Genius in Sport

Roger Federer achieves zen like concentration during sport

Playing sport has been important to me all my life. Playing tennis, swimming, skiing, hiking; all these activities fill my heart with joy – as sport exercises our hearts and spirits as well as our bodies. For me, sport is also food for my soul! And I try to do it everyday not because I need to but because I love to. When I’ve just won a hard-fought three setter in doubles tennis and I’ve really gone for it and got one or two good shots in, I feel very energised and sense that all parts of me have not only been exercised but also stretched. And I think we need to be stretched in life. Intellectually, spiritually, physically. And putting effort into a particular sport is a good way to achieve it.

Please note I say stretched, not strained, the difference being that strain happens when we push against obstacles, when we try to move forward with the wind blowing against us. It is an effort and it exhausts us. Stretching, on the other hand, occurs when we allow the force to be with us, when we connect to a pocket of energy bigger than ourselves and we surrender to it – like arranging the sails on our boat in such a way that the wind moving against us, is now harnessed to be ‘on our side’ and so is now propelling us forward! The difference between a machine and a human being is that the more the former is exercised, the more it breaks down and gets rusty, whereas with us, the more exercise we do, the healthier we become, and what tarnishes us, is not exercising – having no physical activities that engage us as a totality and so potentially stretch us.

Great sports people have much to teach us about our human possibilities. A Federer, for example, not only enters ‘the zone’ when he plays, but he seems to enter a higher zone than other tennis players and to remain there for longer. It is no mean feat in one’s mid-thirties, to take on seven people all in their early twenties and beat them all without dropping a set, which is what happened at Wimbledon a few weeks ago. And what a joy this match was to watch. I was totally in awe.

For me, Federer is a Zen Master or the Grand Master of tennis. He dances his play. It always looks effortless. Watching that final, I felt he was so aligned to the spirit of the game that that spirit had taken him over, or was playing him rather than him directing the play. In other words, it felt like he was connected into a higher and more intelligent energy circuit that was bigger than him and which was orchestrating the game. In this space, you can’t not choose the right shot; you don’t do unforced errors; in this space, the ball is always in by two centimetres not out by two centimetres. Whereas other great players strain themselves, which is why they always have injuries, Federer never seems to have injuries because he never strains himself. On the contrary, it feels as if the higher energy source he is aligned with, enables him to inhabit a domain of being where broken Achilles tendons, tennis elbows or groin strain are simply not part of its furniture. So just as an Einstein did his mathematical calculations out of a different time-space zone to most other Scientists, or a Tolstoy touched into a universal consciousness when writing War and Peace, so Federer also plays his sport out of a very different world, one that is also pure genius!

The Resacralisation of the Planet

The Resacralisation of the Planet a video lecture that I made for this years Feeding The Soul World Summit. It addresses the price we pay for the secularisation of our society and how we can again bring sacred meaning back into the world; exploring the current world situation according to the three states of being in Satish Kumar’s book The Spiritual Compass.

The Rescralisation of the Planet

Trump, Clinton & the dark side of America

When I work with people in therapy I notice that often, just before they are about to make a big breakthrough – a significant leap to another level – they often have to come face to face with some of the worst things about themselves that are standing in the way. If they can confront and, as it were, embrace or integrate their dark side, then they will move to the next level and if not, they won’t. This process, however, is never easy. It is always painful when one has an image about oneself as being a kind, helpful person only to discover one has a shadow side living inside one that is exactly the opposite! Well, the same thing holds true of the evolution of the larger human collective – humanity as a whole also has a dark side – and so does America and I believe that, as a nation, America is poised on the threshold of making such a leap.

If this is the case, then Trump is absolutely essential to this process and he is offering an enormous gift to the American people generally and to the Republican party specifically. How so? What he is doing is holding up a mirror reflecting everything that is worst about this party – and indeed, worst about ourselves – everything which is low and disgusting and conspiratorial and hatred-filled and which prevents this party moving forward and therefore which badly needs confronting. In an article in today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote: ‘Assuming that Trump loses, many Republicans will try to pretend that he was a complete outlier, unrepresentative of the party. But he isn’t…. and his vices are, dare we say, very much in line with his party’s recent tradition…He is a pure distillation of his party’s modern essence.’ I wonder: will the Republicans have the humility to take this on board? I hope so. There is a character in a Thomas Mann novel that tells us: ‘If a way to the better there be, it lies in our taking a full look at the worst!’ And there’s a hell of a lot of that ‘worst’ out there today.

