Thinking Out Loud No. 18
Processing death, my annual review and sovereignty
There are now 113 of you! I’m trying to imagine speaking to a room of 113 people. It feels like a large, yet intimate crowd. Many of you will have signed up following my Alexander Technique posts on Twitter – welcome! I do talk about that often.
But be warned that this newsletter is where I write about a range of things at the edge of my awareness and capacities. I’m self-authoring in a semi-public arena. I hope you’ll stay for the ride.
This week is a somewhat heavy and personal one though, but I think the themes are universal. I really hope you’ll find something in here of value. I discuss:
how I have been processing the death of a friend (with non-doing)
my experience of my delayed annual review
the concept of sovereignty
Ze Frank’s invocation for beginnings
Until next time.
Processing the death of a friend
I found out that a friend died this week. He was younger than me, in his late twenties. It was unexpected.
It's a strange thing. I'm fortunate that there has been very little death in my life so far: a grandparent when I was a child, a family friend, a university friend a couple of years ago. I'm grateful for this, but it means I don't have much experience processing death.
My first response was a kind of emotional numbness. There was sadness, but of the intellectual, compartmentalised kind, the "there'll be suffering in that box if you choose to open it" kind. I'm skilled at not opening boxes like that, but it didn't seem right, so today I set aside some time to go inside.
At first it was difficult. The emotional shields stayed up as I tried to feel something. But, as anyone who has been following my Alexander Technique ramblings will know, this kind of 'doing' only interferes with the natural functioning of the system. So instead, rather than try to feel, I chose to stop doing whatever I was doing that was preventing me from feeling: non-doing as directed at my emotions.
I discovered a rich tapestry of sense impressions made from memories that we shared. Conversations, experiences, laughter and vulnerability. And then the finality of the change truly dawned on me, that that was that: no new memories of him could ever be formed. I found myself thinking of an open chat I had with him on my phone: the channel remains open, I can type in it, but I'd be screaming into the void.
In the end, it comes down to accepting the impermanence of all things. My friend was a dynamic pattern of energy – a process – whose existence contributed uniquely to all that exists. Last week that pattern of energy ceased to be dynamic and the universe changed. This is the way things are now and there's no going back.
Except. Except it's not accurate to say that he's gone, completely. He affected me, the human process that I am, as he did every single person he encountered. Every action, every thought, every word of his is contained within us now, in some form. Whatever it is that is currently ricocheting around my psyche is him and the impression that he had on me.
It's with that attitude that I choose my response to this tragedy: I choose to allow who he was to influence me and become part of me. I remember him for his kindness, for his courage, and for his unapologetic pursuit of what he wanted. In whatever ways my life will now be different as a result of him – the different choices I will make – there he is.
And it makes me think: someday, my own unique, dynamic pattern will cease. What impression do I want to remain in those who knew me? That's an important question.
Goodbye, Luke. And thank you.
My 2019 annual review
I know it's February, but it's taken me some time to get around to doing my annual review. I did an immersive course called 'The Annual Review' led by a guy called Tiago Forte. Unfortunately I missed the live sessions at new year, but the recordings were valuable.
It's an interesting coincidence that the news of Luke's death came in time for this weekend and it was certainly playing on my mind as I reviewed my own life. I'm going to write a public annual review soon, but for now here are my experiences going through the process.
An annual review is essentially a two-part process: looking backwards (with a sense of gratitude) and looking forwards (with a sense of courage and agency).
What really struck me is how much of 2019 I forgot. Tiago encouraged us to look at the 'artefacts' of the year that would remind us of what happened: photos, music, notes, diary entries, memories of conversations that are still resonant. Once prompted all those memories came flooding back and I realised how much happened and how good some of it was.
Would I have forgotten these moments completely if I hadn't recorded them in some way? This realisation makes me want to be more deliberate with the noting moments of my life that feel meaningful.
The photo below is a great example. I arranged a sound bath in a town called Merida while travelling alone across Mexico. A wonderful little micro-adventure that could easily have slipped my mind.
Unsurprisingly, my favourite moments of 2019 involved being with people and exploring new things. These moments don't happen on their own though. These are the experiences that make the highlight reel of my life, yet I don't prioritise them. That's something I want to change as well.
