It is an extract of Chapter 4 of my new book. My first travel book has just been published.
After having my “normal” life fall apart, Chapter 4 describes a pivotal time in my life: discovering NLP, having my limiting beliefs challenged and rebuilding my self-esteem. Attending my practitioner training and then working through the exercises in Paul McKenna’s “I Can Change Your Life In 7 Days” and Richard Bandler’s “Get The Life You Want” gave me the confidence (and removed the fear) to be able to take an extended sabbatical from corporate life.
I travelled more than I ever imagined I could
After cycling the Coast to Coast in England and the length of the Rhine in Germany/Holland, I went to the Caribbean, then India, cycled around Sri Lanka, then back to India for an Ayurveda retreat and then, to fulfil a dream, I circumnavigated the world (across Russia, Japan and America by train and across the oceans by ship).
The book as a whole focuses on the fears of change as well as the joys of travelling.
Chapter 4: INTERMISSION
Three months have gone in the blink of an eye. I’m surprised how quickly time has passed, as all I have done is sleep and cycle. It’s amazing how good I feel without the pressures of a work life. For the first time, I’m beginning to appreciate the time off.
The apprehension and fear have not quite materialised in the way that I thought. It’s quite easy to be free, yet the callings of my old life keep reappearing.
There is still contact with work colleagues, or now, more precisely, ex-work colleagues. It’s funny how their comments and advice are totally polarised. It’s either to jump back in immediately or to take a year off. I don’t recall the length of my non-compete (the time I cannot work for a competitor of my previous employer), but I remember the solicitor’s advice that six months is the norm and to start looking for a new job after three months. This is the plan that’s in the back of my mind. As I mull on this this, I realise that ‘non-compete’ is a strange phrase. No wonder I’m tired, if I’ve spent my whole corporate career competing. Actually, this is exactly how it has felt; each day a constant battle and certainly true for the last few years, both at work and at home. Right now, in my laissez-faire state, I never want to compete for anything again.
The recruitment agencies and LinkedIn opportunities are a click of a mouse away but, both consciously and subconsciously, I resist. I have stopped and it feels good. I’m not ready to get back on the treadmill at all. What else is out there that I’ve missed while I’ve been working? What have other people been doing whilst I was in the rat race? It’s time to experiment a little.
First call is a trip to the US with my youngest daughter. For two weeks, we travel by Amtrak train and Greyhound bus between New York and Washington DC and all points in between, as far north as Cleveland and as far east as Atlantic City. Next up I take motorcycling lessons in Scotland, which is a great experience, until the winter weather kicks in after the four days of the Scottish summer end and the joy of biking in the sunshine turns into being cold and wet in the wind and rain. Motorcycling adjourned, I take in the sights of the west coast of Scotland by car, experiencing four seasons in one day, as I visit Culzean Castle and the weirdness of the Electric Brae, a phenomenon whereby the road’s slope is an optical illusion that allows my car to bizarrely roll uphill from a stationary position. I detour south also, to spend a few days and nights at the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre, in the wilds of southern Scotland. Mein Engel joins me too and we take the train further north and spend a long weekend wild camping in the Highlands with the aid of an old VW camper van that we rent.
It’s a good start to my experimenting. Work and finding a job have been pushed to the side temporarily. What is noticeable is how my energy is flowing back when I’m having fun. August and early September have progressed quickly now too and the mindless cycling and convivial travelling have been fun, but it’s time to feed my brain too. Behind this experimentation, there is confusion as to what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Is there something more here than a deflection in being normal again and getting a job? Is there something real in my actions or is it just a postponing V-sign? What is going on? What do I really want?