United States of America Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump

And of course Trump not only embodies that worst but incites it. Every day in the news, we are informed about some new transgression of his or some new person he has insulted. It is well known that he is a bully, a sociopath, a narcissist, a misogynist , a racist and a sexual predator, that he is greedy, a liar, a manipulator and a fantasist and conspiracy-theorist, has a highly inflated view of himself, demeans everyone and everything and that his vision of the world is both narrow and negative. He clearly has multiple personality disorders. For me, he embodies every single trait of the immature, weak, insecure, macho-infested, wounded masculinity that characterises the shadow side of a patriarchal mindset that simply has to die, as it has dominated the world for far too long and is the main reason why our planet is so full of violence and chaos today.

Yes, I think Trump not only embodies the Republican party’s dark side but also America’s dark side and even perhaps the dark side of many of us non-American men as well. Certainly, as a result of all his goings on being paraded in the news every day, he is giving all of us the opportunity to perhaps look at some very ugly parts of ourselves. So perhaps we men need to stop projecting our shadow onto Trump, let him off the hook for a moment and instead look inside our own hearts and see if we too might be carrying some facet of Trump-hood inside us. Perhaps we can even be grateful to him for offering us the opportunity to confront aspects of our own selves standing in the way of our being more fully human!

Of course, it is not by chance that Trump’s opponent in the race for President is Hillary Clinton. While she is certainly not without her faults (it is damn hard, believe me, to operate within the system as she has done for thirty years and not be implicated in it to some extent), I believe she nonetheless embodies many of the qualities required not only to lead America in the tough times that lie ahead, but also to assume leadership on the world stage. A lot of the reasons why she is despised is because she is a woman – a woman with power – there is still a strong misogynistic streak in America, even among women. Hillary is the archetypal warrior lady. She’s a fighter. She is highly intelligent and she works damn hard and I respect her tough-heartedness and courage and she is certainly not devoid of tenderness as her detractors like to suggest. OK., her foundation may have received money from one or two dodgy sources, but it was never money she used for her own self-aggrandisement but always for her projects. People forget that all during her life, she has done a lot in many different ways, to help women and oppressed minorities and this requires a lot of love, integrity and commitment. It is tough work. And what’s wrong with being ambitious? I believe she truly wants to change the system, to create a better world with greater equality for all and I trust that she will keep her word and fight to make all the changes in government that she talks about and that it will no longer be business as usual, that is, politicians not keeping their word, but rather, business being done along brand new lines.

United States of America Presidential Candidate Hillary R. Clinton

At the time I admit I was sad that Bernie Sanders didn’t make it and while I love much of what he stands for, I feel a) that many of his policies will be implemented by Hillary – she’s said she would – and b) that the kind of complex challenges which we face in the world today can best be handled by intelligent warrior women like her as opposed to by old men. The fact that today we are witnessing a whole new raft of these strong women ( Angela Merkel, Teresa May, Nicola Sturgeon) emerging on the world stage, has to be celebrated. This is what the world needs if it is to evolve and heal, namely, the continued emergence of the feminine presence in leadership positions to celebrate the end of the oppressive, backward-looking patriarchy which is everything that Trump represents.

I therefore think it is fantastic that the new US President will be a woman. America is a very fine country. I was privileged to have lived there for over a decade and I am all the better for my experiences, having encountered some of the wisest people on the planet. So when we remember that Jung, who coined the term ‘the Shadow’, told us that ‘the tall mountain casts a long shadow’, we understand why the US shadow is so big and dark. Trump-ism is emerging everywhere not because America is slipping backwards but because the country is moving forward quickly and thus is having to confront all the many skeletons in its closet so that it can continue on its upward journey. For confront these skeletons it must do. There is no way of avoiding this. And what Trump offers is the full monte. Put simply, the world we are moving into today has to transform and move beyond old fuddy-duddy and deluded worldviews. It is not about building walls and denying climate change and waging war against Islam. It is about letting the drawbridges down and honouring climate change and respecting Islam.

