I am running a 6 week programme called Power, Activism and the Shadow. We will investigate the blind sports, hidden assumptions and unconscious aspects of activism, campaigning and work aiming to ‘change the world’. I want to share more of my personal background and experience with these questions. So, this piece is quite personal and autobiographical. I hope it will convey some key ideas in working with unconscious and shadow aspects of change work. In other words, I hope my stories in some way resonate with your own experiences and support your own development and change work in the world.
A letter to the Queen
When I was 7, I wrote a story and sent it to the Queen for her birthday. The story was about a wood cutter who chopped down lots of trees. One day he realised that it was not good to chop down trees, and decided to spend his life planting lots of trees instead.
I have no idea at all why I wrote that story.
Nothing in my family or background would suggest an interest in trees or environmental issues, and this happened long before issues of climate and ecology had become even slightly mainstream issues. (I got a lovely letter back from the Queen’s lady in waiting.)
A year or two after that, in a primary school mock general election, I stood for the Green Party (then Ecology Party). I remember standing in front of the class, giggling lots, and saying something about loving trees and bunny rabbits. (I do not and did not love bunny rabbits as a child – I don’t know why I said that bit).
I did not win the election. I’m not even sure I voted for myself. Once again, I have no idea why I stood for the Green Party as young child, with no obvious connection at all to those issues.
The acorn theory of life path and soul development
Why do I share this story?
I share this because clearly there was something within me at a very young age, that was drawn to issues of ecology, environment and the wish to change behaviour in positive, healthy ways. To use a phrase taken from Jungian approaches, something of my personal life myth was evident early on – a wish to communicate with those in power (the Queen, and Politicians) about issues of ecology, planetary health and the need to change our behaviour. The psychologist James Hillman described what he called the acorn theory of human development. In essence, Hillman suggests that our key personal life processes – specific themes, motifs, patterns and movements of significance in our adult life, are evident at a very young age. Sometimes these reveal themselves in our childhood fears, or early difficulties. The things we are most afraid of or struggle with most when young, can reveal important life callings or missions. Sometimes one’s life myth is revealed in more straightforward, joyful or effortless ways – in our childhood loves, fantasies and most vivid memories.
The key idea is that themes, processes and callings in one’s adult life are actually evident in events, experiences and intuitions in early childhood. Hillman suggests this is true for all of us – our particular childhood glimpse or intuition may not be vocational or particularly heroic. Nor about doing anything specific. It may be about a particular quality, characteristic, or way of being that is important for us to explore and express on our own unique journey through life.
Acorns and activism
Later on, I will explore the shadow side of activism and change work – both in my own life, and more widely. Before I do that, I want to honour – in me, in you, and in the change movements of the world, the truth that there is also a positive, compassionate, soul centered impulse behind change work. It is not my intention a to throw the baby out with the bathwater! By drawing attention to the shadows, blind spots and unconscious processes involved in change work, I am NOT suggesting that we therefore shouldn’t do it. I believe there is something profoundly compassionate, heartfelt, genuine and true about the volition to do that kind of work. The 7 year old me who wrote to the Queen had some kind of vision he wanted to share. I regard that essential vision as entirely trustworthy. In all my personal ups and downs, in all my attempts in life, failed and successful, to play some small part in the healing of the world, I do not doubt that that 7 year old boy knew something deep in his heart that was, and is, worthwhile, pure and worthy of taking seriously.
And … I also need to acknowledge the shadow.
Different approaches to change, activism and campaigning
As I grew older, I got involved in many change movements of one kind or another. In my 20s I was involved in non-violent direct action – protesting against road building through ancient UK forests. I campaigned politically for the person who later became the first UK Green party MP, when she was first elected as a local councillor. I supported different activist groups to create their own news and media that told their side of the story. In my 30s I taught, then co-directed an internationally renowned master’s programme, supporting leaders and professionals to act for social and environmental change inside, and beyond, their businesses and organisations. In my early 40s, in my frustration about the politicians we had, who I felt were utterly failing us, and future generations, I decided to become one – a politician that is. And got elected to my local council. I didn’t last long, but boy I learned a lot about change, politics and about myself.
