Thursday, 8 April 2021

Crying for a Vision…

Phil: I was looking to the West, but I had no idea if the sun had gone down...

The day had been grey and cold and overcast and, as the sky darkened into night, it got colder, and the rain and wind set in. I was sitting on a rock in the foothills of Cnicht in Snowdonia, overlooking the estuary that passes Porthmadog and pours into Cardigan Bay. I was wrapped in a builder’s tarpaulin that had been my only shelter for four days and nights. I hadn’t eaten in all that time, just water. Water, water everywhere and I really couldn’t face another drop to drink. I was wearing every item of clothing I had with me and still the cold ate into my tired and achy bones. My rucksack beside me contained my entire world. Everything that had kept me alive for the past four long days was inside them and, as I sat on the cold, hard rock, it never occurred to me that maybe I should get my sleeping bag and mat out and try and keep myself warm through the long night ahead… As the darkness crept in and the rain hammered down, I wrapped the tarp tighter around my shoulders and prayed for the night to be over… 

 

This wasn’t what I’d had in mind for the final night of my Vision Fast when I signed up to do it. I’d envisioned a warm, calm, starlit night of blissful serenity and peace, as I stayed awake in the heightened state of having fasted for four days, crying for a vision… The instructions were clear and my dream of a ‘peak experience’ was equally clear. I would stay awake all night. I would be visited by clarity and wisdom and ‘know’ what my future direction should be. I would turn to the East in the middle of the night and await the rising of the sun, knowing that it would bring enlightenment with it. I would then walk back into the base camp as the day broke, to break my fast and re-join my questing companions before returning to the house where we had prepared, to tell our stories and return to our lives utterly changed... In short, I’d envisioned it all being simple, clear, perfection. A night of beauty. A culmination. A celebration. A vision… 

 

What I got was the longest, hardest, most uncomfortable night of my life. A night which I spent most of huddled under that tarpaulin crying for it to be over. Shivering with near hypothermia. Vomiting up the stomach acid that had built up in my gut over the days of fasting. Desperately holding my hand in front of my face, swearing to myself that the second I could see it without a torch, I was making a dash for base camp… It was, without hyperbole, a long, agonising nightmare… And… it was exactly what I needed it to be. It was the vision I needed. It taught me so much about myself – about who I was, who I no longer needed to be, and who I needed to become. It was real. It was grounded. It was earthed. And it was the most important night of my life to date. Now, six years later, I find myself – with some astonishment – sitting alongside my life partner, Fern, as we offer Vision Fast ceremonies for those who feel called to step into them. It is a privilege and an honour to hold space for people and guide them through this most profound, challenging and enriching of rituals. It is work I feel I’ve been walking towards all my life. And that night on that mountain side was a crucial first step in my journey…

 Fern: I first came across the powerful ceremony called Vision Quest in a book called ‘Presence’, a transcript of a series of dialogues between four prominent leaders based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

They were talking about the Vision Quest in terms of how leaders might have an embodied experience of their true and eternal connection to the living world and, by so doing, be in a position to make better decisions about leadership in service of life instead of coming from an exploitative, extractive mind-set. At the time I was Fellow for Wales on the Clore Leadership Programme. I decided I would adopt a methodology of ‘synchronicity’ – trusting and following where the universe guided me. This journey took me to hidden depths and wayward places – and to my first Vision Quest, undertaken with the guidance of David Wendl Berry. It began what was to become a year-long immersive investigation into the nature of leadership – and to a total break from everything my life had been up to that point. In stepping into my first Vision Quest, I stepped away from my first life and moved towards what was to become my second... 


I went on my first Vision Quest for many reasons. I knew I was at a turning point and was wanting guidance in whatever form it would show up. The Vision Quest - which having now trained in guiding the process I like to call a Vision Fast or Solo Quest in Nature - is a powerful initiatory ceremony. It initiated me into the second part of my life. Over the next seven years, my life was to change radically from what it had been before. The secret longings and dreams I had hardly dared to share with anyone now became what I wanted to manifest and to finally live. I was inviting myself, challenging myself, daring myself to grow up. I don’t say this in any flippant manner. The Vision Fast can be undertaken at any time of life. Traditionally it would have been a ceremony to witness and support the maturation of the child and to welcome the young adult, inviting them to take their place in their community in order to be of service to their people. At the heart of this powerful ceremony is an invitation to step into who we truly are, who we were born to be in order to bring our unique and specific gifts into a world that is longing for us to do just that.

I vividly remember taking the train to Barmouth in North Wales from my home in Swansea. In my rucksack I had everything I needed to keep me safe, dry and warm for four days and nights of fasting in the sun and rain on a Welsh hillside. I went with excitement but also fear. I had so many fears – of the dark, of the cold, of getting lost, and of a four-day empty belly. All of these fears were real. The Vision Fast is the enactment of a ritual death. We let go of who and what is no longer needed for our journey forward into life. So yes, the ceremony is one of severance but it is also one of stepping towards a new relationship to life and self. The Vision Fast is a time of death-birth, as with all powerful initiations and rites of passage. 