Mein Engel stumbled upon NLP, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, earlier this year as she struggled with her confusion in changing careers and so she suggests I try it also. I sign up for a week’s course in Dublin. The couple of nights in the Tibetan retreat in Scotland had been a wonderful diversion from the guilty pleasures of travelling and the trial and error of my other pursuits and it certainly woke my mind from its slumber. The need for the nothingness of cycling alone was clear after the hustle and bustle of my old life. From the enormous daily intake of email, dizzying buzzword-lead PowerPoint presentations, dreadfully run projects and utterly perplexing corporate processes, to solicitors and court demands, the caring of and worrying about my daughters and finally the to and fro of discussions to get out of my job were all reason enough to find the off button somewhere. It is said that when you have lost your mind, you have to go somewhere to find it. The simplicity of the retreat, the respectful nature of its way of life, was a joy to witness. Yet I am not in that space to pull out of the world completely and sign up for a Tibetan retreat for the next five years.
I attend the NLP course. There are hundreds of different definitions of NLP out there as there are books and courses on it. However, the best description that resonates for me is that it’s an attitude and a philosophy for running one’s brain. I discover that, for me, it’s about taking back control of my thoughts, finding a way out of my confusion and taking the responsibility for myself seriously (as nobody else will do it for me). Knowing how I deal with things, the patterns I have and the patterns in the world at large, of having clarity on what I think and then on what I say, of being totally clear, are fundamentals for me right now, more than ever before. In many ways, the NLP comes between the bookends of my old life and my new life, whatever that may be. My confusion is fine, as long as I know that I am confused. It seems I will have a mission to find my big dream, my life purpose, but it also seems that I’ve had to experience this mini mission, this in between mission, to find the map that gets me there.
I meet some old friends in my hometown of Liverpool, on my way back from Dublin to Frankfurt. During a very pleasant dinner, I continue to find it very interesting to view how my friends deal with my resistance to work so differently. One of my friends, a very professional work colleague, insists I am on a sabbatical and she considers that the time off is solely to recharge before once again contributing to the corporate world. I realise she was the one who had left me the voicemail when I was cycling along the Rhine and, since then, others have used this word too. My other friend, with his wonderful Scouse humour, tells me I am ‘dossing’.
The word sabbatical has stuck with me. Of course, the term is now commonly used for a career break of an undetermined timeframe, but the origin comes from the biblical Sabbath, when God rested after creating the universe, and it was subsequently applied to all mankind to cease working on the Sabbath. The concept of the sabbatical, however, more specifically refers to a year in time and was introduced in the Book of Leviticus with the commandment to refrain from working the land in the seventh year, or the sabbatical year. During the shmita (the release), the time of Sabbath rest, the land lies fallow and all tending of the land is forbidden by halakha (Jewish law). Bountiful harvests are promised to those who observe the shmita. The concept of a sabbatical being a year is mentioned, on a similar basis, in other parts of the Bible too. What does this revelation that a sabbatical should be a year in length mean for me?
At the end of the NLP course, I had shared my terrible experience in trying to learn German with a few of the participants and one kind soul suggested I find the works of Michel Thomas for language learning. Now, a week later, still in my experimental phase, I listen to my first audiobook of his. I’m astounded immediately. This is such a new and delightful way to learn. Within one minute I’m hooked. Thomas introduces his method as having no need to memorise, no need to take notes or to drill or to do homework. He removes any tension or pressure to remember words and he makes it clear that the responsibility in the learning is with the teacher. I wish this methodology had been applied to all my education. I also wonder whether this is another guide for my life, to be without pressure or tension or stress. It seems my experimentation is working on various levels.
It’s October now, my six months are up, and mein Engel and I have come away to Grenada for some autumn sunshine before the northern Europe cold sets in. Grenada consists of twenty-one islands in the southern part of the Caribbean. Only three islands are inhabited and Grenada itself is the biggest of these. We use the first week to sightsee and we spend a few days on the small island of Carriacou. Island life is slow and the people are friendly and welcoming.
For the second week, we are staying in a small villa on the south of the main island. Wolfgang is the owner of the resort. He’s a German and has been on the island for over twenty years, progressing from bar owner to restaurant owner to hotel owner. Chatting to Wolfgang, I am taken by his story of non-conformance with the rules of German life in order to emigrate to the sunshine and his dream life. I realise there is a pattern on the island. The couple who ran the hotel for our first week worked for years in London until they could afford to move to the Caribbean to open their hotel.