The Gift of Trump

As a psychotherapist, I find that if people want to make changes in their lives, they need to see what doesn’t work in their lives and where there might be some part of themselves that is sick or ugly. Often change comes about through experiencing pain and being courageous enough to face dark truths about ourselves. The gift – and I really mean gift – that Donald Trump is giving America is that he is continually holding up a mirror to his country of an aspect of its own wounded, pathological, narcissistic and heartless psyche.

Donald J. Trump

Note I said “an aspect” of its psyche not its whole psyche. There is much about the American character that is also noble, wise and visionary, but Trump represents something that is very, very ugly and by his continuing to remain in the news with all his stupidity and hostility, he is continually reminding his country of this fact and as such is actually doing a very great service. My hope is that Americans will stop projecting their shadow onto him and start taking responsibility by looking inside themselves and recognising certain Trumpian  features inside themselves. Viz., the mindset that went to war in Iraq, that is violent, dumb and obsessed with guns. This self reflection is something  which the Republican party in particular needs to do. Above all, it needs to ask itself: what has happened to its soul that has made it deviate so far from those noble ideals which  initially gave it birth and has thus resulted in its having created this Frankensteinian  monster to represent it. Thomas Mann, in one of his novels, made a character say: If a way to the better there be, it lies in our taking a full look at the worst.

I hope Americans are doing this.

The “Enshadowing” of Tony Blair

SA Tony Blair

One of the reasons why the press has had such a field day with Tony Blair following the publication of the Chilcot report, is that we love to find fault with people, especially if they are wealthy and famous and have committed some indiscretion. And Blair, who took our country into an illegal war that should never have been fought, features on all three counts. He exaggerated the threat of the WMDs, he went to war even though peaceful options had not been exhausted, and he made no preparations for peace. He tried too hard to please the Americans. He sent men and women into battle ill-equipped. Nearly 250,000 Iraqis got killed and ISIS emerged out of the disbanding of the Iraqi army. Blair also refused to heed the greatest anti-war march our country has ever seen, and as is now well-known, the war was engaged in solely for geopolitical reasons and of course, for Iraq’s oil. If you read Naomi Klein’s extraordinary book The Shock Doctrine, you will see that the real aim was to pummel Iraq to smithereens – to shock the country so badly so that there would be no resistance to the large corporate interests in America taking over.

So of course Blair has a huge amount to answer for. However, this does not explain why he is being so demonised, on top of, a few months ago, also getting pummelled for possessing a multi-million pound real estate portfolio? Why is he so, so reviled?

The main reason is that we really love to have someone to hate, as it makes us feel so much better about ourselves. Our tendency to demonise used to be focused on Saddam Hussein, then it shifted to Osama bin Laden, then the late Jimmy Saville took over the mantle and now it’s old Blair. And it works like this. We all have a dark side, a dimension to us that we don’t know about and don’t like to see and which Carl Jung called “our Shadow”, and it is the opposite to what we primarily identify with about ourselves. In other words, if you and I like to believe we are only generous and selfless, then we’ll probably have a dark, Shadow side to us that is also mean and selfish which we will probably refuse to accept about ourselves.

Thus, in order to stay in the dark about this aspect of ourselves, we look around for people to use as objects onto whom we can project it onto, for then we don’t have to look at what is unpleasant to face inside ourselves. So in Blair’s case, if we don’t want to own the fact that we may be materialistic or greedy (perhaps we think we are only “spiritual” and generous!) then he is a jolly good hook to dump our “stuff” onto! He’s also a great hook for our greed, for our inauthenticity (“Teflon Tony”), our tendency to be fawning (his relationship with Bush), our abuse of power and our grandiosity. And if we can make Blair into the baddie, then it follows that we become the goodie. In other words, when we project what we don’t want to look at in ourselves, onto another – in this case, onto Blair – we can feel purified and self-righteous.