In the decades I’ve worked around social and environmental change, some things have changed. And the world is still quite a mess. Maybe more of a mess. The policy messages that me, my friends and colleague were trying to convey to business, government and society, 20 or 30 years ago are more mainstream today. But so too is the sense that things are accelerating towards calamitous scenarios and disturbing visions of chaos and collapse.
In other words, change work is working a bit, and also not working. And I ask myself why?
Questioning our approaches to activism, campaigning and change
Why is our change work not working? This is not just a personal question. It is a question I hear increasingly from established, progressive change makers who I coach. People, sometimes quite well known, who are senior figures in advocating for climate action, legal change, financial transformation, social equity, and more. Increasingly as I support their own inner development, and their outer action, a meta level question arises:
‘Have we reached the limits of how we are currently going about change?’
‘Is something else needed?’
What is it about the way we try to create change – through advocacy, policy work, building organisations and movements, writing books and reports, going on platforms and presentations and panels, and also blockading roads and buildings – what is it about all this that often (to my clients, and to me) feels stuck and somehow part of the problem itself?
I ask this with genuine curiosity and without judgement. And also, with no suggestion that we should not do that work in the first place. Simply I report that the conversation – about the overall approach and basic assumptions of change work perhaps reaching some sort of natural inevitable, invisible limit, comes up over and over again.
Is a wholly different approach needed?
And if so, what does that mean and what could that be?
What would it look and feel and be like?
And where would it come from?
Where – in us – would it come from?
The shadow side of activism and change work
And this leads me to the question of shadow and unconscious processes in activism and change work. To explore that further – back to my own story …
As I left University, I knew only that a conventional job was not for me. I did not know what was for me, just that the rat race, the treadmill, the working to keep the conventional status quo going was not for me. As a result, my path has been unconventional and often quite difficult – fuelled by deep intuition, values and vision, and yet in concrete terms often unclear, hard to articulate. But, like the 7 year old boy, I trusted my vision. I believed (and still do by the way) that we can work to make the world fairer, happier, healthier, saner. And that we can work to acknowledge, address and eventually reverse the terrible ecological and social problems created over the last few hundred years of overly industrialised, dualistic, materialistic thinking.
In other words, in my faltering, hesitant, way, I’ve worked in a number of roles to make the world a kinder, fairer, healthier place.
And somewhere along the way I realised the shadow side of this.
The unconscious side.
It crept up slowly and gradually became beautifully clear.
Searching for safety in a threatening world
As well as my vision and intuition, I’ve also experienced myself, throughout my life, as not truly safe to be who and as I am in the world. I have experienced myself chronically as under some sort of existential threat – somewhat anxious, in a posture of fear or apprehension. I don’t want to overstate this – this has been for the most part a subtle, low lying, energetic state of being. It has not dominated my life in any obvious way. I have had plenty of happy, relaxed, peaceful chapters. Nevertheless, woven into my energetic core, my deep identity and physiological structure, has been a historical stance of not quite feeling safe, not quite at ease, or relaxed to simply be me – to say what I think, to even know what I think, to challenge, to request, to give, take and relate, based on a deep sense of belonging and full acceptability.
We could go into many reasons why. That’s not the plan here, though I’ve done plenty of my own work around that. We could touch on early attachment theory, and lacks and longings as an infant. We could acknowledge ancestral and generational trauma – my ancestors are Jewish and came to the UK as a result of pogroms, the periodic waves of state supported violence and attack on Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. We could simply say it is in the stars (my astrology chart points to a certain nervous energy, sensitivity, and challenge in learning to speak my truth). As a Buddhist I could (and do!) accept this pattern simply as one aspect of this beautiful, precious human life I’ve been given. To paraphrase meditation teacher Jack Kornfield’s humorous mantra – I could (and do!) accept that if it weren’t this particular thing, it would certainly be another.
We all have blocks and blind spots.