The resort we are in has six villas of varying sizes perched on the hillside above the beach restaurant. It’s idyllic. Our villa is efficiently designed with German appliances throughout, containing sleeping quarters, a large bathroom and a kitchen. Outside, we have a terrace overlooking the beach and the bay, plus a patio with a dining table and an outside hot tub. The resort has been designed so that no villa is overlooked. It’s perfect for unwinding and taking some time out. We plan to use this week for some mental refreshing as well as physical resting that only a holiday in a place like this can bring. It’s the perfect place for it.
With my new found inquisitiveness, I have re-read Paul McKenna’s book “I Can Change Your Life in 7 Days”. I have always been intrigued by McKenna, from his shows on English television many years ago, to the way he crops up in NLP, even providing the foreword to Richard Bandler’s “Get The Life You Want”, which I had read before the NLP course in Dublin (as the book was edited by Owen Fitzpatrick, one of the trainers). Back in my dark days, when I had seen my doctor for sleep disorders, he had recommended reading McKenna’s “I Can Make You Sleep” rather than prescribing sleeping pills. As I could never finish the book, it obviously worked better than any pills could have. I suggest to mein Engel that we take McKenna’s book as our guide for the week, reviewing a chapter a day and undertaking each exercise together and seeing where that would lead. McKenna’s book is very easy reading but it also strikes me as one of the most difficult in terms of the self-appraisal it requires.
During the week, we move through most of the chapters and exercises and we become quite passionate about them. Somehow doing these together, either jointly doing the meditations from the book or guiding one another in the tasks seems to have a greater impact than reading alone.
Finding your authentic self is such a powerful concept. It is central to many other self-help guides and philosophies too. I realise that I have strayed so far from mine over the years, from becoming a husband and father on somebody else’s terms and then doing the same at work, constantly being asked to fit in, to follow the norms and to conform to others’ views of the world. I lost all my creativity to focus on standard objectives, boilerplate appraisals and mindless processes. Acting like a child with the need to discover different things, having that inquisitiveness of the mind and the mild discomfort of learning something new goes completely against the need to conform, of fitting the mould and the need to be graded and ranked against an ideal. No wonder big companies cannot innovate and rely on small businesses for that. It’s only now, after nearly six months away from work and my old life, I feel reawakened, like I don’t have to hide anymore.
Some other concepts resonate as we read McKenna. Some are clear and taken directly from his words, others I translate into my own thoughts and wonderings. Even not knowing what I’m doing in this time between work and the great unknown, I know I am creating my future, whatever this is. I may not have any clue what it is but each thought, each conversation, each action is pulling me closer to it or pushing me away from it. It’s like a mental game of ‘Warmer-Colder’. I have the right to change my course or my total direction. If what I do isn’t working, I will do something else. I can take detours along the way and I can reset the course. Also, everything happens in my head first. I cannot have a cup of tea without thinking about it first and this applies to everything I do. I will get what I focus on. The law of attraction is something I cannot argue with.
A few days in, we have progressed to using various NLP exercises that we have learned from our respective courses to supplement the McKenna work. Mein Engel suggests politely that I need to challenge some of my beliefs, which seem to be holding me back and adding to my confusion. We have long lost any embarrassment in doing these exercises together and so I give it a go. Somehow when you’ve seen each other in the depths of despair, opening your soul or, more specifically, having your prejudiced or plainly stupid beliefs challenged is child’s play.