Indeed, I think that Blair probably felt the same vis-a-vis Saddam Hussein who carried his shadow. I think he saw his own dark side in the power-hungry and ruthless dictator and unaware of this, felt that he would be feted as a world saviour if he were only to rid the world of this tyrant. Actually, by waging war against Saddam, he was simply trying to rid himself of his own inner tyrant!

Certainly, I admit that I initially took part in the demonising of Blair. However, if I look closely at myself, I also ask myself how I would have operated if I were in his shoes, and my answer is that if I had no self-knowledge of the inner demons driving me – which Blair obviously didn’t – I might well have made some of his mistakes, for power, we remember, is incredibly corrupting and great power even more so!

Put simply, is there some aspect of a Blair inside me? The answer is yes and I want to start owning this instead of continuing to project what I refuse to look at in myself, onto him. I choose to stop saying “Oh that dreadful Blair and by default, that wonderfully virtuous me!” I wish to do this because I know that the more I can be aware of my own dark side, the more I can work to transform it and in the process become more whole as a person. Blair’s presence helps me do this.

The point I want to make, then, is that those people who reflect aspects of our own dark sides, give us a gift in that they ask us to view the mote in our own eye and so help us stop playing the game of being a pot calling the kettle black. When as a psychotherapist, I work with people to help them become more aware of their Shadow side (repressing it takes up a lot of energy and in extreme cases, can lead to a very delusory self-image) I often ask them to think of someone of their own sex with whom they have a big charge with and see what that charge really is, and then to look back at themselves and ask themselves if what they have been making that person carry, is something that they are denying or don’t want to own. It mostly is.

My point is simply that if we can see what our shadow sides are, then we can do something about them – we can work at integrating them. If we don’t, then we let them control us as was the case with Blair. In other words, had he seen where he was inflated, greedy, distorted by power, narcissistic and messianic, and, deep down, felt impoverished (he had a difficult childhood and was very poor), we would not be in the state we are in today. A hundred and ninety-seven servicemen and women would still be alive and we would not, as a nation, have so disgraced ourselves on the world stage.

Heart to Heart on Brexit

QUESTION. ‘Serge, can you comment on the whole Brexit situation?

Well, it ‘s crazy times, isn’t it. This leaving the EU which we’ve been part of for so many years, has resulted in Cameron falling on his sword, a rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn and the possible splitting up of the Labour party, together with our seeing some rather ugly racism rear its head in England. As Lord Hazeltine said on the late-night news: ‘We are facing the greatest constitutional crisis the country has had since the great war.’

For me, who wanted England to stay part of the EU, this break feels such an abrupt one. It’s as if a partner whom you had felt secure with – even though there were always a few ripples of unrest – suddenly tells you that they want a divorce and that life will be much better for you without them. You don’t realise how important and secure-making the relationship was until it is no more. And now everything is up in the air. None of us know, least of all our politicians, where anyone or anything stands and what our ‘exiting’ really involves.

Well, I don’t want to discuss the ins and outs of Brexit. Rather, I want to look at how we deal with crisis, for this is what we are all facing and we’re all affected in one way or another. What will it to do our status abroad? Will our businesses be affected and our pensions? What will happen to the economy, the euro, the pound, etc, etc? What about England’s future? The one thing true at this time is that there’s a hell of a lot of insecurity in the air.

A political or an economic or a social crisis – and this crisis is all three, and I’d also call it a spiritual crisis – is always a personal crisis, which the Chinese have a great word for. Crisis for them is translated as a ‘dangerous opportunity,’ and I think this is exactly what we face. For crises, if they don’t destroy us – and some of them certainly can, although I don’t think this one is quite of that league – can also have the capacity to expand us, if that is, we have the courage to face them and not deny them and take time trying to see what they have to teach or reveal to us. As a psychotherapist, I work with a lot of people going through crises, which are generally around themes of loss – loss of a loved one, loss of one’s job, loss of health, etc – and once I’ve helped them deal with the shock effect and our tendency to want to deny things that are unpleasant (most crises hit us out of the blue – we aren’t expecting them), I try to make them see that there is always a positive side.

