Friday, 17 April 2020

The Cloud of Unknowing - Reflections on the time of COVID-19

On 23rd March, just 4 short weeks ago, the UK went into official lockdown as part of a nationwide response to controlling the spread of the Covid-19 virus. To mark this first month where life as we knew it changed beyond recognition, we were moved to write a very personal response through one of our semi-regular Emergence blogposts:

Machynlleth in lockdown
Fern: The new Emergence website launched on February 1st  2020, a new vision for Emergence offering nature-based rites of passage, art projects and facilitation, all ready for early Spring and our fledgling ‘2020 Vision Festival’. Our offerings of ‘Space for Change’, ‘Summer Vision Fast’ and the ‘Bardsey Autumn Equinox Retreat’ were out in the world, ready and waiting to be filled. We spent time designing beautiful, eye-catching publicity, getting the word out, talking to potential participants and advising those already signed up on their next steps.

Five years ago, I had a kind of five-year plan, a dream of what I wanted to seed as an artist committed to ‘the art of living’. Since that time, I’ve been working steadily and emergently towards a sense of what I might want to be offering in 2020. For me, 2020 was to be the year for a new vision, for bold action and for ‘stepping into my work in the world’. My work as an artist, my work with Emergence. It was all meant finally to be falling into place…

We were looking forward with excitement and some trepidation to a busy and intense March, working with the Scottish and Welsh Governments as part of Margaret Wheatley’s team to offer ‘Warriors for the Human Spirit’, a residential retreat programme for self-appointed ‘change agents’ and leaders working in the public sector. One week was planned for Perth, Scotland and one week for Nant Gwrytheyrn in North Wales. Hot on the heels after finishing these, the final day of March was to be spent with those working in the Welsh environmental sector and Natural Resources Wales helping to develop a ‘community of practice’ to support ‘across the sector collaboration’.

Helen Williams, Simoon Fransen, Meg Wheatley with Phil & Fern in Perth, Scotland
On 1st March, St David’s Day, we travelled to Perth in Scotland ready to meet the team and begin our contribution in support of Meg’s training programme. Phil spoke about the BBC Television documentary he wrote: ‘8 Days: To the Moon & Back’, looking at NASA’s Apollo program through the lens of ‘Warriorship for the Human Spirit’. I brought into the room two decades’ experience of theatre activities and shared the story of alchemical transformation in the Birth of Taliesin within the context of the Celtic tradition and the indigenous wisdom of Britain. We were looking at leadership on this retreat through a completely different lens. The invitation to our participants was to join with one another to help create ‘islands of sanity’ within uncertain and potentially overwhelming times.

Fern - centre left in the purple dress - teaches on the Warriors for the Human Spirit program in Perth

As our week together progressed, Covid-19 increasingly entered our awareness. One of the team was from the Netherlands, one of the earliest epicentres of the virus. She was concerned about her family, one of whom had developed Corona-like symptoms. Attendees on our retreat were increasingly having intense work and family conversations in between learning how to ‘let go of outcome’, and ‘take nothing personally’. Each individual was being encouraged to ‘take their seat’ as a warrior for the human spirit, doing ‘what they can, with what they have, where they are’. For some, this was within the Scottish health service, for some, education, conservation, others planning and policing. It was a bold vision to be working with this group on this material. It felt radical and timely.

By Friday morning, participants were readying to leave and return to a world entirely different from the one they left when they arrived in Perth just five days earlier. Within the next two weeks throughout the UK we saw food queues and panic buying, social distancing measures put in place, infection rates increasing, the death toll beginning to mount up, an NHS stretched to the limit, schools closed, calls for a universal living wage, and a complete lockdown in place.

The Warriors for the Human Spirit training didn’t even get off the starting block in Wales. Meg returned to the US and the program was postponed until some uncertain date in the now vague and distant future. Our workshop with the Natural Resources Wales folk did happen online along with pretty much every other conference, meeting and Pilates class. The word ‘Zoom’ suddenly began to take its place as one of the most frequently uttered since the superhero comics of the 1970’s.

April 1st came and went with a gamut of surreal ‘Fools Day’ Covid-19 offerings, online videos and celebrations. Activity for half the population ramped up with a transfer to online working, living, shopping and socialising. Activity for the other half dropped away in a matter of days to a trickle and then an absence. Emergence’s grand vision for 2020 fell away in the process…

My own Craniosacral Therapy Practice at my clinic in Machynlleth, mid Wales halted a month ago. No social proximity meant no practice, let alone hands on contact with the client’s body which holds the power and potential to transform and heal of Craniosacral work. No television writing work for Phil. Nothing currently being commissioned. Suddenly there is no point in advertising nature-based rites of passage, although there is much talk on social media about this pandemic, being a kind of ‘global rite of passage’. The momentum of activity, making stuff happen, visions, potential – everything comes to a dead stop…

As I write this, we’re in an April heatwave with empty roads. Easter has come and gone. Good Friday - the dying, Easter Sunday - the Resurrection. Easter Monday and beyond, school holidays are all happening without happening...

