heal the underlying cause. For many years, we have used the family constellations approach, based on the work of Bert Hellinger and the ancestral constellations practice of Virginia Satir, to do this. These are not part of the traditional questing process but they are so effective that we wanted to continue to include them in the virtual process.
In our first “Shifted” ceremony I ran a constellation for an Austrian woman. A man in Brazil was representing her father and he said something that made the client burst into tears. “What’s happening?” I asked. “I never knew that about my dad,” she said. “I have been carrying a vague sense of fear all my life and anger towards my dad. Now I know where the fear came from and I feel sorry for him, not angry”. With no small sense of relief, I realised that the “morphic field”, to use Rupert Sheldrake’s terminology, works just as effectively in terms of constellations in a virtual domain as it does when we are all sat together in the same room.
We use a fire ceremony to mark the completion of the Severance stage. I was introduced to this practice by the Shugendo monks from the Kumano mountains south of Kyoto in Japan. The fire ceremony is a ritual whereby questers commit to what they are going to leave behind from their old lives. This ‘letting go’ creates the space for the new to arise in the next stage of the ceremony… “Threshold”.
How were we going to replicate the fire, the drumming, the announcing, the witnessing and the chanting on a Zoom call?
One Chinese participant, when reflecting on the fire ceremony, said that he thought he was letting go of his attachment to control in his approach to leadership. But then as he began to prepare for the fire ceremony images of his mother kept coming to him. “My mother died three years ago,” he said. “I grieved for her but I realised in the ceremony that I had not made the transition from being a father who had a mother to a father who no longer had a mother. This impacted me on a far deeper level than my leadership patterns.”
The indigenous peoples from whom the transition ceremony came well understood the power of ceremony itself in helping us to let go of our normal awareness. Yet for us modern humans ceremony requires us to suspend disbelief and to just give it a go. This is equally true whether you are doing it ‘live’ or virtually. But the real learning was that like constellations, the power of ceremony and its capacity to catalyse moments of profound self-realisation was not confined to face-to-face interactions.
The second stage of the questing process, “Threshold” gave us the biggest challenge. In a ‘normal’ purpose quest process, the quester would spend time alone fasting in nature. How could we replicate this aspect of the process? Fortunately, we knew that in the Zen version of the transition process the person going through the transition continues to live their normal life but shifts their stance in relation to it. It’s like living life as a constant meditation for a week or so. You observe minutely what happens to you and then capture these observations through daily journaling. It’s not the same as spending three or four days alone in the wilderness but it’s certainly a lot more accessible! The question was whether this process would give people an insight, beyond the intellect into the next stage of their realisation. Another way of putting this is, ‘would it give them an insight into their purpose?’ This insight is based on what they want from life and what life wants from them.
One of the German participants (who has experienced both versions of the process) summarised the difference as follows. “The experience of time alone in nature is just much more vivid and therefore more memorable. But it is much more difficult to then integrate into normal life. Because my insight came from my normal life I could integrate it far more easily. Another big advantage was the process of living life as a meditation and seeing life as a teacher. The process I learnt in order to do this life quest is as valuable to me as the insight which revealed itself”.
There is a Hindu saying that “the mind makes a great servant but a terrible master”. A challenge that we have as human beings, particularly at this time, is that our minds do not want to relinquish control. Yet creativity theory has established pretty clearly that it is the combination of the visible and the invisible, the conscious and the unconscious, that is most likely to generate the breakthrough insights that we need, (see for example Scharmer 2009 or my own work with Nick Udall (Udall Turner 2008).
So what we have established through the “Shifted” process is that we can by-pass the conscious mind and check in with the “field” (McTaggart 2003) or the “implicate order” (Bohm 1995) by shifting the way we observe our normal day-to-day lives. It’s not a substitute for the challenge of spending time alone fasting in the wilderness but it is more accessible on every level and still generates insight beyond the intellect. It is sufficient to fuel the creative process of navigating important life transitions.
The third stage of the transition process is “Incorporation”. This begins with making sense of what we have experienced during the threshold time. The “invisible” dimensions do not communicate with us through language, otherwise the insights would be rational and visible. We connect to the invisible and the unconscious through our intuition, our emotions and our embodied ways of knowing. We connect through synchronicity, pattern, beauty, emotional reactions, connections with animals or plants or the other-than-human world and the ways our bodies register experience from moment to moment. Whilst these insights arise in the “invisible” we need to synthesize them and make them accessible to the intellect. We approach this sense-making process using coaching, trio enquiry and socio-drama. It is easily transposed into the virtual environment.
The second part of Incorporation is the most challenging but this is just as true for the face-to-face process as it is for the virtual version. Once you have “claimed” your insight (and here we again use a highly ceremonial approach), the challenge is to manifest your purpose for all the world to see. Your purpose must transform from some sort of ambition or vision of your highest potential into the essence of who you are. You must become it and it must become you. This embodiment of your insight takes a year to complete.
The participants of the “Shifted” ceremony must return to a world where the invisible can be easily lost in the stress and pressures of everyday life. There is a Sufi story about a man who is told that all the waters of the world will be poisoned. The poisoned water will make everyone mad. He is told to conserve enough of the pure water to live off for the rest of his life. Sure enough, a couple of days later all the water is poisoned and everyone goes mad. But the man only drinks from the pure water he has conserved. Soon he loses all his friends because they think he is so strange. It doesn’t take long before the man starts drinking the same water as everyone else and everyone is happy because he has ‘regained his senses’.
We do all we can to develop and nurture the community of questers and to help them to continue to drink from the ‘pure water’. We have made some progress in this area but we still need to learn more about how to support one another through the year-long process of incorporation. But one thing is sure, it is much easier and accessible to do this virtually than face-to-face!
Our adventure with the “Shifted” program has demonstrated the human capability to access and communicate with the infinitely wider presence that surrounds us; our ability to touch the field and to be touched by it. We can do this virtually! How else can a man in Brazil utter a truth about the father of a woman in Austria whom he knows nothing about. How else can a fire in Derbyshire UK evoke the memory of the late mother of a man in Shanghai?
It’s miraculous that we can touch the field virtually. But why does it seem miraculous? Perhaps it’s because our “normal” way of thinking says it’s impossible. This capacity to touch the field and even more importantly to be touched by it is a natural human capacity. Unfortunately it is a capacity that we have allowed to atrophy like a muscle that we forget we have because we never use it. Without Covid-19 I would never have challenged myself to try this. In the first six “Shifted” programs, we have demonstrated that we can help one another get this vital muscle working again. What’s more we can exercise it over zoom differently but as effectively as if we were together in person. This is more ecological and potentially far more accessible for far more people.
I miss the hugs and the chats around the coffee machine as much as anyone. But let’s not overlook the simple fact that there is a presence that surrounds us which we can access and communicate with. And we can catalyse this online. We have the practices, both ancient and modern, that can reawaken our capacity to access insight beyond the limitations of our intellect.
If we have courage, strictness, wisdom and sincerity we can do this just as effectively virtually as face-to-face. Never has there been a time when it is so important to reclaim this capability. It seems so obvious to me now that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it is a virtual miracle!
If any of this resonates with you, please send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Science and Spiritual Practices Rupert Sheldrake 2018
The Field Lynne McTaggart 2003
Wholeness and the Implicate Order David Bohm 1980
Theory U C. Otto Scharmer 2009
The Way of nowhere Udall Turner 2008
Tales of the Dervishes Idries Shah 1970
Click here to read my previous article, ‘Global Transition – Let’s Not Waste This Crisis’.