Saturday, May 3, 2014

Retreating in order to Re-Emerge

I had the opportunity to attend a retreat in New Zealand this Easter, where the leader was a spiritual and relationship guru by the name of Stephanie Dowrick.  As a self-confessed self-help book junky, I have followed Stephanie’s work for over a decade (with special thanks to Jodie Webster who has provided me with a number of books from her publishing house –, and have been longing to attend the retreat at Mana for the past five years.  So I prepared diligently for the experience by spending some time in contemplation before I left and taking some areas for personal development with me that I wanted to address.  And I was not disappointed.

Stephanie’s greatest contributions to the discourse about relationships have been in emphasising kindness and the importance of choosing happiness (see ‘Kndness and other acts of love’ and ‘The Universal Heart’ at ).  This intersects with her inter-faith spirituality, which focuses clearly on love and compassion as the necessary characteristics for an evolving world (see ‘Seeking the Sacred’ and ‘Heaven on Earth’).  And it was precisely in the intersection of relationships and spiritual abundance that I found what I was looking for.

As a survivor of a failed marriage, I feel that I have journeyed deep into the terrain of interpersonal relationships within my own life, as well as exploring it to better my practice as a music therapist. Personally, I explored the self-help literature with the intention of saving my relationship, and then later, with the intention of exiting it in the most positive way.  I have sought teachings from a range of sources, including the very beautiful Conscious Uncoupling process that Gwyneth and Chris recently invoked in the ending of their own relationship (  And importantly, my work with the related Feminine Power group ( helped me to develop the personal strength I needed to respond to my circumstances with vision and inspiration, rather than feeling defeated.

What Stephanie Dowrick reminded me of this Easter was my need to return home with a renewed commitment to compassion.  Given my personal history, as well as my work as a therapist with an increasing interest in manifesting greater equity and justice in the word, I was particularly moved by her reflections on how to integrate compassion into situations that lack harmony.  She responded to our deep need for insights on how to deal with conflict by asking us to consider the following. 
When the bell of disharmony rings loudly, it asks ‘what can I learn here?’ and also, ‘what is disrupting the harmony on the other side?’. 
Instead of reacting in a defensive, or an offended way to conflict, she asked us to bring our willingness to learn something to the encounter.  Instead of focusing on our own hurt, or blaming the other person, she asked us to look deep within ourselves to find a response that combines love with an intelligent curiosity.

Whereas I had previously wondered if Stephanie was just a bit too positive, the Easter retreat revealed that this was an incorrect perception.  She was well able to understand the need to make choices and take actions to move out of situations where mutual respect is not possible.  She did not suggest avoiding conflict, but rather that we need to move gently into the territory where conflict exists in order to discern whether it is possible to bring a mutual sense of ownership to the situation.  She spoke about the ways that moving beyond defensive reactions can increase intimacy, particularly when we bring a willingness to understand the needs of the other in equal measure with our own needs.  And she emphasised the importance of honouring our own boundaries when the other/s is not ready for mutuality.  She asked us to notice when the situation was more than we can bear, and to be kind to ourselves by moving away from those conditions where moving towards has not resulted in a change.

There were bounteous spiritual references throughout the weekend, and Stephanie repeatedly shared the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh and Jesus, as well as the music of Krishna Das and her own colleague, Kim Cunio.  We meditated often, spent much time in silence, and I personally trekked up the mountain on a daily basis to spend time in contemplation of the gorgeous west coast of the North Island in New Zealand.   I am pleased to report that my commitment to compassion has not reduced since my return, and I have chosen to bring it to my workplace as I communicate with students and negotiate the politics of leadership in the university sector. 

It is always much easier to hold on to such loving feelings when surrounded by others who are similarly determined, as we were on the retreat, but I do believe that it is the way I grapple with the real life challenges of being in relationship with others that truly defines who I am.  It is true that I have struggled and not always succeeded, but this does not deter me from my trying. For me, spiritual faith allows me to remember that I am only human, and that it is not expected that I should be perfect – that is the terrain of the Gods.  So I go imperfectly forward with less defence than ever; knowing that I have the inner strength to handle pain, rejection and failure when it comes and that I do not need to live in fear of it by trying to avoid it.  Instead, I go forward with love and compassion.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's just not fair mate. Why we need more music in schools.