View from Cader Idris on the last day before lockdown

Phil:
A key practice at the heart of the Warriors for the Human Spirit training is to become intimately familiar with one’s own mind. To become an observer and chronicler of one’s own thoughts and patterns so that one might be able to loosen the mind’s grip on the ‘self’ and simply be, not reacting but present. The idea being that this might enable one to better serve others and the times we live in by being a calm ‘island of sanity’ for others…

When the coronavirus hit and the lockdowns began, both Fern and I responded in a very similar way. Our initial reaction was that we should do something, anything… We talked of offering Way of Council sessions online, we talked of online retreats, spaces to meet, supportive practices to bring people together… and then, individually and together, we pulled back from that energy and we… stopped…

This is not to denigrate or devalue the amazing work that so many are doing right now to support and help each other across the literal distances between us. This is simply to share what happened to us and how we are reacting.

Wile E Coyote realising he's made a huge mistake...

That forward momentum, that energy to ‘do’, to ‘help’, to continue, to make ‘normal’ at all costs, was so strong and compelling that, like Wile E Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, we very nearly ran straight off a cliff without realising that there is, in fact, no ground beneath our feet… But for some reason we pulled back at the last second and found ourselves standing on the edge of that cliff, our toes dangling into the cavernous space of the new reality, wondering what we should do…

Personally, I found myself collapsing inwards, falling into a very familiar pattern of dark and dangerous thoughts. My work had gone, my purpose had gone, my value as a human being had gone. I’m not a frontline worker in the NHS or the caring professions. I’m a storyteller, a maker of meaning. And, in this new reality, I find myself utterly reluctant to make any meaning at all. It feels too early… too raw… too disrespectful… to somehow leap to what this all means and where we might be going. Not yet, at least. If this truly is a rite of passage for mankind then, like all such rituals, it requires an enormous letting go of old ways and a stepping into a space of deep uncertainty without any clue where it all might lead. I can’t speak for anyone else but I know that is the space I’m currently living in.

So, after our grand plans ground to a halt and we screeched to a halt on the edge of the cliff, we found ourselves asking – what now? If we truly are in this liminal, threshold space, then how do we best live our days? How do we best serve? In short – what do we do?

The veg beds take shape...
Fern: The weather has been kind. We have a garden. We live surrounded by fields and hills on the outskirts of Machynlleth. The local community has been amazing. We now have a WhatsApp group in our local village. In our little community at home, we have spent time digging, pulling out the weeds, raking out the stones, preparing the ground. Like many lucky enough to have access to outdoor space, we have been planting and tending. We have dug a big vegetable bed, we have created a fruit bed, we have even made a rock garden with all the stones we have heaved out of the earth in the process of tilling the soil. There feels something good about this. Pulling out the weeds, hands in the earth, planting seeds, watering them; pulling out the weeds, hands in the earth, planting seeds, watering them…There is much birdlife in the garden. The primroses are in full bloom. The leaves of the foxgloves are getting fatter ready for anchoring the great pink wands of May.

Primroses in bloom
I am reading a 14th Century Gnostic text called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ written anonymously during the time of The Black Death and the Hundred Years War. I was drawn to the title and felt it prescient for the times. In it the author writes about what he calls the ‘Actives’ and the ‘Contemplatives’...

“Actives, Actives! Be as busy as you can…But don’t interfere with my contemplatives. You don’t know what is happening to them. Leave them to their ‘sitting’ and ‘resting’…”

The author seems to be implying that something important is going on beneath the surface with those who do not or who are not necessarily able to be outwardly active. If you can carry on your work and livelihood online, fine. If you are called to the front-line to serve, I thank you. If you are minding and looking after the needs of those in your care, this is important work. And if you are called to, or are able to do ‘nothing’, then this too is important work which needs doing on behalf of all of us during these times. Watch, witness, plan nothing, be with uncertainty, welcome the Cloud of Unknowing.

I have been meditating on what it means to have a productive day in these times. We are advised by many psychologists to put structures in place to support mental health and well-being. I also feel it is important to honour the broken shards of a life which had or held meaning. If we are in a rite of passage, this is the Severance not the Incorporation. If we are in a Descent Myth, we are in the dark.

I do not know what will happen with my ‘2020 Vision’. I anticipated that this would be a successful and productive year for Emergence of being in service at these transitional times. I imagined that ‘Space for Change’ would be sold-out with a small group of participants having a ‘transformative experience’; our ‘Summer Vision Fast’ would be likewise full to capacity; the ‘Autumn Equinox Retreat’ on Bardsey Island would be filling up nicely. None of this is happening. I am instead, simply with my ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. I tell myself: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are’ even if this just means slowing down, contemplating and digging up the roots with your hands…

Spring lambs in mid-Wales
Phil: And so we go on, learning to become ever more comfortable with uncertainty. Trusting that, as each day unfolds, we will do what we can, we will be available to what is needed of us, and we will be present to each other. Before all this happened, I had mused to Fern about how a populous living ever more of its life online needs to learn how to be together again. After weeks, or potentially months, of forced social distancing, that need will be even more acute. And if, as seems likely, Covid-19 will be a part of all our lives going forwards and that repeated outbreaks will call for repeated lockdowns, then our ability to do what humans are defined by – being together – will become a rare and precious skill and ever more vital and necessary.