Having both Wolfgang and the owners of the other hotel in my mind, I wonder about the belief that I can’t make money from doing the things I love to do. We sit together on the golden beach and mein Engel tells me to look out at the blue horizon above the frothy waves of the water line. The beach is empty apart from us and the sun is high and bright. First, she asks me to imagine a chair, one that is tatty and run down. In my old life, my eldest daughter had two old Ikea Poäng chairs in her bedroom which had seen better days. They had been given to us by my outlaws. At one point my ex-wife and mother-outlaw had put them in the television room and I hated them. The posts were dog-scratched and the canvas covering was saggy. As was her nature at the time, my daughter had moved them to her bedroom to keep the peace. She’d put throws on the chairs, but they just collected cat hair and her school books were dumped on them. I stretch the rules and choose both of these chairs. Next, I am asked to choose an average chair. I choose my brown leather settee again from my old life. Of course, owning a new leather sofa meant I had made it in life, but I had a long, court battle to get the sofa fixed when the seams came apart, just before my marriage came apart and I had a long court battle with that too. Nevertheless, I had watched many a film sitting with my daughters on that settee, in what I thought at the time was a happy family. Finally, I have to choose a special chair. This is easy. In our bedroom, mein Engel, had put up a swing seat which was held by a bolt to the ceiling. The seat has a rest for my feet and therefore, having no connection to the floor, sitting in it I feel a weightlessness that is so calming. It has become my favourite place to meditate. I place these chairs in front of me, from right to left.
Now mein Engel asks me to place any imaginary object I like on the bad chairs. Randomly, I choose a pineapple. I am now instructed to fling the object, including the chairs if I so wish, by whatever means I choose, to an island over the horizon. I smile as I have always wanted to get rid of those bloody chairs. Without hesitation, I imagine the huge catapults from the Battle at Helm’s Deep from the “The Lord of the Rings” and the chairs and pineapple fly through the darkened sky. (It is still beautifully light but my imagination is running wild). The pineapple remains lodged between the chairs, in centrifugal force, as they spin together. The chairs land in a garden behind a house on the island, which, as I look to the horizon, is pretty similar to the garden of the hotel we have just returned from in Carriacou. Mein Engel then requires me to picture a wise wizard who picks up my object, puts a spell on it, and hurls it back to me. It’s fairly easy for me to imagine Gandalf the White inspecting the pineapple, much like the palantír, and tossing it back with a flick of his staff. In my mind’s eye, an object hurtles toward me and I hold my hands out to catch the imaginary object. When I look down, I have an imaginary juicy, green apple in my hands. Mein Engel laughs at me physically catching something that doesn’t exist and then asks me to place it on the average chair.
I now am instructed to send the apple back to the island. I use a normal catapult this time. Quickly this time, Gandalf catches the apple. He is in the same garden on Carriacou and, without hesitation, he throws it back to me. Again he does this with a flick of his staff but as he leaves my imagination, there is a huge smile on his face and somehow he is different. I see the apple coming toward me from the horizon. The sun is shining so brightly, however the apple looks more yellow than green. Mein Engel instructs me to let it land on my favourite chair this time, rather than catch it. (This game has strict rules). As the object gets closer, with the sunlight reflecting on the sand, the yellow has turned to gold. Before landing, the ball shape seems to have wings of its own and jumps around out of its normal trajectory as a fly does when you try to swat it. It has a life of its own. I am conscious of my eyes and head following the movement. (Thankfully no one is around on the beach to watch me). It then plonks itself down on my swinging, meditation seat. Its wings hover for a few seconds and then settle. The gold colour is offset by the deep blue of the seat. It’s a Quidditch ball from Harry Potter. (Of course, Gandalf had morphed into Dumbledore, which is not too difficult as it’s the same actor). I sit for a moment and mein Engel tells me to forget what happened and switches conversation.
Later she returns to my experience and asks me what I think. My first thought is that J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling are people who have made fortunes from their passions (or at least Tolkien’s estate did). Not only that, but the images I conjured utilised the films and I realise that the film makers and actors have made good money from their passions as well as the authors. Most interesting to me, however, was the Quidditch ball itself. It’s self-propelled and full of energy and playfulness, representing a passion that has a life of its own. If I think about all the passions I have experienced, even those that have now gone by the wayside, it was thus that they seemed to control me rather than I controlled them. Looking at it now, my belief was totally absurd, as rock stars, footballers, actors and writers, to give a few examples, make serious money out of doing things they love to do and certainly more so than the rest of us in our humdrum regular jobs. Thankfully mein Engel did not point out my stupidity at the start of the exercise, otherwise I would have missed out on acting like a fool on the beach. My final revelation is that this is not an exclusive club to be in, as there are no membership fees to pay or initiation rituals to go through. These people just get on with it.
