Thursday, 1 December 2016

A Story of Hope - the Fourth H Word

A Story of Hope - the Fourth H Word

Day 2 (Friday 2nd December 2016)

2 choices were given to eligible voters in the UK Referendum
that took place on Thursday 23rd June 2016.

England voted strongly for Brexit, by 53.4% to 46.6%, 

as did Wales, with Leave getting 52.5% of the vote and Remain 47.5%. 

Scotland and Northern Ireland both backed staying in the EU. 

Scotland backed Remain by 62% to 38%, while 55.8% in 

Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2% Leave.

Today's piece is full of emotion and depth.  It is contributed by Michele Armstrong, the MD of Acorn Principle Plus, which she established in 2003. Michele is a mindfulness specialist and Head of Coaching for Mindful Talent, which established a working partnership with Acorn earlier this year. Michelle is passionate about coaching and the need for ethics and standards. She was appointed Head of the Association for Coaching Scotland in 2004. She demonstrates an impressive drive for personal growth and learning - she studied for a BA in Community Education at The University of Edinburgh, in the early 1990s, and since then has attained an MSc in Neuroscience of Leadership from Middlesex University and a further MSc in Mindfulness (graduating this year) from the University of Aberdeen. Michele is based in Edinburgh. Prior to founding her own business, Michelle was an Executive Coach for the Buccleugh Estates. As a child I spent every summer in Scotland and the stretch of the river Nith on which I fished (and in which I occasionally swam) was next to some of the Buccleuch lands - amazing countryside and passionate people working to ensure sustainable economic development for the individuals who worked on, and the communities living near and engaging with, the natural resources. Hard not to be well-grounded after the experience of being with people working to ensure the continuity of beautiful, sustainable environments. You can follow Michelle on Twitter, her handle is @micheleatacorn

As you will see from her following words, Michelle has a large heart and considerable resilience. When not helping and supporting others, Michelle is a keen amateur gardener. She likes seeing things grow. It is a pleasure having her as the second contributor of this year's Advent Blog series. 


In considering the theme of #Advent Blogs 2016 – Heights, Hearts & Hollows, my mind was filled with so many thoughts I wanted to share under each of these topics. I spent a few days sitting with my mind full of ideas, then started to get all my thoughts out onto paper by journaling freely, until the story began to emerge. At times words would pour out in a flood and confuse my senses; at other times I would stare at a blank page in the way I imagine Ted Hughes might have done as he waited for his Thought Fox to appear.

The following poem by Rumi (and other poems I find inspiring) let me view my experiences from a different position; a place from which I could look back on the hollows (instead of from within) and upwards and onwards to new heights – enjoying the promise of things to come.

The Guesthouse

This being human is a guest house

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. ~ Rumi

The story I share with you now represents a manicured version of the words, thoughts and feelings that have been showing up at my guesthouse since the untimely death of my daughter almost three years ago. Yes, the ‘crowd of sorrows’ have been here, along with anger, disbelief and pain, as well as many thoughts I regarded as dark and shameful. And I don’t mind admitting that I was far from able to ‘meet them at the door laughing’. 

However, it is the ‘unexpected visitors’ I want to write about today, because this is a story of hope – the fourth H word.

From Hollows to Hope

My time spent in the ‘hollows’, although intense, was temporary, and arguably served some kind of purpose. At times, I felt like I was locked in a dark prison cell, in solitary confinement, alone and with no way out. 

My daughter’s death felt meaningless, unfair and isolating, and although I desperately tried to make sense of it, none came. I was seeking solutions to something there were no real answers to.

After a while, I became aware that there were no locks or chains holding me in the hollows; I was choosing to stay there, wallowing. I experienced fleeting moments of fresh awareness and glimpses of light; they told me there was hope.

With hope, I felt the darkness grow softer. The heaviness felt lighter. I felt I’d made space for new visitors to the guesthouse. Hope is slow to come, but it comes.

Anger still came and went, each time pointing the finger at something or someone different:
  • myself (shoulda, woulda, coulda)
  • ‘them’ (why doesn’t anyone prepare us for death – they know it’s going to happen)
  • The government (well, why not!?)

Hope was a constant visitor, making it possible for me to ‘be here now’, to exist in this moment. To sit with sadness and let it be, to acknowledge the shame and doubt before letting them go; and to allow memories that, although sad, would bring joy to visit me too. I learned that I didn’t need to hold onto my guests because each one will come and go if I accept that ‘this too shall pass’.

Hope transforms Hearts

From somewhere in my memory I remembered the lotus flower that begins life in the murky depths of a muddy pool where there seems little hope of new growth or any sign of life. In some traditions, the bud of the lotus symbolises potential. Wrapped within the bud are all the tiny leaves that will one day grow out of the mud and rise above the dirty water to share their beauty with the world. The open flower symbolises an open heart.

At the time I’d been studying several courses that challenged me to view the world and my experience of it through various lenses. I particularly liked (and learned from) the ULab course (based on Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U’) and studies in mindfulness. Both had taken me along a path where I was learning to let go of my limited understanding of things, to listen at a deeper level, to be still and to hear what my heart was telling me. Now that I was experiencing life from a completely different perspective, and nothing seemed to make sense any more, I let go of the theory and grasped onto what was real and meaningful, and still felt tangible enough to hold onto through my grief. I was learning to open my heart, to know what it is to feel without being able to hide from the feelings and to allow myself to lean into my vulnerability.

I came to realise that I was not alone; in fact, the opposite was true. I am surrounded by love from family and friends and I am connected, on many levels, to the people who share this world with me. 

I’ve realised that this human connection gives rise to spiritual growth, and opens the door to many new visitors to my guesthouse, and to old friends who I’d almost forgotten. Hope was the catalyst in reintroducing me to the presence of love, faith, kindness and compassion. As each of these grew stronger, the ‘crowd of sorrows’ grew smaller. 

My heart continues to ache, and there’s a space in my life that I still have to navigate around. However, I’m learning to welcome vulnerability, sorrow and sadness, and I am grateful for their visits. 

With them comes a sense of the joys and the good times that, for now, are locked in the memories that accompany the group on their visits. 

One of my favourite poets, Kahlil Gibran, talks about our relationship with our children in his book, The Prophet. He said:

“Your children are not your children.They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.They come through you but not from you,And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

…You may house their bodies but not their souls,For their souls’ dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams." 

Writing about death he said, 
“And when you have reached the mountain top, then
           you shall begin to climb”.

Reaching the Heights

Back at the start of the story, I said my current perspective enabled me to look ‘upwards and onwards to new heights – enjoying the promise of things to come’. This is true. In the last few months, I’ve turned a corner and am building a new way of life that embraces this new, open-heartedness that has emerged out of the muddy hollows. When my daughter died, her two small children came to live with my husband and I, and our life was thrown into a completely new orbit as ‘kinship carers’. Amidst the grief, my husband and I rose to the challenge and slowly redefined what life means to us.

Life’s transitions and changes can be hard at the best of times; at the worst of times I felt like I wasn’t going to make it. And yet, here I am to tell the tale.

Gibran went on to say, in his writings about death,

“You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?”

I discovered that hope transforms the heart. I learned that we are not alone on this planet – ever – even when it feels like we are. We are all connected and if we can learn to open our hearts to feel that connection, and to be led by our hearts to build stronger connections through kindness and compassion, then we will genuinely experience the heart of life and begin to climb.

“In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring”
- Kahlil Gibran, 1995 

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