At this moment, we don’t know what we will be offering in the future. We don’t know what it will look like. And we don’t yet know who it will be for. It feels vitally important to us to wait and to listen for what is needed before offering what we think might serve. If this truly is a rite of passage, then we are being forced to pass through the ‘threshold’, in which every molecule of our beings is dismantled and put back together in a new, unfamiliar way. We will need to learn to do many things afresh. We will need to learn to do many things we’ve never done before and never imagined we would.
The uncertain road to the future...
Truly embracing the uncertainty of this time, for us, means letting go of everything we dreamed of doing and being, and opening ourselves to whatever might come next. It’s painful. It’s sad. And yet… isn’t it life? Isn’t this what life is? Change? Constant and unceasing change?

So. We’re still here. We’re still committed to our ‘2020 Vision’. And we’re still open to offering spaces for people to come together. We know that one day we will be together again. We look forward to seeing you there.

Keep safe. Be well. Stay connected.

Fern & Phil 

A new day dawns





Friday, 6 December 2019

Creating a Space for Change

Phil Ralph and Fern Smith, directors of Emergence, share a conversational blog about their experiences of change and how it led them to step into guiding others...



Phil & Fern contemplating a new life above the Mawddach estuary...
Phil: Life is change. We know this. Even when we wish it wasn’t so. Even when we desperately try and deny it and live our lives as if they will last forever. Life is change. And change isn’t easy to navigate because it involves loss. How could it not? For something to change, something new to come into the picture, something old – a job, a relationship, your hair (in my case…), something – has to end. Which of course is another way of saying that something has to die. As one door closes, another opens. And I’ve never been comfortable with all of this and for a long time I thought that this was some kind of failing on my part. “I’m not good with change” I would say to anyone who would listen (and even to those who wouldn’t). But after years and years of it, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I’m wrong. I’m uncomfortable with change, yes. AND I’m pretty good at it.

In 2017, Fern and I left our old home in Swansea and moved further north, initially to the beautiful surroundings of Dinefwr Park in Llandeilo, and then last year to the hills above Machynlleth in mid-Wales. We left behind our lives of working in the performing arts (although I still write scripts for film and television) in order to step into entirely new lives specifically focused on change – and, in particular, helping people to navigate it in their own lives.

Over the past decade our so we have both – individually and together – undergone a huge raft of learning and training around ancient and modern change processes. The list is almost endless: Vision Quests, birth processes, Way of Council, meditation retreats, training to be a Warrior for the Human Spirit, the Annwn Foundation, training and practising craniosacral therapy, nature-based practices, medicine walks… I could go on. All of this has been to one end: to offer what we’ve learned to others.

And, boy, do the times need it! You don’t need me to tell you what’s going on in the world. And what it’s doing to our relationships, our health – both mental and physical - and our futures… Navigating and managing change with openness, grace and decency has never been more vital or more challenging. 

So, when we moved to mid-Wales, the primary reason was a calling to come to this beautiful ancient land and offer ourselves and everything that we have learned (and are still learning) in service to others in these changing times. But, as so often happens, life got in the way and by February this year, we’d done precious little offering. Partly this was because I was immersed in landing a man on the Moon, and partly it was a desire to feel our way into the area and the community and to see how best we might begin to offer ourselves.

But early this year all that began to change. Fern and I facilitated a small hub in Machynlleth studying Theory Uof which more can be found here – and as part of doing so we undertook a discernment process based around 17 key questions. These questions offer a sequential journey through change from the present into the emerging future. One afternoon in February I sat in my office and answered the questions – and when I reviewed them afterwards, my answer to one of them pinged out sharply.

The question was: Over the next three months, if you were to prototype a microcosm of the future in which you could discover “the new” by doing something, what would that prototype look like?

And my answer was: Fern and I offer a short, affordable change retreat.

I told Fern. And that’s when Space for Change came into being…


Fern: I was plunged into becoming interested in change processes after the death of my mother in 1996. I was shocked to my core even though she had been ill with Multiple Sclerosis since my early teens. As part of my own untidy and chaotic bereavement process I read every possible book going on grief. I trained as a CRUSE Bereavement councillor, became what I can only describe as a ‘death bore’, this being pretty much the only subject I wanted to talk to anyone about. A few years later I made a show with musician, GP and end of life specialist, Patrick Fitzgerald – a song cycle requiem about my mother called This Imaginary Woman. 



I became convinced that sometimes a life begins with a death. The last words of ‘This Imaginary Woman’ were: “I will live” and this was the promise I charged myself to keep, in honour of the life of my mother Pearl Isobel, Stanley. I made a pact with myself to live deliberately, consciously, with gratitude and with awe at this transitory gift called life. Something changed in me then and the process of change has continued to play out in an unending cycle of many smaller and larger deaths and rebirths. My work has changed, friendships have shifted, my home and the landscape I see out of my window has changed beyond recognition many times since then. I knew that there was a healing process to be done and a growing up and a becoming more and more the person I was born to be. I was no longer the child of my mother. It was about time I became an adult. And what did I want to have learned before I died? 



