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