One step at a time: Reflecting on experience as I go – and grow.


I get great comfort and encouragement from the spiral. So often it seems like I am circling around the same things, confronting the same issues. I remind myself though that this time is not in fact the time before, however similar it may appear.

The nautilus grows its shell one chamber at a time, moving every so often into a slightly larger space than the previous one. It gives itself room to grow, increasing the spiral as it adds a new chamber.

Regularly reflecting on what is happening in my life and what I need to do next is a bit like building a new chamber for my self, or allowing the space I live in to gow and expand a little.  As I realise a blockage and remove it, or change a habit to something more beneficial, I grow a little. There’s always a new thing around the corner, or even a similar thing around the corner, but I can take some time to think. What have I tried, why didn’t it stick last time, is there somthing else I haven’t seen which is affecting me?

The regular meetups I run for Evolve Leadteam, in our local community, give me that steady, regular application of thought to my life. I started running this monthly event, which we carry out on Thinking Environment® principles, to share with others the benefits of a space to thin well for oneself. one step at a time, little by little, I stop doing the things which don’t work. Slowly it changes my life.

Our necxt Magic Meetup in Farncombe, Godalming is on 10th July at Hucklberry’s cafe.

Reserve your free place here:

Learning or experiencing?

Makeplace 505 Beginners Tambour Over the last four years I’ve been learning and then training as a Thinking Environment® facilitator. The cornerstone of the Thinking Environment is the principle that people can think well for themselves, given the right conditions. They involve being in the presence of a listener whose attention and encouragement is wholly yours, and who trusts completely that you are creative, altruistic, intelligent and can think for yourself.

That work, and delivering Thinking Environment and training for the NHS, researchers, undergraduates and local people at a regular community event I run with a colleague, has been slowly informing my teaching of embroidery, something else I fnd very rewarding. I’ve been pondering how could I make my classes more about the student discovering and exploring for themselves, and less about me leading from the front.

I started to introduce rounds, and ask people to share what’s going well, what’s their favourite sort of embroidery, what’s a project they’re proud of. Then, after a student volunteered some very useful feedback about what had been most helpful for her in learning the technique, I started to ask, what have you learned this morning that was most useful? what went well about today? what else would you like to see in the course?

Now I’ve started to ask myself, ‘how can I give them the experience of exploring and learning for themselves? How little information do I need to give, and what questions will stimulate their learning?’

On Sunday I was teaching tambour embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework. We had a really fun, collaborative day with a relaxed atmosphere and everyone sharing their learning, questions, and tips from their own considerable textile experience. It felt easy as the teacher; I wasn’t tired or drained, but energised by the day. The participants reflected that they’d enjoyed the warm, friendly environment, and left with smiles and thanks.

So now I’d like to ask you. What are your best experiences of learning? what works for you? Please leave your comments below.


Travelling with potential

I was reminded yesterday of declaring some time ago that I really wanted to reach my potential, desperate for it. Recently I’ve been thinking more about this phrase. It suggests that potential is a thing out there to be reached, like a mountain peak, requiring struggle and effort fixed on a goal. I was asked, what will you do when you reach it? will you be happy?

Envisioning the future has long been hard for me; recurring bouts of depression have  eroded my ability to see forward. At times, the future I could concentrate on was the next few minutes. Yet I knew I still wanted to ‘reach my potential’. I don’t know what it is I’m trying to reach though. When asked what I want, usually all that’s there is a sort of desperation, and something of a void, like hunting in a large cave with a small torch.

Now though, I’m becoming aware of a burning desire to explore what I can do. Feeling a drive to put stuff out there – thoughts, music, art, listening, enabling – assess the result, then choose the next thing, like navigating through a new landscape, bit by bit, and it opening out before me. This isn’t a clear view to the mountain, where all that has to be decided is how to get there. It’s a continual checking of a map which is being made, asking questions, feeling my way along, looking outwards, seeing what could be done, doing, noting it, and then checking inwards to find out how that feels, does it sit well with me, does it flow?

Potential feels more like Dylan Thomas’s ‘green fuse that drives the flower’. There is a fuel, (a need? drive? desire?) and a process (observing, acting, assessing, recalculating, observing…). It isn’t anything I’m going to reach. It isn’t only about work. It’s a restless, searching force, it’s a process, it feels energising, it’s life.