This process of change led me away from my first great love – theatre. After I made This Imaginary Woman I had a clear sense that I didn’t need to make theatre any more. Any involvement in theatre after this would just be going through the motions and I respected my company and the spirit of theatre too much to offer myself as a performer for much longer without this driving passion and integrity of belief being present. From my childhood on, theatre was my life, gave me meaning, a voice, a family, a community. Who was I if ‘business as usual’ was no longer an option – even if that business was creating vibrant, daring, emotionally and physically draining theatre which meant everything to me? So, the rest of my life began with the loss of my passion to create theatre, the loss of this voice, this meaning, this family and this community.

In the next years, I consciously pursued a kind of intuitively directed action-research in my own life on processes of not just change but transformation from the inside out – at a cellular level and at the level of soul and spirit. My training as a craniosacral therapist supported personal research and an opportunity to practice daily my own and others healing – healing in terms of ‘becoming whole’. I became Clore Fellow for Wales on the Clore Leadership programme in 2010 at the age of 46. During this time, I read a book on Leadership which mentioned Vision Quest. This set me on a path of undergoing a 4 day and night Vision Fast in Wales and then training as a Wilderness Guide at the School of Lost Borders in 2017. Between my mother’s death and now, change has been my constant companion and the only constant in my life. I have met and worked with many teachers and guides who have created and opened up transformative spaces for me which have given me a chance to let go of a rigid sense of self and if not let go of, then at least to be able to dialogue with that voice which tells me what I can and can’t and what I should or shouldn’t do. My horizons and sense of my own and other’s potential has been expanded and exploded. I have witnessed countless individuals and groups going through profound shifts. Increasingly I came to the realisation that I wanted to be one of those people to hold a Space for Change for others… 


Phil: My own personal experiences of change have mirrored and complimented Fern’s over these past fifteen years or so. As I now understand to be a common shared experience, it began for me with breakdowns. I say ‘breakdowns’ plural because there was more than one. There was more than two, actually. In fact, if I’m going to be pedantic about it, then I suspect that I’ve lost count of how many there have been at this point.

My first breakdown was a physical one, that presaged the mental and emotional ones to come. I’d left London, where I’d lived since training at RADA in my late teens, and moved to Wales to be with Fern. In so doing I’d begun a process of moving away from my own first great love – acting. As Fern describes her own shift away from theatre, I too went through a painful and complex ‘conscious uncoupling’ (thanks, Gwyneth…) from acting as a way of life. The reasons why are many and would take too long to list here but, fundamentally, I realised that the urge to perform came from two needs: the first a ‘selfish’ one of needing to work through my own personal demons and foibles; the second from a place of ‘service’, a passionate knowing that performance and story has a healing and cathartic role to play in the lives of those who witness it. So, in slowly, painfully, moving away from this first need, I began to move ever closer towards the second.


A physical breakdown whilst touring my one-man play, ‘Hitting Funny’, for Volcano was the start. It shouldn't have been a surprise since the play was an exploration of a man having a nervous breakdown in real time in front of the audience but it never occurred to me it was actually my own until it was too late. I had huge energy crashes, coupled with an inability to function or relate to others. My GP recommended anti-depressants. I declined. Then, later, emotional, mental and further physical breakdowns came thick and fast. I came to understand that these were all indicative of my body and my soul trying to tell me something. The message was a simple one but it took me many years of denial to truly begin to hear it: I had to change. I had to change the way I lived, the things I valued, the impact I had on myself and others. I had to change or I would not survive…

Gaia House
And so, I did. I do. I am. Like Fern, these breakdowns led me to places and to experiences I could never have begun to imagine and still find hard to grasp sometimes. I found myself going on silent meditation retreats at Gaia House in Devon. I am not a Buddhist. But Buddhist practice has become a central part of who I am and how I live my life. The ability to work with my mind, to be fully present to myself and what’s going on within me – all of this is now my daily practice.

Margaret Wheatley
In 2015, after many years of Fern trying to bring her to my attention, I met and began to work with my teacher, Margaret Wheatley – see here for my initial experience with Meg. Since then I have committed to more learning and training with her to become a Warrior for the Human Spirit. In the same year, I undertook a Vision Quest with Pip Bondy as well as many of her Way of Council retreats.

Slowly but surely, the combination of all of this work and training and changing has begun to make sense. It has begun to lead me, without my consciously fully understanding or expecting it to, towards my next life. Perhaps towards my destiny as a human being in this lifetime. Towards the second of my two needs that led me to act in the first place – the need to ‘serve’, to use my gifts and talents and abilities as a storyteller and a ‘holder of space’ in order to serve others, to help them to find their own still quiet voice within.