My time on that Welsh hillside fasting was rich. The lessons given to me in those four days and nights took a good seven years to incorporate into my life. And, ten years on, I am still that wide-eyed, unsteady new born that tottered off that hillside. They say, that to undergo a rite of passage is to be twice born. The first birth is the one which brings us to Earth, the second is a more conscious birthing which enables us to finally meet ourselves and our unfolding and emergent nature. I am so happy I got the chance to do this before I die. 

 

Since that first time ‘crying for a vision’ exactly ten years ago - after vowing never, ever, under any circumstance to do it again - I am now making preparations for my fourth Vision Fast in May. Each is different. Each is beautiful and powerful in its own way. Each time I am given just what I need. I take out my fears, my questions, my insecurities, my yearnings, and I lay them down on the earth. I sit with them. Hold them. Cry with them. Let them go. I have now had the enormous gift of having been a mid-wife for other initiates. I have sat in circle, apprenticed to and assisted my original teacher, and been taught by some of the most gifted and sensitive hearts I’ve ever met at the School of Lost Borders in California where this particular form of wilderness work was honed. 

 

This year, in June at the Summer Solstice and in September we will take a new cohort of initiates out for four days and nights onto a hillside in mid Wales… Maybe you will be there with us… Maybe this ceremony calls to you… Maybe now is the time for you to be twice-born… If it is, then we have a space in the circle waiting for you… 

Get in touch for a conversation and follow the links for more information on the two Rites of Passage in Nature ceremonies we offer: 

Summer Solstice Vision Fast . June 2021

Space for Change. July 2021

Autumn Vision Fast. September 2021 

Phil Ralph & Fern Smith

emergence-uk.org

Monday, 1 March 2021

Is the chrysalis cracking? - Musing on the future in the time of Covid

As we mark a year of the world living with Covid-19 and all of it’s effects on how we live, and as Fern and I personally approach the launch of our latest projects, we look at what has happened to us, what the future holds and living into the new…

O Brave New World...

Phil: As the anniversary of the first lockdown rapidly approaches, and as the current ‘wave’ of the pandemic rolls on and ever on, Fern and I often sit down together of an evening and wonder about the future. 

It’s obviously too early to say what will come next or what we will learn from all of this. And the differing opinions on whether or not we will go back to ‘normal’, or what ‘normal’ even means anymore, are likewise infinite and only add to the exhaustion…

With all of that said, we feel a strong pull to chew over what this year of loss, change, insight, and fear has brought us, and how we can begin to step into the uncertain future when the road ahead seems so very, very unclear… We begin with an image… but first some context...

All this past year since our last blog post ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, (where we found ourselves stopping, letting go of ‘doing’ and simply listening for what comes next), we have mused on how we feel these personal and global events rest on a spectrum of a rite of passage. After all, we are rites of passage guides (among the many other things we do) and if Covid-19 hasn’t been a rite of passage for humanity, then it’s hard to know what would be.

Lockdown in the UK in March 2020 felt like ‘severance’ or ‘separation’, the first phase of a rite of passage where, in the tradition in which we work - as taught by The School of Lost Borders - the initiate leaves behind the life they know and steps into the unknown. Everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world was forcibly removed from us and we were left wondering what the future would hold and, most importantly, who we would be in that far off time…

As the weeks spread into months, we found ourselves accepting that we were in 'threshold' time, the dark, slow, painful, middle space of a rite of passage, where initiates face their darkest fears and spend four long days and nights alone in the wilderness with minimal shelter, crying for a vision. Threshold – literally named after ‘the threshing hold’ where wheat is separated from the chaff – is where we face ourselves in the clearest way possible, no illusions, just who we are in the face of adversity.

One thing is commonplace to all who pass through threshold initiation: we know we cannot return to the way life was before. That life is gone. As Leon Wieseltier says in his beautiful book ‘Kaddish’ – “The old life was a good life. But it is no longer available to you. It has been carried away irreversibly.” So, we must go forwards into the uncertain future.

With all of this in mind, and as we process the enormous changes that we have personally gone through, we find ourselves like the initiates packing up our makeshift camps, readying to depart from our ‘solo’ time and trudge back to the blessing circle and our community. We are exhausted, afraid, filled with trepidation and also exhilarated about stepping into the new unknown of ‘what comes next’…

Blessing circle - Emergence Vision Fast 2020


Now, as the world turns, ‘roadmaps’ out of lockdown are produced, and we come to realise that Covid (and all its various mutations) is most likely here to stay, we are contemplating emerging into what we refer to as ‘incorporation’. In this third and final phase, we tell, for the first time, the story of our own experiences and take on the hard-won lessons from our threshold time - and begin to try to live by what we have learned…

And so, the image we are sitting with is that of a chrysalis, the nascent butterfly within beginning to chafe against the strictures of its safe space and feeling the need to emerge. In order to reach this point, the original caterpillar has literally broken itself down to its DNA and reformed itself as an entirely different creature altogether. Now, in the most dangerous moment of all, it must face emerging into the new reality – soft, vulnerable, inexperienced… This is where we are now, collectively. How do we go forwards when things are so uncertain? Do we have the bravery to imagine what the future might look like? And are we strong enough to step into it? That’s what we’re here to work on…

Fern: It’s been a long time since we shared ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’! I thought we would have written a follow-up blog long before now. Phil and I had talked a little about perhaps writing ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ 2, but it always felt a bit presumptuous – like we already had a sense of where we were going and how long it might take to get there. Sometimes when the conditions are very specific, the cloud doesn’t shift, it just sits there.