Often, then, a crisis can be a blessing in disguise. Could this be one? Could all the heartache and anger and confusion and uncertainty in the air today, be pointing us in a new, positive direction? I would like to hope so, if that is, we can all invest our energy into positively musing what could be – what could potentially lie ahead – as opposed to lamenting what we feel we’ve lost.

There’s a great line in the poem Morte d’Arthur by Alfred Lord Tennyson. ‘The old order changeth yielding place to new’ and certainly the ‘old order’ is changing in England. And very quickly. It is no longer a question of left versus right. Things are becoming much, much subtler. Indeed, our world as a whole in the last decade has become much more transparent, and today many more of us are much more wise to the fact that not only are many of our politicians not giving us what we want but also that many of our institutions are becoming increasingly dysfunctional. This in America, has certainly been responsible for the rise of the two ‘populist Washington outsiders’, Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The truth is that there is a lot wrong with how the EU operates today. It started with a wonderful vision but has got bogged down over the decades with the result that much of its original fire and enthusiasm has become compromised. Basically, the EU needs to evolve. Just like the UN (see its abysmal failure to deal with Syria), it needs to move to a higher level, become more integrated, more open, more functional, more able to deal with the needs of parts in the light of what is required for the larger European community, thinking also of what is best for the world as a whole. My perception is that for too long, European countries have tried to address their difficulties by trying to paper them over and not address their deep causes, and this crisis is not going to be solved this way and so is bringing many things to a head and is also causing many other European countries to look at themselves and their relationship with the EU from a new perspective. (Most crises have an ‘intelligent purpose’ hidden inside them if we can only pull it out!)Serious world problems like inequality, corruption, racism, terrorism, injustice, the problem with immigrants – they all need examining more closely and the ‘gift’ of this crisis is that it is opening up many cans of worms that had previously been conveniently covered over. To use another analogy, lots of different cats are currently being let out of lots of bags and this is forcing us to see a) that certain problems can no longer be overlooked, and b) that many of our old ways of dealing with them are no longer working.

Basically, the game needs to change.

In my early thirties, I went through a huge crisis in my personal life. I had a serious illness, a woman I loved left me and I lost a lot of money through some big mistake being made. These things all happened at the same time and this triple whammy initially absolutely floored me and I was full of anger and denial, blaming everyone and everything for what I saw as a ‘big injustice’ that had suddenly descended upon me. I felt quite a victim. However, I had the luck of having a wise friend who helped me see that my dark cloud had a silver lining and that my crisis had a deeper purpose to it. I saw that I needed to evolve as a human being. I realised to my horror that I was full of arrogance, fear, intolerance, prejudice, small-mindedness etc and that these aspects of me were standing in the way of my being a real person and needed to ‘die off’ to allow a more resilient or ‘fuller’ me to come into being, and that in reducing me ( at one level), i.e., knocking the wind out of my sails, my crisis was actually helping expand me at another level – helping me become a bit more human! Although this transition took time and was not without its challenges, I look back on that year as being one of the most important ones of my life as it pointed me in a whole new direction. I think that if my life hadn’t fallen apart, it would have gone on in its old tracks which were not satisfactory. I wouldn’t knowingly have derailed myself as I was stuck in my comfort zone – and, folks, we all hate and resist change. I needed a big crisis to come from outside and turn me upside down and inside out!

I would like to suggest that the radical derailing we are currently all experiencing in this Brexit crisis, can be a similar gift. There’s another Chinese aphorism that goes: ‘Unless you change direction, you are bound to end up where you are headed’ and as I see it, a space is starting to open up both within our country and within Europe that can possibly move us all in a new direction. I would like to feel this could be a blessing in disguise both for England and the EU and maybe somewhere down the line, we will unite together again in a much stronger and much more integrated spirit.