All of these experiences, these breakdowns, these breakthroughs, lead me to want to offer myself, alongside Fern, as someone who can hold a Space for Change for others. And so, early this year, we made our plans and presented our offer… 


Betty and Jaffa survey the land
Fern: We decided to run a pilot ‘Space for Change’ to create and test a format with a group of invited friends and colleagues. We wanted to make it as accessible as possible and set the rates as cheaply as we dared to just cover cost and create for ourselves the experience of holding a group through a deep personal process. In a very short amount of time we had our group of participants. They turned out to be a mixture of some we had known and worked with over many years of making theatre in Wales, some we had met through the work of Emergence and some we knew a little if at all. As it turned out, every single one was an artist – mainly with performance and community organising backgrounds and most with an interest in socially engaged arts practice. Though most had experience in this area and some had experience in counselling, psychotherapy and facilitation, none had worked consciously with the nature based practices based on the model of the Four Shields which we intended to use throughout our process.


Our plan was to move through the process of the Four Shields as taught by Steven Foster and  Meredith Little from the School of Lost Borders. This map or model is beautiful, powerful and simple though not simplistic. The Shields are connected with the seasons, the elements and the four directions. They also mark the passage from childhood to adolescence, adulthood to eldership, death to birth. Each connects with a state of being, knowing or doing – physical/sensory, psychological/emotional, logical/rational and intuitive/creative. 

Any process which calls on the Four Shields is dynamic not static, inviting us to move and flow through each in turn, not getting stuck, blocked or favouring any one aspect in opposition to the others. The idea is to be able to access and hold each of the four in a dynamic state of balance and ‘become five’. To be at the ‘centre of the circle’ of our own life, calling on and having developed a ‘full set’ of Shields and to ultimately come into balance and be ‘fully human’. A lovely neat model and very tricky in practice. Something to practice every day in every moment rather than to reach some kind of static state of fixed or rigid ‘enlightenment’. 

It was our intention to create a process which might be powerful in and of itself and to give people an introduction to working with the Four Shields. We began with an orientation and introduction before diving into the Four Shields and spending one day working with each direction in preparation for inviting our participants to go on a dawn until dusk solo ‘Medicine Walk’ with no food. In the height of Summer this can be quite an ordeal – lasting from 5 in the morning until 9 at night. 

Our beautiful group room awaits the retreatants...
One of the most powerful and beautiful parts of this process is the concept of ‘creating an intention’. Each participant is invited to shape or craft their own ‘intention’: What is being marked, let go of, celebrated or manifested? The intention that each participant creates with the help of the guides is specific to their life trajectory, interests, passions and challenges. This strong intention becomes the guiding principle which helps give clarity and focus to a process which otherwise can feel uncertain and unclear. It gives a rudder, a compass, a sense of specificity. The Medicine Walk at the heart of the process then becomes a walk where everything and anything ‘speaks back’ to the initiate. The whole of nature becomes a window or mirror which reflects back to us the wisdom each of us is seeking. The Medicine Walk therefore becomes a microcosm of the person’s life, with patterns, gifts, challenges and meaning laid out in front of us if we can but take notice and see.

Glaslyn from the summit cairn of Moel Fadian
And so we had our intention, our framework, the theory to hold us through our week of work together. Of course in practice there is something profoundly messy, complex, dynamic, improvisational and emergent holding seven people through a potentially life-changing process. As a very wise teacher recently told me: 


"You cannot guide anyone else through a change process without going through it yourself." 

Once we embark on the process, we are leaving behind certainties, old tried and trusted ways of how we think things should be or how we used to do things and we open to the uncertainty of a creative process which is different every single time. I love this work though it is probably the thing which terrifies me the most. It is true improvisation, surrendering to ‘what is’, letting go of preconceived outcomes and trusting in the emergent process. And this is what happened with Space for Change in all it’s mucky and magical unpredictability. Over to Phil for some final words...

Phil: And so, after these long journeys, these deep learnings, these doubts, insecurities, breakdowns and breakthroughs, Fern and I stepped into the roles of guides together for the first time in mid August this year. It’s inappropriate to share what happened as the confidentiality of such processes must be sacrosanct. But what I can say, from the perspective of myself, is that it felt like coming home. Coming home to myself, to work I know in my bones and marrow. Coming home to a role and a process that I feel my whole life has been preparing me for. It was deeply challenging, deeply beautiful and deeply rewarding. And deeply exhausting too, in that bone deep, satisfying way that good work always is. 

Here are a few words from our first Space for Change participants to give you a flavour of their experiences:

“A space for change has opened a new way of perceiving nature for me and by nature… I mean everything, my own life, the landscape, food, animals, interconnection, history... It was thrilling, exquisitely beautiful and profoundly vital.” L.R


“A powerful encounter with what is alive in you. An exploration of life, death and the space in between. We spend so much of our lives running away from things. Space for Change is one of those rare and powerful opportunities to face your reality as it is; I celebrated what is truly alive, honoured some things that had died and shone a little more light on all I am and can be.” D.H

Fern and Phil are two of the most compassionate, generous and wise soul facilitators I have come across.” T. G

“I thought the way Fern and Phil organised things and took such good care of us all was exemplary! It was a really special and significant week.” K.L

The night after everyone had left the house, Fern and I went to a party at a neighbour’s house and sat there, exhausted, bemused and overwhelmed. There was no way on earth we could begin to talk about what had just happened – the scale of it in our lives, the importance of it as an experience, the incredible blessing of finding our way to doing this work together, the openness and beauty of our participants… it was all too much. 


