Walking down the busy city streets, I blend in among the crowd. I am about to give a presentation to an important group of people, and while my nervous system is engaging for the upcoming stressful event, with heart rate increasing, palms sweaty, and dry mouth, I have a secret weapon - I have the inner tools to bring myself back to calm. The presentation went extremely well, and I am off to the airport to catch my flight to my next destination.
Landing at Manchester airport, I am met with chaos. A volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland has grounded virtually every flight. The lines of disgruntled passengers are already forming, tempers begin to flare as people realize no one is going anywhere. As I stand there watching the unfolding scene, I feel the frustration boil up inside me. But I have a secret weapon, I have a long practice of being present in difficult situations. Several hours later, I am told, “You won’t be flying out today.”
Stranded in Manchester and unable to get back to Johannesburg, with insomnia as my friend, I roam the city streets at night. Turning down a quiet street corner, I witness a man aggressively pressing a woman up against a wall, hand lifted above his head about to strike. But I have a secret weapon, years of jiu-jitsu training has prepared me for this very moment. The aggressor never expected to find himself on the floor.
Walking away from that incident, instead of feeling anger, I had a secret weapon, I have learned to let go of the fight, both external and internal. Resuming my walk, and as I entered the main street, I blend into the crowd, steady and well-ordered. When you see me, there’s nothing special about me that stands out. I am just another face among many. But I have a secret, I have done the ‘work.’
My ‘work’ has been ‘fierce’ and ‘original.’ My life has been an inner adventure, searching for the secrets to showing up in life with poise, focus and clarity. Looking at me, you wouldn’t know about the ‘work’ I have committed too. But it shows up in my actions. I decided a long time ago not to conform to the status quo. I was going to follow my own path, on my own terms.
I survived government housing, and growing up poor. I survived government schooling, where the teachers told me I would never amount to anything. I survived severe bullying as a child. I survived an abusive alcoholic Mother. I survived being kicked out of the house at 17 and finding myself homeless, sleeping on the inner city streets. I survived the South Africa military. I survived seven years outside as a doorman outside some of Johannesburg toughest nightclubs. I survived an empty fridge, while I hustled to make my martial arts school a success. I survived having no support in all of this, but I figured it out as I went. In all of this, I was doing the inner ‘work’ so I could thrive.
You see, the steady, well-ordered man that stands before you now, has done the ‘work’ that you have no idea exists. Gustave Flaubert a French novelist, who at his time was highly influential, and considered the leading exponent of literary realism in his country noted: “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.” What I take from Flaubert’s words is that the work is done often behind the curtains, and outside of the public eye. As each one of us comes to the work with our own unique life’s experience it is naturally original.
Doing the inner work is never a smooth ride. It’s fierce, and requires ferocity to stay the course. It is to easy to slip into the status quo, and follow the crowd. To be truly self liberated one has to be willing to stand outside what is considered the norm, while being fiercely determined to stay the course of authenticity, while not becoming ensnared by the modern worlds definition of happiness. You know, that lie of the modern world that industrial civilization, along with limitless economic growth, consumerism and material affluence is a pathway to prosperity and happiness.
What Really Is The ‘Work’ Then?
The work is being able to show up in the modern world, and have had done the fierce and original ‘work’ behind the scenes so as not to become a victim or slave to modernities pathologies. The West’s cultural values of competition at any cost, survival of the fittest, keeping up with the Joneses, the endless hedonic treadmill, a focus on material wealth as a marker of success and so forth have contributed to a society that feels fragmented, anxious, stressed out, and suffering from a loss of meaning. We are, if we view it that way or not, cogs in an enormous market-based machine — a machine that care’s little for our humanity.
While it is true, for most of us, that we cannot simply opt out of the modern world, we can however make a conscious decision on how we are going to play the game. This is where the fierce and original work comes in. The simplest way to do the work is to look around and see the most common struggles people are facing and find a way to do the opposite.
A Thought Experiment
In an attempt to really get to the bottom of what is important, I offered a client the other day this thought experiment. Imagine for a moment we could be transported back to the time of our hunter gatherer ancestors. After we had insured the safety of our band, and had a successful hunt so there was enough food, sitting there what else would be important?
What would be occupying our ancestral minds? All of the things we fret over in the modern world, simply wouldn’t exist, except for what really mattered. We would have a deep connection to family, friends, and earth. Our days would be spent laughing, exploring, and looking up at the night sky with wonder. We would move with the seasons, and our mind would be a mirror of the beauty and awe of the landscape we inhabited. As Emma Goldman, an anarchist political activist argued about our modern life, “With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?” Our ancestors on the other hand were connected to the uncluttered, minimalist embodied wisdom of the human animal and in doing so experienced a natural inner rhythm.
I believe it is still possible, even as we live in the modern world to recapture that natural inner rhythm (although admittingly much tougher). This is the ‘work’ I do daily, and coach to others both individually and at my retreats. The ‘work’ is about being able to show in the modern world with all its uncertainty, chaos, and stress — steady, and well-ordered — in other words with poise, focus and calm.