Evolve through Struggle

SA Europe Flag

There is a character in a Thomas Mann novel who says: ‘If a way to the better there be, it lies in our taking a full look at the worst’. In other words, we need, all of us personally, and nations nationally, to confront our dark side or our shadow. In America, one is seeing this via Trump – maybe he is a gift, as he embodies one aspect of thy country’s very dark face – and only if we can see and then confront the dragon, can we properly transform it, and maybe over here with this referendum, we have to confront our egos. I believe we need to become more international, more global (viz ‘Think globally, act locally’). But I don’t want to be fanatical about my opinions. I think we need a new kind of democracy whereby the opinions of EVERYONE can be included. I don’t know how this can come into being, but maybe it could be a new political ‘next step’. Again, my little opinion on this referendum issue is that I agree that there is something wrong with most of our institutions, ie the UN (it was pretty shabby in its trying to deal with Syria) and the EU. But that is because they need to evolve. There gets to be something ‘wrong’ with you and I, when in our lives, we stay put and don’t evolve to the next step. And I think there is the wisdom in the EU to self evolve. For me, the ship doesn’t need abandoning nor having its holes patched. A wholly new kind of EU ship needs to be born out of the gradual demise of what we have at present. But I am not a) pretending I am right – it is just an idea, and am not b) demonising those of you who disagree. Wars continue ‘out there’ – out in the world- folks, because you and I haven’t yet healed the conflicts inside us. I.e. We externalise our inner capacity to demonise. We gotta explore this. Put some energy into healing ourselves, i.e. we need to put some energy into earning our inner living as well as our outer. Big challenge, n’es ce pas? Politicians ain’t too great at that. They’re too busy doing their outer stuff…

Written 23rd of June 2016

Innie or outie?

Why this hostility between the stay in-ers and get-out-ers? It’s got like a religion – out of hand. We get so identified with our beliefs about what’s right and wrong that we think our beliefs are who we are. They are not. Those who think differently from us are not bad or wrong or deserve to be pilloried or humiliated. They are beautiful human beings who think differently about something and should not be crucified. Remember Wordsworth talking about the healing principle in life that reconciles opposites. We must remember this and know there are truths on both sides and no one is bad or dumb or wrong and that we human beings just have a habit of liking to concoct facts to fit our beliefs. I bet that whichever side wins that few of the prophecies are proved correct be they on the positive or the negative side.

Written 22nd of June 2016

Inquiry of Philip Green

Inquiry of Philip Green at the House of Commons

It is interesting how all bullies are, underneath everything, cowards. And tycoon Philip Green, recently fallen from grace, who loves to be in the hot seat where everyone bows down to him because of his money and where he is always in a position where he can control and push people around, may have realised that yesterday when he was in another kind of hot seat , a rather less comfortable one. He was being questioned by a parliamentary committee over the shortfall of cash in the BHS pension fund which he’d owned for 15 years, then selling it to a known bankrupt as a result of which BHS has collapsed with thousands of people being made redundant.

Philip Green at the Commons Inquiry

And he didn’t like it one bit. One saw the insecurity and paranoia on his face. I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt if he’d shown a bit of heart and admitted he’d put a lot of people in a precarious position. But not a bit of it. No remorse at all. You could see his fragile ego was fighting for its life. He wasn’t so much concerned about the pensioners who’d lost their pensions but with the loss of his self-image and becoming the latest ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’. In his mind, everything was everyone else’s fault and poor little ‘Sir’ Philip was the victim now of everyone getting at him. Boo hoo. ( I asked myself what kind of inferiority complex required someone to have not one, but three super yachts!) and I thought it sad that our system not only hands out honours to damaged and insecure little schoolboys like him who need big toys to play with. Why do we give honours to people who are not honourable? He fits the typical insecure psychological profile of many men who are driven by money, fame and power: inside they feel small and are terrified of being controlled and not feeling powerful . Did mummy smack him a lot as a little boy for being bad and wee-ing in his bed, I wonder!

But I also look at the part of me judging him. Who am I to do so? What do I get from it? I think we all like scapegoats to project our shadow side on so maybe we don’t have to see a Sir Philip Green archetype inside us. What would I do – what would we all do – if we had his billions?

Here’s my fantasy: that he learns from his mistake. He changes and puts the full amount back into the Pension fund that got removed and has a St Paul on the road to Damascus conversion, and suddenly sees himself for who he really is – the good, kind, generous man hidden underneath all that surface froth – and he devotes the rest of his life donating his money to good causes and using his considerable business expertise to make a difference in all the many ways he is capable of it. And yes, keep one yacht. I think if you really enjoy it , dude, you won’t need two more. I wish you well.