July 16, 2021

Islands of Sanity: A Drukkie at Pick n Pay and Other Stories.

About 14 years ago, I joined my first Biodanza class and my world changed in so many ways. Biodanza is essentially the Dance of Life and Love, and was the creation of a Chilean, Rolando Toro. The core experience of Biodanza usually centres around a vivencia (a set of experiences and movement to music that are carefully designed by the facilitator). The intention is to allow participants to enter into a deep inner space of engagement with their own essence and with their fellow dancers. As they do this, they create synaptic networks that awaken a set of new potential where differences and old obstacles disappear.

I saw the enormous potential of this approach both for myself and for my teaching via the concept of biocentric education. I spent as much time as I could over the next six years attending conferences and workshops around the world while studying to become a facilitator myself (those interested in finding out more about my journey into the links between Biodanza and Education can access it here).

The aspect that I want to focus on in this blog is a peripheral comment from our Biodanza teacher that both disturbed and challenged me enormously at the time. By the end of a Biodanza session, all the participants have moved into a different world. Part of the closing routine for the session was to end with a livelier exercise to bring us back into the outside world. We were also routinely advised to be careful before getting behind the wheel of a car (very useful warning!), and were often told to remember that we should not take what we had learned into the real world and start behaving in this way in everyday life. This was often accompanied by the comment that bothered me: “You can’t get into vivencia in Pick n Pay [a local supermarket].”

This jarred with me. What was the point of opening up and getting access to new potential if its main purpose was restricted to my personal growth and could only really be enjoyed in action with fellow initiates? Having met Rolando, I understood that his grand vision was to change the world. This echoed the views of the psychologist, James Hillman, who wrote that the purpose of therapy should be to create more revolutionaries.

I set myself the task of trying to explore ways of living with vivencia in my daily life. And, of course, the gods played along with me and a wonderful opportunity opened up one day.

While shopping in the local Pick n Pay supermarket, I commented to the cashier that she looked as if she had the troubles of the world on her shoulders. She sighed deeply and explained that she was struggling with an enormous amount of different challenges and was feeling quite discouraged. I saw my chance and offered to come around to her side of the till and give her a hug (pre-Covid days, I assure you). To my delighted surprise, she accepted, and there we were hugging in full view of the customers and staff. When she broke away, she said, “Dankie vir die drukkie, maar dit raak nou te lekker”. [“Thanks for the hug, but it's getting too nice!”]. With a deep chuckle and smile on her face, she returned to her position behind the till and we continued with my purchase. Now I could relax - I had shown the benefits of going into vivencia at Pick n Pay!

I remembered this Pick n Pay story after the Open Mic session I ran last week with my EMBA class. We met to share stories of hinge moments, which are those moments when our natural flow through life is suddenly interrupted. They're called 'hinge moments' because a door of opportunity opens for us to choose how we want to respond. In most cases, we don’t see it coming, so are triggered into leaving the reaction to the little child in us, who under- or over-reacts. My teaching focuses on learning to catch the hinge moment as it happens and then, instead of just reacting, stopping and taking a deep breath before finding a suitable response that allows for respectful curiosity, hopefully resulting in a win-win situation. We had covered the theory of hinge moments in official lectures and these fortnightly Open Mic sessions were being offered to help turn this theory into an automatic way of being in the world.

During the Open Mic session, Michael told us that his 69-year-old father, who had been diagnosed with Covid, had been admitted to hospital when his health had deteriorated. He was desperately ill and needed to be on a ventilator, but all available ventilators were already in use. Michael had been told that his father’s age meant that he would be lower on the priority list than a younger person should a ventilator become available. He told us how his sadness and anxiety with the situation had moved to enormous anger at the lack of ventilator support at the hospital as well as the inadequacy of government procurement processes.

In the midst of this painful situation, Michael found himself looking into the eyes of the doctor who was giving him the news about the ventilator. He could really see her exhaustion. In that moment, he had a glimpse into her life and the challenges she faced in passing on heart-breaking news to families day after day. He did amazingly well in catching this hinge moment. He was able to let go of his anger and told the doctor how much he appreciated the work that she and the nurses were doing. He noticed that her eyes became filled with tears ...

Later in the session, Simmy spoke of her frustration with the situation in which she found herself, a 'foreigner' married to a South African, trying to get the correct residency documents from Home Affairs. She had met with innumerable obstacles that had still not been resolved. She was feeling especially frustrated because the absence of these papers meant that she was making no progress at all with getting the driving licence she needs to transport her children legally. She told us that her most recent visit had seen her frustration boil over when, after an extended wait in a long queue, she was still not successful, and her frustration had bubbled over into exchanging sharp and angry words with the assistant.