I’d initially thought it would have shifted by the Summer of 2020, the Autumn, the Winter, surely by the New Year of 2021? A fresh start, a new beginning. But no, still the Cloud of Unknowing stuck around. The festival of Imbolc usually heralds the first signs of Spring in early February. But then arctic East Winds, sub-zero temperatures and floods hit many areas of the UK. Like a second Winter. Spring has been a long time coming.

Walking through the winter fields


We’ve spoken about writing an Emergence blog for some time now. We had spoken about this blog heralding the launch of a new season of work and offerings for 2021. But something told us to hold back. There was some preparatory work which needed doing first.

Through the dark Winter months, I’ve been waiting, hibernating, clearing, preparing and making ready for this time. Knowing that one day it would feel right to emerge.

During lock-down we found ourselves unexpectedly becoming custodians of a very large garden. We have taken on a loan to buy the beautiful place we’d been renting since the Summer of 2018. The work of ‘Pulling out the weeds, hands in the earth, planting seeds’ that I spoke about in the last blog has become increasingly significant as we daily tend and grow the garden and care for the surrounding woods.

The garden at The Barn

We trusted that there would be a time to plant seeds, but it wasn’t during those dark days. There was a forest of bamboo to clear, to dig out the strong, dense mass of roots. There has been a mass of leaves and last year’s brown matter to clear and compost. There have been brambles to clear, revealing a wash of snowdrops down by the river. Clearing away, cutting back the deadwood so that one day in the future something new will grow and it will have the space it needs to grow into what it will become.

Preparation is a slow process not to be hurried. Patience needs cultivating. And trust. These past few months, I have increasingly been saying to myself (and others) ‘keep your nerve’.

Last week, the frogs were busy in the garden pond. There were maybe 40 of them. An increase in temperature and wet conditions made the conditions just right. Perfect for a riotous mating season which went on for five days and has just now abruptly stopped.

And today, I feel it. Today I saw my first bee foraging in a bunch of deep purple crocuses. Then, my first primrose and a couple of early lambs.

On a more profane note... We even had our septic tank emptied for the first time yesterday. That’s 750 gallons of old and inherited shit which has literally been sucked up and is now gone from the premises enormous thanks to Abba Drains. There couldn’t be a better metaphor for being primed and ready for what comes next.

The shitman cometh... and 700 gallons of shit goeth...

The caterpillar is emerging. The chrysalis is cracking. We are in the early phase of ‘incorporation’ ready to take on our new identity, role, venture.

And now to plant the first seed…

Phil and I are launching a new venture – a space, this house with its beautiful adjoining converted barn. This will be a place for making, for ceremony, for nature connection, for rest, writing, and residencies, for soul and spirit connection for individuals and small groups…

In this space carved out by the Pandemic – of stopping, of letting go of expectation and outcome, something has emerged – a new space. A Centre for Emergence – a dream many years in the incubation. 

The Barn - a new Centre for Emergence
We have been painting, decorating, cleaning, plastering, furnishing. A new space is coming into being out of this most improbable of years. This was the thing we secretly hoped for but hadn’t dared dream. We are emerging from the chrysalis. Newly shaped, skins still thin and vulnerable. Stepping into a new phase – we have been individually and collectively initiated into a new way of being. We are not who we were, we cannot do what we did though we might try and return to the old normal. We are not quite yet who we will become. But given time…

We are committed to being here in this not-quite, almost-there space. We hope to welcome ‘artists in residence’. We are planning to offer creative, nurturing and transformative experiences. Over the coming year, we are planning to offer a Summer and Autumn Vision Fast, A Space for Change and Bardsey Time as well as supporting solo or group, self-guided residencies and retreats.

The world and all of us will never be the same again. We are learning what it is to be fully human in this time of flux, change, fluidity. I think we all have thinner skins, we are all finding our form, our way, our shape… Perhaps this is the learning of this lifetime. How do we become fully human in these times in which we are living? How do we allow the disintegration of who we were, in order to become who we will be? Let the chrysalis crack and see what emerges…

Fern & Phil 

For more information about The Barn – The Emergence Centre for Making, Being & Doing click here

For more information on our two Vision Fasts for 2021 click here

For more information on Space for Change 2021 click here 

For more information on Bardsey Time 2021 click here


 

 

 

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