We try a similar exercise the next day and the following day too. These exercises are so powerful, as well as fun. The belief that I work on next is that that my last job was bad for me. I had held this job for the last nine years and certainly the last five were tough and balancing a demanding workload in an unsupportive work environment on top of my life issues had taken a significant toll on me. Quite dismissively, I considered the ‘them’ of my ex-employers to be on the dark side, paid up members of the DILLIGAFF (‘do I look like I give a flying f***’) brigade.
In the exercise, a fig turns into a banana which in turn becomes an orange on its final return. Funnily enough, orange juice was something I never had time for on a working day but now most days I will squeeze oranges for breakfast for whoever is around and there is no better taste first thing in the morning. It’s something I had started the previous summer and marked the transition of the old ‘nose to the grindstone’ me to the rediscovery of healthier and fitter me, which also coincided with the start of my passion for cycling. Of course, I didn’t know that I had a passion for cycling (or, indeed, for freshly squeezed orange juice) at that time, but a sure sign that my experimenting worked even then.
My thinking progresses to a place where through some filter of change (fig to banana to orange), processing (squeezing of the oranges) and then the discarding of the wastage (the peel and pips), results in something I not only enjoy tasting, but that is good for me and provides the nutrients and vitamins I need. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There have been huge lessons I’ve learned from the behaviours of certain individuals and from my own behaviour in my last job. More positively, there were a few people who were totally supportive, for which I will be eternally grateful. I also realise I met mein Engel in my last job too and she will always be my freshly squeezed orange juice, albeit with one or two pips!
The final belief mein Engel challenges is my view that you can’t have success without hard work and struggle. After two days of this, I wonder if my imagination is up for more hard work. Again we sit on the beach. There are more people here today. It’s not crowded in any way, but we’ve had the beaches to ourselves so far. This time, we’re in the shade under a coconut tree and the sound of the waves rolling rhythmically in and out is calming.
I choose my three chairs. For my first, I choose any of the chairs from my mother’s dining table. No matter where you sit, whatever the occasion from Sunday dinner to Christmas feast, whatever chair you get, it will wobble. It’s as if one more roast potato will tip the scales and you’ll land head over feet on the floor. For the second, I choose my mother’s settee. It is black leather and cold. After the balancing act at dinner and, in the warm glow of too much food and wine, you can relax coolly knowing you will never need to eat or drink ever again. For my favourite chair, I choose my cushioned love seat from my garden in my old life back in Cheshire. Not that there was much love there, but I would sit with a bottle of beer or a glass of wine, usually having just finished gardening or cooking, whilst my youngest daughter would hula hoop, skate, scoot or hopscotch around me.
Now mein Engel requests that I choose an object. I’m finding today’s game a bit more difficult as I’m not used to this much creativity these days. From nowhere, I choose a musical triangle, the type a percussionist would use. It’s Grenada with its constant reggae music, as well as the rhythms of the ocean, the sound of the occasional refreshing rainfall and the cooling wind in the palm trees in the evening, which perhaps inspires my choice. Mein Engel instructs me to place it on one of my mother’s dining chairs, which is off to my right. I do so. She instructs me to find a way to hurl it far beyond the blue horizon. I choose to throw it as I would a frisbee. Obviously, because of my lack of skill as a champion frisbee player, it disappears in the wrong direction, away from Carriacou, to another nameless desert island. As before, mein Engel then directs me to imagine a wizard receiving this unknown gift, placing a spell on it and returning it. Having found it difficult to imagine earlier, it does become easier. The wizard is, in fact, a playful monkey. Actually, he’s more like a wise, old, black-haired ape, who takes off his wizard hat with one hand and holds the triangle in the other. He dips the triangle into his upturned hat, as a magician would do, and with a flash of light and stars, brings out a tennis ball. He bounces it once to himself and then kicks it, like a goalkeeper, forcibly towards me and with each bounce on the waves it gathers pace until it finally rests on my mother’s sofa, directly in front of me. Mein Engel asks me to pick it up and to send it back over the horizon. I use an imaginary tennis racket and do so.
