When I received an invitation to attend the Natural Leaders Conference in London on 22nd/23rd November, I
had to go. With rafts of new thinking from an inspiring cast of international speakers, it held out the promise of change.
Was I ready to be transformed?
Days later, as I try to absorb the profound impact of that weekend, the task of conveying it is as challenging. But it is the personal stories that hit home and one person’s journey can be symbolic of the forces whole bodies of people face on the path to growth and fulfilment.
The master of ceremonies was an affable, black, one-legged performance poet by the intriguing name of Chris Paradox. His offbeat, off-the-cuff delivery and obvious sense of fun made it easy to empathise with the extraordinary stories he had to tell over the weekend.
He began with his account of how ten perfect days had started.
He had high hopes of a date with a girl but, forgetting the time, left late and was rushing when a thought entered his head. Did he want to arrive all het up but still late, or was it better to get there even later but relaxed? He slowed down and, enjoying the live-in-the-moment perspective this gave, slowed down even more. He simulated his advance on stage, with each step a slow motion epic and everyone else overtaking him.
We never heard whether his date was still around when he got there. That became an irrelevance with the next revelations.
He started conversations in lifts, then felt he had to take on the tube and, though terrified at the prospect, a whole carriage. What was the worst? People might laugh, pour scorn or tell him to eff off. It took him till the tenth day to summon up the courage.
‘Hallo everyone,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry. I’m not a busker or a beggar, just someone who wants to challenge a social taboo,’ and he confided his thoughts.
He repeated the exercise again and again. People responded. He got rounds of applause, job invitations and offers of dates. Eff offs too, no doubt. ‘I felt like a god,’ he said. That emboldened him. He was always singing and dancing around at home. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘many of you do the same. Why not elsewhere?’
In short, he had to sing and dance on the tube.
‘At the same time I’m saying I’m afraid. What will people think of me? But I have to bring that joy and enthusiasm to the world. Enthusiasm comes from the Greek enthusiasmos,’ he said. ‘It means filled with God. I’ve been a taker in my life. I have to give back and not only when it’s safe and comfortable.’
It took him two months. ‘Sometimes a pole dance,’ he said wickedly, ‘and supermarkets too.’ People couldn’t help smiling. But it took more courage than many, or any of us, might possess.
His answer is this: you can cultivate courage and build bravery. Find something you’re afraid of and do a little bit of it each day.
Now there’s a challenge.
But Mr Paradox jumps to it and his landings are fateful. He was with a travelling circus in Mexico with fellow adventurers when he jumped off a cliff into a river and smashed his leg on a rock. That went gangrenous and had to be amputated.
That’s where his alias was born. The great paradox was that the worst thing became the best. He confronted his disability face on, wearing shorts for a while. That tested reactions.
Some children were fascinated, wanting to know more. Adults often looked the other way.
In an earlier incarnation he founded a media buying business, earning £70k per annum but could not hack the dog-eat-dog philosophy he encountered and had a nervous breakdown. Or in his terms a spiritual breakthrough.
He took bin liners full of clothes and books, and went to live under a tree in Battersea Park, selling the Big Issue. He remembers that, the first morning after, he woke up to a bird singing the most beautiful song he’d ever heard a yard away from him. Seven months later, at 35 he was performing his own poetry in London gigs, never having written a poem before.
Now he’s started a Hero School to encourage the building of positive, sustainable communities. The man’s a master of reinvention and an iconic role model, if a daunting one.
You can seek change or change can be thrust upon you.
Living in Devon, Bill Murtha had been European director for a business but at 34 in 1999, felt his life was spiralling out of control with manic, fifteen-hour work-obsessed days. He told us he’d been close to a breakdown when he got washed out to sea.
He did not elaborate, other than to hint that this was a catalyst for change, and went on to describe how tenacity, passion, drive and enthusiasm are the qualifications that count, albeit married with an awareness of your authentic self, an empathy for other people, a sense of perspective and compassion.
But the mention of Devon and being washed out to sea stirred a memory.
About ten years or so earlier I had participated in a shamanic drumming session in Devon. It conjured up some striking symbolic images. I remembered sharing them with a chap who’d told me of a real life experience. He’d been cycling along a sea wall path at Dawlish one evening when a freak wave, all of twenty feet high, swept him into the sea.