Now, months later, we are clear in one thing: this is our work. And so, we’re preparing to make an offer to host a second Space for Change retreat in 2020. More details will be coming soon once we’ve finalised venues. In addition, we will be offering our first Vision Fast. 


The times they are a-changing. As they always are. As they always have been. Navigating the choppy waters of change is the art of living. And it’s the art that we now practice with joy, delight, a fair amount of surprise, and a huge amount of love. Come and join us soon.

More details of our planned Space for Change retreat and Vision Fast for 2020 will be available soon. Sign up for our mailing list at www.emergence-uk.org 





Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Flying to the Moon via Gregynog...

Fern Smith and Phil Ralph, directors of Emergence, share a conversational blog about their experiences devising and facilitating change workshops for Welsh Government... 


Fern: Six months ago, Phil and I were ready to begin the first of our workshops at Gregynog House, commissioned by the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales – called ‘To the Moon and Back’. 

We’ve been meaning to write something about this whole process since then but somehow it never happened. In the aftermath we were so relieved that the workshops went well - we survived and the feedback was overwhelmingly good – that the last thing we really wanted to do was to revisit the whole process of preparation, planning and production. We moved on after a bit of celebration to preparing, planning and producing the next thing, and then the next and then the next… Sound familiar?  I am feeling a sense of unfinished business and a need to return. To look back in order to move forward. To remember and to harvest the learning…

It was in May 2019, in the fresh green budding Spring, that we spent two lots of two days at Gregynog House in mid Wales with two large groups of Welsh and Wales-based land managers, policy makers, educators, community organisers and growers. We’re planning a meet-up with our commissioners at Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales in the next few weeks but before that I wanted to sit with and remember what called us to act, to accept the invitation and to put months of preparation time into offering ‘To the Moon and Back’. It’s six months on and I’m asking why did we go, how did we get there and what did we do that it felt like we had spent all our combined lifetimes preparing for it…

Phil: Fern had been telling me about her meetings with Welsh Government for a while. It seems that there was a real concern about how responding to the climate and nature emergencies we face will mean different sectors - sometimes with very different world views - coming together to find new solutions. Building trust and enabling a real sense of community and collaboration will be absolutely vital. This is an increasingly common occurrence as our personal and professional worlds become ever more siloed and specific. 

The upshot of these meetings was that Fern had been commissioned to deliver some pilot workshops bringing together some individuals and groups, in order to look at ways that we might begin to see and hear each other in deeper, more practical ways, with the hope that strong connections and collaborations might result. All of which makes perfect sense when you think about it – the very definition of sustainability stems from systems thinking: the idea that no part of a system is discrete or separate from any other and all parts combine to co-create the world together. Wales, being an unique place with a long history of environmental activism and concern, is arguably an ideal place to look at these issues. 

Fern and I had been looking for projects to work on together, putting our growing skill base of facilitation, systems thinking, group processes and personal transformation together. So, when she asked me if I would work on the pilot workshops with her, it seemed an obvious – if very daunting choice...


Fern: The invitation to work with the Welsh Government came as a result of having been invited by Kelli Rose Pearson, a PhD researcher at SUSPLACE in Cardiff University, to work with her on a couple of previous workshops whilst she was on a placement with Welsh Government. We’d shared an interest in Theory U, a deep individual/group/organisational change process which was developed out of years of research by many leading figures working at MIT in the U.S.

Theory U offers a model, a map and a methodology for anyone wanting to launch an inquiry into what supports and blocks innovation. I’m interested in processes of change. There are a huge amount of theories with their various strengths and idiosyncrasies. I engage with them as they see change as a process rather than just something which happens overnight. Theory U speaks about leading from the emerging future. This means we need to let go of pre-conceptions and fixed expectations, focus on listening rather than speaking, relationship building, and fully and consciously enter into a phase of ‘uncertainty’ or ‘unknowing’ to create a new field of possibilities from which new ideas, projects, and processes emerge.

I’d done a couple of one-day workshops with Kelli in 2018, we’d had good feedback, and one of the commissioners, Usha Ladwa Thomas from Welsh Government, was an active participant in these workshops. She’d been involved with working with Emily Finney from Welsh Government to support a process working with land managers and policy teams across Wales in line with the Natural Resources Policy in the Environment Act. Natural Resources Wales and their responsibility under the WFGA (Wellbeing of Future Generations Act) and the Environment Act enable a crucial part of this new policy – the Area Statements which determine how each particular area, body, and community are going to support the delivery of the Natural Resources Policy and deliver actions which take into account each area’s unique opportunities and challenges.

Emergence Land Journey - The Walk That Reconnects 2014
I was invited to speak to a team from Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales in early 2019 and come up with some ideas as to how we could encourage more cross sectoral working, and not get lost down rabbit holes involving old frustrations or allegiances. Could we really create an environment of trust, listening, possibility and participation? I spoke to the team about my particular approach as an artist and the kinds of things I’d developed or delivered before: a major arts and sustainability conference at Centre for Alternative Technology; a consultative document for the Arts Council of Wales mapping sustainable arts practice in Wales; leading and facilitating creative walks involving dialogue on the move; producing a landmark DVD series about a major peace activist and spiritual teacher. They were intrigued, excited, committed to doing things differently… they said ‘yes’. The brief was essentially to get the people in the room to talk to one another and perhaps some way down the line to work together on collaborative projects.