Different members of the class offered their thoughts, support and appreciation to Michael and Simmy, and shared their own experiences of similar situations. Where appropriate, they offered suggestions for alternative future strategies.

A few days after the class, both Michael and Simmy updated me via emails.

Simmy had returned to Home Affairs with a different strategy. She went on a Friday, 15 minutes before the office closed, and found there were no queues! She had prepared herself to accept whatever happened and to work with rather than against whoever assisted her. She found herself talking to a very helpful man who went the extra mile for her. He found her application on the system and saw that it was stuck. He undertook to email head office to find out what was happening. He told her that she should come back in two weeks and he would give her feedback. It was her most successful Home Affairs visit ever!

Michael had received news the following day that his father, who had shown signs of improvement, was still sedated, but was now on a ventilator.

Looking back, I see that Michael and Simmy have, in effect, taken (biocentric) approaches that have allowed them to look beyond the immediacy of the highly charged situations and have been able to remain connected with their own humanity and with the humanity of the other - in a sense, they were in vivencia. In doing so, they opened spaces of possibility.

A few days later, I realised that the Open Mic session had taken place on the same momentous day in South African history on which former South African President Jacob Zuma reported to police in compliance with an order issued by the Constitutional Court.

In the week since then, the country has witnessed horrifying and violent protest action that rapidly morphed into wholescale looting, and it has been hard not to descend into despair.

I found myself seeking out and finding comfort in the writing of Margaret Wheatley. I sent two extracts (No Hope No Fear and Leading an Island of Sanity) from one of her books to my students, and also posted them on social media.

I’d attended a Schumacher College course run by Meg in the early 2000s during which I’d been forced to consider her position that the world had gone beyond its tipping point and could not be saved. She argued that the only way to act in the world was to operate beyond hope and fear. At first, this seemed an extremely negative approach, but I came to realise that this view offered some very useful guidelines for coping with the world. This was not a position of despair or inertia. The absence of fear or hope freed one to look directly into the face of reality, to go inwards to feel it, and then to decide what action was appropriate. This is the crucial consequence – one is freed to recognise and take the right action. She also argues that it is the responsibility of us all to create islands of sanity (and safety and compassion) around us while the world around us is in turmoil.

Several of the past EMBA students to whom I had mailed the extracts wrote to me on receiving my email and said how much the readings had helped them find ground on which to stand in these troubled times.

One of these past students, Siham, shared her story with me. She has been working with community-based networks for a while. She spoke of the significantly negative impact that Covid has had on the situation, adding that they have never had to turn away as many people from soup kitchens as they do now. During one of her recent shifts at a soup kitchen, they had had to turn away 72 adults and 12 children for whom they didn’t have food. She asked the ‘kitchen champion’, as they are called, how she copes with the endless heartbreak and what keeps her motivated. The response was, “Ek is ook hartseer, ek huil baie, maar ek kan nie mismoeding raak oor die mense wat ek omdraai nie, ek hou aan vir elke mond wat ek kan voed. Jy kan huil, my kind, maar moenie so mismoedig raak dat jy ophou met die werk nie.” [“I am also heartsore and I cry a lot, but I can't get discouraged by the people I turn away, I keep going for every mouth that I can feed. You can cry, my child, but don't get so discouraged that you stop the work.”]

There it is! Doing the work, because it is the right thing to do. True wisdom about leadership and resilience straight from the mouth of a seemingly ordinary person from the community who is doing extraordinary things.

I ended the day breathing more slowly and deeply from a more grounded and connected place, ready to continue my work. The stories that Simmy, Michael and Siham shared with me have fleshed out my understanding of possible ways of moving forward after catching hinge moments. They also offer real-life possibilities and examples that complement Margaret Wheatley’s writings.

What new learning have I derived from their stories that helps me deal with the frightening reality around me at the moment? I need to make sure that I stop and step back from despair, and look the reality straight in the face. I need to take responsibility for my own actions, and not get involved in the peaks of fear and hope that are exaggerated on social media. I need to find stable ground on which to stand so that I can act from an adult place where my outer actions are aligned with my inner knowing. And above all, I need to treat my fellow travelers with compassion and respect. I have to be able to automatically go into vivencia at a hinge moment as I did that day at Pick n Pay …

My deep appreciation goes to Simmy, Michael and Siham for sharing your wisdom with me. I also send love and strength to Michael on the passing of his father.