He’d been in the freezing waters for half an hour, in and out of consciousness, unable to attract anyone’s attention. In the dark and near death, he contemplated how his family would fare without him.
It so happened that a person living near the seafront had decided to set up his telescope that evening for some amateur stargazing and, as he adjusted it, spotted a hand out at sea. He took it upon himself to act and was able to pull my shamanic survivor to shore. He’d been in the sea for nearly an hour before being saved by the slimmest thread of chance. He told me how profoundly this had affected him and that he felt impelled to write a book about it. We discussed how best to proceed.
He and the speaker had to be one and the same man.
The book turned out to be ‘Dying for a Change’ and Bill had since interviewed 500 leaders to get a picture of what’s happening in the world, as set out in his latest book. ‘We are all interlinked,’ he said which had to ring true after his experience and mine, looking at him with new eyes: the man he had become.
What does it take to make necessary changes in our life?
Or more pertinently, what stops us taking action? Chris Walton addressed this issue.
‘Change can be exciting or worrying,’ he said. ‘Most people don’t like change. Cashiers and wet babies are the only ones that do.’
He quoted Darwin: ‘The one most responsive to change survives.’ He identified the prime reason for resistance to change as beliefs – specifically, outdated beliefs and the attendant emotional baggage.
‘Beliefs create our perceptions,’ he said, ‘and the way our brains fire.’
He went further. ‘Your beliefs manifest themselves throughout our bodies.’
The insidious fact was that the majority of our belief systems – and the habits, judgments, decisions, memory patterns, emotions, actions and bodily functions which go with them – are stored at the subconscious level and can govern what sense we make of reality. To act more freely we need to align our subconscious mind with conscious goals.
He gave an example of how differently people can respond to an experience. Let’s assume this is an Alcoholics Anonymous therapy session. One worm is dropped into a glass of water and wriggles about harmlessly. Another is dropped into a glass of alcohol and explodes.’ The session leader asks: ‘What do you make of that?’
One might answer ‘If I keep drinking I’ll die.’
But another might pipe up, ‘If I keep drinking I’ll never get worms.’
A joke, of course, but it did illustrate the point.
‘What is the biggest limiting belief of them all?’ he asked and invited our suggestions. ‘I’m not good enough,’ was one answer. That wasn’t good enough.
His answer was the belief that physical matter is the only thing that’s real. We’re consciousness in physical form he argued and more energy than substance.
‘One person’s consciousness and energy can affect someone else even hundreds or thousands of miles away.’
I wondered whether that might have prompted an amateur stargazer to set up a telescope and happen to scan the sea on one fateful evening.
The Sanitised Brochure Being
Jamie Catto was a founder member of the group Faithless and runs workshops to spark professional and personal breakthroughs.
I was impressed when he began by not talking, but simply acknowledging everyone’s presence with a leisurely swivel round the whole audience. He talked about how we can easily turn kids into approval addicts, with violent edits of unwelcome behaviours.
If we were a house, we might end up in the equivalent of a Euston bedsit he warned, as more and more rooms get boarded up. The sad fear was that, if conditioning continued at school with peer pressure – e.g. ‘you’re so uncool’ – you might nend up with a sanitised brochure of yourself.
I liked the analogy but not the thought. ‘We may have lost 50% of our wildlife in the last 40 years,’ he said, ‘but we may also have stifled 50% of the natural flow of our perversely eccentric natures. The edge of that version of ourselves feels uncomfortable. I have many daughters, so I have scratches everywhere.’
It sounded like a non-sequitur. He must love them greatly.
‘Love those parts of us we’ve shut away,’ he urged. ‘We have to find a way to give oxygen to all those parts. Let them leap out. We are full of treasures.’
Go Deeper. Be Braver.
The weekend was full of so many treasures that could not be adequately valued. Tim Macartney, affectionately known as Mac, was the prime mover and a shining inspiration in his own right. In his closing remarks on day one, he said
‘This conference is an invitation to go deeper and be braver. As we walk out we write the story of the man and woman we are and how we engage with life.’
He admitted his fears. ‘I’m frightened of getting old,’ he said, and I wasn’t sure whether that fear was of less and less time for him, or the world. He feels grief at what is happening in the world. ‘I’m not an optimist,’ he said, ‘but not a pessimist either. I’m a gardener.’
It felt poignant enough to be an end, provocative enough to rise to the challenges of a new day.