Flying blind: trying to follow advice

Giving advice is one of the ways in which we feel we are being most helpful, when listening to someone’s problems. It feels like a concrete offering, a real thing we are giving, and when we can’t think of a great idea, we think we have failed our friend, and apologise. And yet who takes up unsolicited advice? There’s a great story (which I can’t verify at the moment) of the C19th author Wilkie Collins, stuck for a name for his new novel, complaining about it to his friend Charles Dickens who promptly came up with a list of twenty or so. Collins didn’t take up any of his friend’s suggestions, and eventually came up with his own.

How much worse it can be if you never get a chance to think through things yourself. Imagine a person learning to pilot a plane, their own little individual aircraft of life. They’re sitting at the controls, the engine is running, they’re nervous, looking at the instruments and assimilating lots of information. The trainer comes in behind them and starts to insist: ‘you want to get airborne quickly? I can tell you exactly what you need to do, just follow my instructions’. The tentative pilot panics, thinking ‘I’m not doing well enough, learning fast enough, they must think I’m not going to choose well, I might crash!’ If they follow the instructions it might be in blind fear that they must do something, but like flying the plane with a blindfold on. They will never learn to read the instruments for themselves, know how to get airborne, respond subtly to the weather and conditions. If they do get airborne they won’t know how they did it.

And they may not know where to go from there. The other alternative is to abandon the attempt to take off, paralysed by fear or indecision. This is what can happen if other people try to do your thinking for you, often from the best of intentions and care. What matters is that you get there yourself, learning to read your own instruments of intuition, experience, character and temperament, trusting your own judgement.

Three years ago I stumbled across the Thinking Environment, developed by Nancy Kline and described by her quite simply as a method designed to help people think for themselves. At its core is the positive philosphical choice that humans are intelligent, creative, care for others and can solve most of their problems themselves. You get the chance to think, aloud, to someone who is only listening to ignite your thoughts, not just to reply, and trusts that you will find your way. It was incredibly heartening to me, and has helped me to build my own trust in myself. Without that, I feel like I’m flying blind.

The Protestant Work Ethic…sigh.

I have to write about this as it has resurfaced in my mind as something to worry about. Am I lazy, or spending my energy in the right places? Am I at the top of the stress funnel, where as one feels increasingly pressurized, the temptation is to give up those things which seem less important but are actually those activities which are most nourishing?

It seems that the Protestant work ethic may be a descendant of the Calvinist idea of double predestination (source:

‘..only those who were predestined (cf. the Calvinist concept of double predestination) to be saved would be saved.

Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality, as well as social success and wealth, were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect.’

I don’t earn much, and never have. I’m an artist and a musician, which both involve a lot of play and what looks like daydreaming. Are these signs I am somehow not worthy and am already destined for the hot place when I die? As a person recovering from depression, I already have the ability to drive myself very hard, that being one of the characteristics of the condition: putting in tons of effort in the wrong way, with very little to show for it as a result. What actually resulted was a sometimes distressingly over-active brain, and a feeling that however hard I try it will never be enough. It stifled my creativity, squashed my joy, strangled my instruments. I have only recovered the ability to feel joy in a process of letting go of an idea about flogging myself being next to godliness (should that have a capital G?). My violin has begun to sing again, and I am slowly finding my voice (with a little help from some friends: – and there are others, you know who you are). It’s been strange to discover that as I try less, I am unfolding and expanding, and discovering that I can be so much more than I was when I tried so hard.

The incidence of depression is on the rise in our society. Feelings of failure are a large part of that. Show me a depressed person and I’ll show you someone who thinks they’ve failed to reach their potential, let everyone down, but could be more if only they tried a bit harder. Then something broke. How can we root out that idea that you are only worth while if you work hard and earn lots? David Cameron could change his words for a start. I’m absolutely sick of hearing him go on about rewarding hard working families. Can’t we create a society where people could earn the means to live comfortably and still actually have some time to cultivate friendships, music, and space for reflection? Or is the goal to have everyone beavering away in offices all the hours God sends, for not quite enough to cover the rising costs of rent/mortgage, bills, food, childcare…