The most surprising thing I learned was probably that I am actually a creative type. There was a strong theme around not just reading, learning and experiencing, but making. I find a lot of value in the process of creation.
To look forwards means to accept and learn from what is past, and to set a direction of travel for the future. This is a huge area, so I'll just draw out two elements that resonated with me.
The first was the question "what about your work and life are you most committed to changing and improving?" Some of my answers included:
My ability to focus on the task at hand. To be able to sit with difficult emotions and ambiguity and find a way through them.
Related: My ability go into and bear difficult emotions. See above section.
Consistency, in writing, in work, in life, in attitude. These things are more under my control than I let myself admit. If I tell myself a story that these things are outside my control then it’s not my fault if I fail at them. If they are within my control then I have responsibility to do something. They are within my control, so they are my responsibility.
Being brave and ‘proactive’. I want to make things happen rather than waiting and hoping for good things to happen to or for me.
Allowing excellence. I know that I have the potential to perform exceptionally and I also know that I’m getting in my own way a lot. I want to work on reducing my own interference.
My capacity and courage in deepening my relationships. I am able to do this but I don’t do it consistently. I want to access more courage here and allow greater depth. My system knows how to do it, I just need to get out of the way.
The general theme here is "to get out of my own way", which I'm looking forward to exploring deeply in 2020.
The other element didn't come from the Annual Review course, but from a tweet I saw from Nick Robinson while doing it that included the following 'memorial plaque' that he created for himself:
This came to mind while I was thinking about Luke and the shortness of life. There are two versions of this plaque for each of us: the one we want to create and the one we want to avoid. It's like the tombstone exercise:
"Here lies Michael Ashcroft, who followed his heart, took risks and left a positive impression on the people around him".
"Here lies Michael Ashcroft, who never let himself love, was too afraid to do difficult things and spent half his days looking at his phone."
The first makes me feel spacious, the second one fills me with anticipated grief.
Whether it's reflecting on Luke's death, the annual review, or both, I'm feeling a strong sense of determination and agency. Life is too short not to live it fully.
Speaking of living life fully, I’m taking a course from Future Thinkers on ‘cultivating sovereignty’. What’s sovereignty? I’m glad you asked!
“Sovereignty is the capacity to take responsibility. It is the ability to be present to the world and to respond to the world — rather than to be overwhelmed or merely reactive. Sovereignty is to be a conscious agent.” – Jordan Hall
Jordan Hall wrote a a good article on sovereignty that you can read here, but since I plan to explore this concept more, I want to discuss it very briefly.
There are three human capacities, at the intersection of which lies sovereignty.
Perception - the capacity to see the world clearly and without judgement.
Sense-making - the capacity to make sense of what you perceive with the appropriate frames and concepts.
Agency - the capacity to take action in the world.
When these three components are out of balance, our capacity for sovereignty is reduced. According to Future Thinkers:
perception + sense-making (without agency) = “aware, but stuck”
perception + agency (without sense-making) = “confused, but confident”
sense-making + agency (without perception) = “theoretical, but impractical”
At the moment I’m slightly struggling to see into these capacities in myself, which itself suggests I lack perception. I’m not seeing the world as clearly and non-judgementally as I could. I’ve been working a lot on agency and sense-making (without knowing it), so perhaps perception is the one that needs work. So, I’m going to re-start my meditation practice, continue the course and see what shows up.
In the meantime, let me know – does this concept of sovereignty resonate with you? How is your balance of perception, sense-making and agency?
Media of the week
Since one of the themes of this week’s newsletter seems to be around ‘transition’, I want to share Ze Frank’s wonderful “Invocation for beginnings” video. May it inspire you to embark on a new beginning.
“I don’t wanna start, but I will. This is an invocation for anyone who hasn’t begun, who’s stuck in a terrible place between zero and one.”
“If I catch myself wearing a too-too (too fat, too late, too old), let me shake it off like a donkey would shake off something it doesn’t like. Rawrgh!”
“Let me thank the parts of me that I don’t understand or are outside of my rational control, like my creativity and my courage.”
“And God let me enjoy this. Life isn’t just a sequence of waiting for things to be done.”
P.S. If you enjoyed this newsletter and think someone else might too then please feel encouraged to forward it on. And if you were sent this email by someone else, then welcome! You can subscribe here or check out my latest blog posts.