I am passionate about the fact that music can create mutually empowering conditions within which people have the opportunity to flourish.  If there is no decent foundation for engaging in music together, then everything begins to get unbalanced.  The situation in Australia is far from equitable, with a significant discrepancy between the possibilities for music that are available to those in publicly funded and user-pays schools.  It sucks.  So I wrote a little piece about it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Return to feminism

As the amount of time grows from the end of my marriage, I am more clearly able to see some of the deeply rooted beliefs that had taken hold during those 17 years of relationship.  One of them was turning my back on feminism, which I can see now was actually a break, rather than a conclusion.  I have spent some time in the past few days reflecting on my relationship with feminism and being pleasantly surprised by how important it has been to me, not least because my mother was a feminist of the 60s and 70s.

During my years living in a residential college at the University of Melbourne, I became the representative of the colleges on the Universities Feminist Committee.  To this day I am not sure how that happened, and I remember feeling utterly under-qualified for the position but determined to learn as much as I could. This experience of being thrust into positions that seem far beyond my abilities has been a recurring pattern in my life, but with the Feminist Committee, as with many other situations, I seemed to find my way and ultimately began to identify as a feminist.  This sometimes involved battling with the assumptions of the other women on the committee who felt that all women living in residential colleges were unduly privileged and therefore uninformed and un-critical.  I felt this was unjust and oppressive and told them so, and some of the members began to treat me with a little more respect.  Of course, there was some truth in their accusations, but I was right to suggest that women excluding other women from potential growth opportunities was a small-minded response.

During that time I purchased all the contemporary pop-feminist literature that was available, including Susan Faludi’s ‘Backlash: The undeclared war against women’, and Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ and ‘Fire with Fire’, as well as the less politically correct ‘Get your tongue out of my mouth, I’m kissing you goodbye’ and an older text by Colette Dowling ‘The Cinderella Complex’.  I also stole some books from my mother’s collection: ‘The Hite Report’ and ‘The Women’s Room’.  My social work lecturer encouraged us to read Foucault’s ‘The History of Sexuality’ and I remember Virginia Wolf’s ‘Orlando’ coming out as a movie during this time.  All in all, it was a reasonable beginning and I was well supported by my ‘privileged’ friendship networks to challenge assumptions and make loud speeches at dinner parties, even if I only had a few pieces to string together.

Over the next two decades I began to question feminism however, and I can see now that this was caused by the incongruence between the ideals of the discourse and the realities of my life.  I clearly remember thinking ‘What’s the point of all this feminist reading, it’s just making me terribly unhappy.  I can’t live up to these standards’.  After years of quiet raging, I turned my back on critical beliefs and turned towards more positive readings.  I reignited my passion for Humanism and it’s emphasis on unconditional positive regard – the opposite of holding critical perspectives.  I imbibed every positive psychology text that supported my individual choosing of happiness, and I focused on flourishing and creativity.  And I reignited my faith, moving through Buddhism to Integral Spirituality.  These were not wasted decades.  I learned a great deal from these scholars and I am particularly grateful to have developed a capacity to take responsibility for my own part in any challenging situation, rather than simply blaming others. 

In the year before my marriage ended however, I discovered a new discourse.  My studies of Ken Wilber’s integral thinking led me to two women (one American, one Australian) who had developed an on-going conversation called Feminine Power – Claire Zammit and Katherine Woodward Thomas.  This on-line group provided me with the impetus to value the contribution that women are here to make in the world.  The focus on mutually empowering relationships and choosing a calling that is bigger than individual happiness literally changed my world.  Learning to value myself again allowed me to make the important decisions that I had been trying to run away from.

It still took some time to come back to critical feminism however.  I recall participating in a Feminist Music Therapy symposium in Argentina in 2008 where I declared that there was no more need for feminism and that our mother’s had achieved all they could through this discourse (ahhh, it is a humiliating memory, I must admit).  But lately I have found myself tentatively poking around the edges of feminism again.  I have bought more books, read more articles, and allowed myself to be truly appalled by the statistics about the treatment of women in the world – supported by viewing many TED talks that provide important information about the issues facing many women in countries around the globe.  In my own privileged world at the University I have participated in women’s leadership forums where the facts are also oppressive and where male domination is still the status quo.  And finally I have found my way back to feminist theory. The opportunity to work with Sue Hadley as a Co-Editor of Voices: A world forum for music therapy (along with Brynjulf Stige), has been particularly inspiring.  And so have many women colleagues in my field and beyond – particularly the anti-oppressive work being advocated by Sue Baines, and Randi Rolvsjord’s ‘Resource Oriented Music Therapy’. 

I am making a re-commitment to feminism in this summer-time blog.  I aspire to problematize my research findings, and to shine light on the assumptions that underpin the oppressions that impinge on people’s full participation.  I recognize that my circle of influence is limited, but I aim to contribute what I can and to support others to do what they can.  I take up Craig Hamilton’s challenge (from the Integral Enlightenment group) – if not you, then who?