Thursday 25 January 2018

It’s about time… by Phil Ralph

This year, in September, my partner Fern and I will be teaching a week-long residential course at the Centre for Alternative Technology. Entitled ‘Practicing the Art of Living’, the course will lead up to 12 participants through a cycle of change and transformation, exploring how they might live, work and create differently in this rapidly changing time.

Simply the mere act of writing that paragraph has given me the shivers… of anticipation, of delight, of shock and, above all, of fear. My mind and my ego are now bouncing around inside my head like two competing pinballs, utterly terrified at the prospect of what I am proposing to do. Rising above the cacophony of these two clacking balls is a repeating refrain. A single question, repeated over and over and over and over again –

Who do I think I am?

I never expected to be doing this. To be clear, I never even imagined I would be doing this. I have spent my life assuring myself and anyone who will listen to me that “I’m not a teacher, could never be a teacher, don’t know enough to teach anyone, am superstitious about the whole notion of teaching and what kind of an egotist would I need to be to presume that I had any knowledge that would be valuable enough to others for me to teach it?”

So, the questions I find myself asking are: why now? And what has changed?

And the answers are: It’s about time. And – everything.

Fern and I have now been together as partners for twenty years. In that time, my life has changed beyond all recognition. When we met in 1998, I was living in London and I was an actor. Today, we are living in the wilds of Wales (well, Llandeilo…) and I am a writer, performer, producer, facilitator and – yes – teacher. How the hell did that happen?

The full answer to that question would undoubtedly exhaust your generous attention span (thank you for reading this, by the way…) so let me give you a brief, two-word precis:

Breakdown. Breakthrough.

There you go. That’s 20 years of change in a nutshell. Simples…

Yeah, you guessed it -  it wasn’t really that easy. I mean, it was that pattern but… it didn’t happen just the once. Nor twice. Nor three times. It happened again. And again. And again. And again. And that was just in the last two minutes.

My (extremely belaboured) point is that change is not easy, it is not painless, and it isn’t simply a one-time thing. It is a seemingly endless process of challenge, loss, grief, depression, disassociation, denial, bargaining and ultimately acceptance that goes on throughout life, day in, day out. It’s a process of reimagining who and what I can be in this lifetime – and then doing it again, and again, and…

Wherever you look in the world, you can find aphorisms and sayings that encourage us to accept that life IS change. And that’s easy to accept when it’s just words. But living it – truly going through the process of having your dreams and expectations churned and chopped and discarded and rejected time and time again – is so much harder to do. In fact, it’s a lifetime’s practice… it’s an art…

One of the key things that enabled me to follow the path of change I have been living through in the past 20 years – apart from sharing my life with the most joyously questing human being it has ever been my privilege to know – has been a gradually burgeoning spiritual practice.


As you can tell, I’m something of a recovering cynic – as well as being a recovering actor and addict – and my take on spirituality from the cradle was pretty much encapsulated with a sneery shrug and some combination of the words – what, load, a, of, and knackers. But I discovered to my eternal gratitude that cynicism and a closed mind will only get you so far in life and in my case, it got me just as far as a nervous breakdown, physical illness and severe depression. Opening myself up to the notion that there might be “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” has brought me endless riches – as well as endless challenges and opportunities to learn and grow.

One of the first things I did that began to open my mind was go on a silent meditation retreat at Gaia House in Devon. When I say I went “on a silent meditation retreat” what that actually looked like in practice was booking a place to go on a retreat FOR THREE YEARS RUNNING AND BOTTLING OUT EVERY SINGLE TIME BECAUSE I WAS ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED before finally managing to pluck up the courage to spend a week in silence with other human beings, sitting on a cushion and letting my mind shout at me day and night. And once I finally got there, how was it? Well… 
When you see images of people meditating, they always look so blissful and calm, don’t they? And that is part of it, sure. For maybe one minute every five hours, if you’re lucky… The rest of the time the images should arguably look like the people are in a war zone, assailed from every side by thought after thought after thought… 
But, eventually, after time had slowed to a crawl and my senses had become refined and retuned and I began to watch my thoughts as one might watch the clouds passing across the sky – eventually, by the end of the week I had discovered something truly revolutionary. Ready?

I am not my mind.

God, what a relief, eh? From that point on there was no stopping me. Change and transformation here I come!!! Toot toot!!!

No, not really… At every stage of change, when I could possibly have resisted, you can be damn sure I resisted. I fought and kicked and screamed against letting go of any of the assumptions and desires I had in place for what I thought my life should be. I insisted that I would change no more. But life, as it so often does, had other plans. And, like it or lump it, change I would and change I must.