This time, as it moves in my imagination, I can clearly see the ball transform into colourful plastic monkeys, the type kids used to play with before Nintendo, Gameboy and Grand Theft Auto were invented. The monkeys are animated. Each different coloured monkey climbs over the next, giving a vision of propulsion, a stream of multi coloured motion. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, who have replaced the ape as the residents of my desert island, receive the monkeys and immediately send them away. (I have watched Toy Story about a million times with my youngest daughter so perhaps this explains my imagery). The monkeys change their flying shape into a boomerang and land again on the desert island in front of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, who say, in unison, “No, you have to go that way.” Nothing returns to me for a while and I’m concerned. I know this is an imagining game, but I want something to land on my garden seat. Eventually, something comes. I look down at the seat to my left and nestling on the side table is a golden egg.
This exercise was much stranger than the previous ones and I find any meaning more difficult to fathom. Mein Engel tells me there doesn’t have to be any meaning. A change of perspective is good too. A short while later, I begin to recall my Rhine bicycle ride for some reason. There were some long slogs, but could I call them a struggle? The answer is yes and no. They were certainly hard work but I’m using the word ‘work’ in a different context already. I certainly didn’t get paid for the cycling. Each day of ‘struggle’ made the next day easier, in that I had tangible proof I could do the distances. Each day’s ‘hard work’ took me through some stunning scenery and got me to my destination for a pleasant Radler, dinner and riverside view. If all my days were full of this type of ‘work’ and ‘struggle’ I wouldn’t complain too much. I convince myself to learn to reframe hard work and struggle. These are not struggles. The people I know who seem happiest in their work, or the people I know who find happiness in their hobbies, are usually up early, putting their heart and soul into what they do. Is this struggle? Is this hard work?
In the meantime we continue to mediate and we listen to some of Brian Colbert’s Digipills as guided mediations. It’s an amazingly creative and positive time here on the island. We work together on our values. Not the hollow core values and mission statements companies use that fill brochures and websites and the pockets of consultants, but the clear, simple ways in which we want to live our lives. (I secretly hope we are not too different to avoid having to cross any unexpected bridges but, fortunately, whilst our values are slightly different they are completely compatible). We rank them and try to imagine our authentic selves and how the values would enhance this. We look at the key lessons we have learned from each of our lives to date and these go from heart-breaking to practical to humorous. We take a role model each and look at what it is we admire in these individuals. Whilst we chat and debate over dinner, whilst we swim and whilst we relax, we always make sure we come back to being specific and clear with our answers to these life questions.
McKenna recommends creating your big dream. As Andy Shaw puts it, in his “A Bug Free Mind”, you would not get into a car without knowing where you are heading, so why would you live your life not knowing where you’re heading? He calls it ‘the design of your life’. Of course, the problem I have is that I have no clue whether I want to go to Berlin, Delhi or Timbuktu. I therefore expand this to look at how my future work or life passion should be, setting out some of the characteristics I want or would like, such as working from home, travelling or not travelling, working with my hands or my mind and other weird and wonderful desires.
There are no limits and nothing is off bounds. As mein Engel has been pretty clear on her life dream for a while (as usual, she is way more advanced than I am), she uses this exercise as a set of checks and balances as to where she is and whether she needs to adjust her course or not. I don’t push anything. I’m determined not to. But the exercise feels good and starts to bring some clarity as to what I may do and certainly to what I don’t want to do.
It has been a powerful week and I can confirm no drugs were taken during this week, just one or two local cocktails. I also have a powerful desire not to go back to work just yet…
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