We all have core processes and pains that play out in our lives.
Personally, I am beyond blaming anybody – whether that’s the state, the patriarchy, the enlightenment philosophers, the Russians, my parents, myself, or the malevolent dragon lords living under the surface of the earth.
The Buddha Gautama said that when one is shot by an arrow, it is not useful to ask about the arrow – how it got there, who fired it, which direction it came from or what wood it is made from. More helpful is to figure out how to remove the arrow.
What is more interesting to me is how these blocks and blind spots play out in my life. How they are present NOW.
Integrating shadow and soul in activism, campaigning and change work
And here’s the thing.
It gradually dawned on me some years ago, that I’d set out to create a beautiful, safe, kind, caring world partly because that is a jolly excellent thing to aspire to, but also partly because unconsciously I simply did not feel safe or cared for in the world, by the world.
I had been attempting – through activism, campaigning, political action, business education, to change the world so that I could finally feel ok to be me in it.
Thus my change work was BOTH based on a genuine, compassionate vision and intuition for what’s possible, AND an unconscious attempt to deal with some core wounding, an inner lack, that I had not previously been able to see, acknowledge and integrate.
If you are still reading this (thank you if you are), chances are you are involved in your own change work of some kind. I’m suggesting that whether you realise it or not your change work is intimately entwined on many levels, some as yet unconscious, with your unique, mysterious, soul journey through this world, at this time, in this life.
I was trying to change the world to make it a place I could feel truly ok and safe in.
What is it you are trying to do in your change work?
Unconscious shadows and limitations in our work in the world
Maybe none of this matters. After all, I have done some wonderful work, met and helped many wonderful people, and played my own very small, yet personally meaningful role, in nudging the planetary collective a teensy-weensy bit more in what I believe to be a good direction.
So what if my motivation for doing that is in part based on my own unconscious search for something lacking or hurting internally?
But here is the point. I think it does matter because to the extent that our change work, my change work, anyone’s change work, is fuelled by unconscious drivers and shadow projections onto the world we limit our power to create change.
The more we can acknowledge and integrate the hidden shadows that drive our work, the more capacities we have at our disposal to actually do that work – powerfully, beautifully, wisely.
Let me illustrate:
I wanted to change the world – in part (not fully – remember that visionary 7 year old who definitely knew something wise and compassionate), because I did not feel safe, felt under threat, felt edgy. So, quite understandably, I tried to make a kind, safe, fair, gentle world.
The problem is that my attempts to do so (until I processed all this) were always infused with a feeling of being unsafe, under threat, edgy. And I never quite knew what to do with that. So it sort of got in the way.
How do you think that influenced debates when I was an elected politician?
Or lecturing about sustainability and ecology to 200 MBA students?
Or trying to write and publish articles about the urgent need for love, soul and care in business?
Reader, it wasn’t very helpful. It was like revolution with the handbrake on.
I had (and have) much to share about how we can actually make the world kinder, safer, fairer, gentler. How we can see and include the sacred quality of life in everything we do. That is definitely stuff that needs sharing, it needs expressing. The world is truly crying out for such stuff.
But to a degree I simply could not do that as fully, confidently, boldly or energetically as I might, because there lurking in the shadow – the very fuel for my vision – this sense of vulnerability, , of being on shaky ground, in danger for speaking out. So, I held back, and hedged, and hesitated through fear. I worried what people thought, and judged the folk who didn’t and wouldn’t get it – the ones I claimed to be wanting to help.
It’s a personal story. But I’m hoping this resonates with you and raises useful, if tender, poignant questions about your own change work. My path has been about learning to experience myself as safe, valid, protected RIGHT NOW, RIGHT HERE, in order to carry on creating the world I do indeed wish to see out there. This has required me to make any feelings of threat, vulnerability and anxiety fully conscious RIGHT NOW whenever they arise, to be with them, open to them, include them freely.
What is your change work, your vision for what you’d like to be different in the world telling you?