Now, some seven years after my first retreat, the list of things I do and have done that I could never possibly have imagined seems endless: I have a daily practice of sitting meditation; I have sat in more circles of total strangers undergoing profound spiritual and psychological distress than I could ever have imagined; I have undertaken a vision quest where I went alone into the wilds of north wales with nothing but minimal shelter and water to sustain me;  I have assisted others who have undertaken the same process; I have facilitated transformative gatherings, workshops, and walks; I have co-produced and directed with Fern a documentary series about the unique and wonderful spiritual activist, Satish Kumar; and I have trained as a Warrior for the Human Spirit with my teacher, Margaret Wheatley, and this year I will be stepping up to assist her in training others.

So, as you can see, when I say that everything has changed, I’m not even vaguely exaggerating.

So, why now? Why is it ‘about time’?

I’m 46 years old as I write this at the end of January 2018. I will be 47 in about eight weeks. On a personal level, I’m running out of time. Now, I know that the voice in your head that insists that you won’t ever die has balked at what I just wrote, but the absolute, ineluctable truth of it is I have less time ahead of me than there is behind me. Someday soon – terrifyingly soon – I will die. And I am absolutely certain that I want to be of service while I’m still here and offer some of the hard-won wisdom I have learnt to others.

I could spend the rest of my life asking the question ‘who do I think I am?’ I suspect we all could. Who do I think I am to teach, to guide, to speak, to stand up, to lead, to be generous, to think I have something to offer, to imagine I am talented, valuable, can be of service….? And the only answer to that I can offer is simple –

Who do I think I am? No-one. Just a human being. Alive for now, able and willing to serve for now. Curious, passionate, questing, failing, falling, laughing, crying. A human being. 

Time to get past that question then… That’s the personal level. So, why is it ‘about time’ on the global level?
I don’t really need to tell you, do I? You’re alive too. You know what’s going on, even if you do everything you can to protect yourself from it. None of us know what the future holds – for our species or the planet – but based on where we are right now, today, it doesn’t look good. At all. In fact, it looks really, really bad. And I could bed deep into my old friend, cynicism, and say that I’m alright and screw everyone else and the sky isn’t falling and why do I need to change and grow and share and love… I could do that. But I refer you to the paragraph above where I talked about the fact that I’m running out of time. We all are. Fast. Time to put up or shut up.
So, inspired and nurtured as I have been for the last 20 years by the love and awesome curiosity of my partner Fern, I’ve decided that it’s about time… It’s about time I offer whatever talents and learning I have in the service of others. It’s about time I set aside my fragile ego and my fear of failure and share my life’s learnings for the betterment of all. It’s about time that I accepted that being a teacher doesn’t mean I have to know everything or be everything. Quite the reverse. As I look around the world right now, the scariest, most dangerous people I see are the ones who claim they do know everything… And the most profound and valuable teachers are their opposites. The ones who have walked the path ahead of us and with deep humility and a sense of their own unimportance, share what they know in the hope it will be of service.

What I now know to be true to my very bones is that change is life and life is change. Nothing about that sentence is simple or easy (or grammatically correct…) but it is profoundly and undeniably true. I embrace life and change in all its complexity, beauty and harshness. For however long I have left, I commit to serving life. 

It’s about time...

I will also be teaching a couple of days on 'Changing the Frame: the Science and Art of Communicating for Transition' at Schumacher College in April. The course runs from Monday 19th March to Friday 6th April. Full details available here. 


  1. Diolch o galon for being so inspiringly, disarmingly honest Phil - this post in itself has been so helpful (so yes, you are a teacher, you do have everything to offer!) I wondered if you'd come across The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Ranciere? (It gives an account of the radical teaching methods of nineteenth century French pedagogue Joseph Jacotot, who was, basically, a dude. In short, it's all about the importance of emancipated teaching/learning based on the fact that everyone is equally intelligent and the usual pupil/master relationship assumes a hierarchy that isn't really there) I've used it a lot in my PhD thesis, about my transition to being an 'ignorant activist' - letting go of the idea that I had some kind of eco-knowledge to 'transmit' in favour of creating the ('right') conditions to facilitate others' 'ecological' learning journey (whatever that is)...anyway, just a thought - and thank you! Really!

  2. you made me laugh and cry...... so inspiring for a facilitator of a project to be so open and honest, quite refreshing actually x
    Eleanor Shaw