Theory U was very much in the air at the time of the invitation. Phil and I were facilitating a small group in our home town of Machynlleth where we travelled ‘through the U’ with a small group made up of educators, a community organiser, town counsellor, artist and an engineer. I knew there was an interest from Welsh Government in the whole Theory U process too as Diana Reynolds is actively working to promote its use through her work supporting learning, innovation and relationship building across sectors internally. So, working with U Theory felt like a no-brainer. However, as Phil said, there was something else very much in the air – both inside our house and across the universe… the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. I always listen to and trust what is emerging in the ‘spirit of the times’ as well as connecting to what I like to call ‘the spirit of place’. The creative process that began to emerge through our conversations brought the Apollo Mission front and centre. Back to Phil…

Phil: Alongside the burgeoning practice that Fern and I have together, I still have my ‘day job’. After training and working as an actor, I segued into writing about 15 years ago, first for the stage, then television and film. As the energy to create these workshops for Welsh Government was building, I was spending most of my time a quarter of a million miles away from Earth...

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon by the American astronauts of NASANeil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, ably (and vitally) assisted by Michael Collins. I’d been approached by the BBC Science team in July 2018 and asked if I would write a script for a new and unique form of documentary, telling the story of Apollo 11 from blast off to splash down. The producers had access to previously classified audio recordings from the mission, detailing the astronaut’s communications between the spacecraft and Mission Control in Houston and, crucially, between themselves when no-one else could hear them. I’ve always been a lifelong space nut and so it was a heavenly experience for me to work on such an unique project. As I immersed myself in the minutiae and human experience of the mission, I shared my revelations and learnings with Fern. Little did I know that the gleam in her eye would lead to more adventures for the two of us…

Buzz Aldrin emerges from the Lunar Module about to become the 2nd man on the Moon...
You see, the dominant thing that emerged for me from all of my research was that the extraordinary nature of the achievement of landing men on the Moon was only possible because of some quite remarkable teamwork on the part of NASA. The Apollo missions were kicked off by President John F Kennedy in the early 1960s when he blithely announced to the world that the USA would “by the end of this decade land a manon the Moon and return him safely to Earth.” The only problem was, at the time that he said this, no-one had the faintest idea how to do it… Over the course of the next several years, driven by ingenuity, teamwork, a burning desire to “beat the Russians”, and the combined efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, they managed to do the impossible. But history – as it so often does – paints an overly simplified picture of how this feat was achieved.

Success always seems to come as an inevitability. But at every point in the process, failure was only moments away. In fact, failure – one could argue – was what enabled the success to happen. Without making millions of failures (including the tragic death of three astronauts in a launchpad fire on Apollo 1 in 1967 - a mere two years before Apollo 11’s successful mission) and being able to learn from them and adapt accordingly, the Apollo program would never have achieved its goal. Iterative learning was key. Prototyping, failing, learning, changing and prototyping again were the order of the day. Combine this with the remarkable ability of different departments across NASA to listen to one another and to work together towards a common goal and you have a recipe for success that is almost unparalleled and arguably largely absent in much of the modern world.

As I told Fern these tales of failure, learning, teamwork and success, she began to realise – long before I did – that the story of Apollo 11 offered a distinctive, exciting and unique lens through which to view the task we were being given by Welsh Government. In the place of landing on the Moon, substitute the seemingly impossible challenge of man-made climate change. In the place of NASA, substitute those people who work within the environment sector of Wales. All of them siloed in their own particular organisation or department, all of them striving towards a common goal, and all of them fighting to be heard amongst an increasingly loud landscape of change and fear for the future. The lessons of Apollo 11 were not just to be celebrated for the anniversary. They could offer real insight and have practical use today…

And so another element was added to our plans. The workshops now had a title, borrowed from the documentary – ‘To the Moon and Back…’ Combining our new lens with Theory U, we felt we had something of great value to share.

The documentary itself aired this summer on BBC2. 
If you didn’t catch it, it’s still available on BBC iPlayer in the UK 
And on PBS in the United States. 

Our planning began in earnest. We asked Welsh Government for two 2-day residential workshops to enable us to immerse our participants away from their normal, day-to-day lives to really try out our ‘prototype’ and learn by doing (and possibly failing). We had our source materials. Next thing we needed was a venue and a special guest or two… Over to you, Fern…  

Fern: We decided in consultation with our commissioning team to hold the event at Gregynog House in mid Wales. This venue has a vibrant history and connection with innovation, education, Welsh culture and international relations. It also has breath-taking grounds and a nearby train link. Gregynog gave us the chance of working in one venue in the heart of Wales which itself was undergoing a significant transition in terms of its own relationship to sustainability. At the time it was moving from being a part of the University of Wales to setting itself up as an independent trust. Gregynog, like so many other institutions is needing to change the way it operates and in a context of increasing unpredictability and uncertainty. The new CEO, Janet Wallwork Clarke, was really interested in looking at how we create lasting change in ourselves, our teams and our institutions. It felt like a great match.