Integration, activism and joy
Regardless of shared, collective, cultural and political experiences, your inner path is unique. Yours may be about bringing very different, and equally vital qualities to the world. Perhaps you are wishing to bring: awareness, justice, restoration, wildness, sanity, love, connection, beauty etc. Perhaps your path is as an activist, a more critical, loud, dynamic approach. Or as a campaigner – expressing a slower, longer term influencing strategy. Or a social entrepreneur, corporate intrapreneur. Or perhaps you are preparing to get elected into a political role, sing a song that changes it all, teach the next generation about their hearts, and the heart of the world.
If you are doing any of these things to bring something beautiful, true or good into the world, then I thank you – on behalf of myself, and others – including future generations and those who have gone before. I, and they, want you to have success.
And … to create the very best chance of success, I invite you to consider how your change work, whatever form it takes, is also a mirror for those lost, elusive, or troubled parts of you that you are not fully in touch with. I promise you that the more you illuminate those shadows, those parts of your own inner process that are unconsciously entangled in your change work, the more free and powerful and joyful you will become to do that work – clearly, cleanly, respectfully, dynamically.
As long as I was unconsciously wrapped up in my need to feel safe, and my chronic sense of not feeling safe – I was unable to challenge peoples’ thinking with the full force of my heart, soul and intellect.
As long as I was unconsciously questioning my validity to be simply who I am – I was forever hedging, and hesitant in expressing the full, holistic and transpersonal, downright weird but also extremely beautiful, extent of how I experience the world.
As long as I had the world ‘wrong’ in some way (why try to improve, or change it if we don’t think it is ‘wrong’ in some way?) I was unconsciously relating to the gatekeepers and representatives of the status quo as the baddies, the problem, the enemy. I was simultaneously, unconsciously afraid of them, and contemptuous of them.
All of this was subtle. None of it spoken. But it was there – there in the field, there in the atmosphere, there in the conversation. And it was a limit. An energetic constraint on the boundaries of what was possible, or what could change.
Our shadows and blind spots are not just personal
This might feel like edgy ground.
So, I want to share just a little more. Hugely helpful for me personally was to honour my Jewish ancestry. Two or three generations ago, it was actual, lived truth, genuine reality, that my ancestors could be killed for sticking out too much, or speaking up too much, or just going about their business, or having strange opinions and weird practices that didn’t quite fit in. Fully realising that helped me hugely in understanding that part of me.
I am NOT suggesting this is directly causal. (Different people will have different views on that, though the growing field of epigenetics does suggest that effects of trauma can be passed down intergenerationally). I AM suggesting that this ancestral reality was resonant with part of my own lived experience – even though I have lived all my life in the UK.
As psychotherapist Arnold Mindell says “history is in the present”.
History – our ancestral history, our early childhood experiences, our family history, is alive here now in us and in the present.
And so it is also in our change work. How can it not be?
Our choice, it seems to me, is not whether or not this is so, but rather how will we acknowledge it, work with it, and – hopefully, given time and awareness – integrate it.
Integrating our shadows to empower our change work
My experience – in my own life, and with my coaching clients, is that by finding, acknowledging and integrating these unconscious shadow energies, we become able to bring more of ourselves into our work – into each connection, conversation, project and programme. This is a radical inclusivity, an experiential inner diversity. It allows the marginalised or repressed parts of ourselves back into the space of our conscious identity. Then we become more of who we truly are, an expanded whole with more capacities available. As this happens, the very things we’ve been looking for, say – impact, power, contribution, resilience, energy or creativity, naturally become more possible for us.
Integrating the unconscious, shadow drivers of our change work allow us to become more able to do the work of our soul, with all the resource and capacity that life itself offers us.
The work that our 7 year old, or 13 year old, or 4 year old, somehow knew was worth doing all along.
And now we can do it with more grace, humility, clarity, peace. We can include those parts of ourselves we’d previously neglected, rejected or ignored. Resourced by the deep knowing that hard as things can undoubtedly be in this world, this is already the perfect place, the perfect situation in which to do the work of our heart.
The 6 week course Power, Activism and the Shadow runs online.
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