Fern grapples with Theory U...
In the month or so before delivering the event we spent time mapping how we might get to the moon and back onto the famous ‘U’ of Theory U. Meanwhile the team at Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales were busy sending out invites. Who did they want in the room? Who might be the change-makers, innovators and collaborators who might be an active and willing part of this pilot process?

Theory U has come from the stable of MIT though it does acknowledge its debt to research and models involving transformation and change. It’s something you can spend a lifetime on or something you can explain and ‘prototype’ in a minute. At the heart of the U – and yes, it is the shape of the letter U which gives this beautiful theory its name – are three main steps. These are ‘letting go’, ‘presencing’ and ‘letting come’. 

‘Letting go’ involves a process of listening, collecting information from as many sources as possible and ‘sensing’ into the feeling of an issue, a dilemma, a challenge. The second step, ‘presencing’ is perhaps the hardest, but the most important. Waiting, suspending activity, connecting to a deeper ‘source’ and not jumping immediately to solution. Only when we have hung out in this uncomfortable territory do we begin to move towards ‘the right-hand side of the U’ and ‘letting come’, which involves ‘Crystallizing’, ‘Prototyping’ and then ‘Performing’. Each phase is an important step in the process. Dialogue and listening are at the heart of the process as is suspending habitual ways of doing things, noticing difference, establishing emotional or empathic connection with self or others, and ultimately listening closely to ‘the future that wants to emerge’. The theory of this is mapped out and backed up in the Theory U research by many examples from all over the world at different operating scales. In practice, it is different every time and involves establishing a connection to the specific issue, specific location and specific culture, history and players involved. This is not about finding a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.

The process is completely emergent in that it is predicated on what happens in the room with and between those people who are actually present. It is an entirely democratic process. We as facilitators are not determining the outcome, nor are those who commission the process. Herein lies the challenge and the excitement. We were encouraged by Welsh Government and NRW to create a process where the outcome was not known beforehand. This needed trust and great commitment from us as facilitators, the commissioning team and those who responded to the invitation to participate.

Phil prepares to meet the participants...
And so, on the 2/3 and the 15/16 of May this year, we did get ‘To the Moon and Back’ during those warm days at Gregynog. We were blessed with fantastic weather. In total 55 people participated including representatives of local government, NRW, Farming Union Wales, National Trust, RSPB, and many community organisers. We asked ourselves many questions and opened ourselves to hear the answers from the emerging future: How do we create a Wales that works for all? How do we ensure the ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations’? How do we put our histories or differences aside and commit to listening rather than telling others what we think they need to do? This was a live experiment, active place and people-based research.  

Greta Thunberg
We brought the ‘future generations into the room’ in the form of 18-year-old Jasmine Jones from Newtown, a straight-talking young woman who had been inspired to organise a school strike in her town by the extraordinary climate activist, Greta Thunberg. The future generations were also brought into the room by a particularly powerful ‘Council’ where each participant talked about their fears and challenges when they think about the future, especially in terms of their children, grandchildren and those yet unborn.

People spoke about their love and knowledge of soil – the soil of a specific place significant to each participant. We walked together outside in nature, practicing forms of what Theory U calls the 4 levels of listening. We underwent a deep and challenging process of questioning to find a new intention for our work, which then crystallised into a proposed prototype project which then led to conversations about collaboration throughout our participants.



The days were long, intense and challenging. There was listening, trust, and deep and significant connections were made. New projects and processes were seeded, and new collaborations envisioned. Many reported back that they had been hungry for conversation, connection, space to think, and to connect to individual and shared visions. Here are just a few of the comments we collected detailing what people took away with them…

Space and time for people to let themselves out of their boxes

Sharing experience, new ways of working, support network

Sense of community – you managed to create it!

Having the time to step back and deconstruct both personally and professionally

Brilliant group of people

Going out for walks!

Using walking exercises with questions

17 Questions

Learning deep listening

Opening up

Understanding different perspectives

Loads of time to reflect and share

Having time and space to be in the moment

Making connections

The sense of shared journey

Meeting others in a wonderful setting

And now, months later, the first frost has settled, and the darker nights are here. What impact has this event had? Has there been change of any significance? What has been put in place, has emerged or evolved six months on? Later this month we meet again with our colleagues at Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales in Cardiff to take stock and see how we might take this forward. From this pilot event, what have we learned? What might we want to do together in future?

We are both deeply grateful for the opportunity to work in this way at this time of great change and turmoil. More than ever, it feels vitally important that we learn again the skills of listening, community, and collaboration. We need to see each other better. We need to learn how to fail better. We need to learn how to learn better. It’s work we feel called to dedicate ourselves to and we hope to do much more of it in the years to come.

We leave the final words to the ecologist and systems thinker, CS Holling -   

“The only way to approach such a period in which uncertainty is high and one cannot predict what the future holds is not to predict but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living”…

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