What does this space know?

Some thoughts from Rupert Meese

What do you want from your website?

Posted by Rupert Meese on October 1, 2009

Many alternative health practitioners, therapists and counsellors who need a website to attract clients and maintain credibility do not have one. When I went to set up my own website to promote my growing Reiki practice in 2007 I discovered why. I entered into it expecting the whole thing to be very easy. After all, as a software consultant for a large telecoms firm I was about as tech’ savy as you can get. The internet was invented in 1987 by Tim Bernes-Lee. I had watched it grow. Surely it had been around long enough so that creating a website was now run-of-the-mill. Sadly it turned out not to be. I started my journey by asking my Reiki, psychotherapist and counsellor friends about how they got their website. I was surprised that not one among them said – Oh, it’s easy. Just go to…
Rather they all shook their heads and said things like “It’s a nightmare”, or “I paid someone a fortune, but it took ages, and I don’t really like it” or “I got someone I know to do it, but I’m not really that happy with it”. In fact no one was happy with their website. Not to worry, I thought. I’ll search the web and find out how to create my own. I spent hours on Google finding yet another way to create a website. I tried them all and there are hundreds. It was a very frustrating time but alongside this process I became an expert in important but arcane aspects of the internet. I discovered that simply having a website wasn’t enough. It needed to be found, which meant it needed meta-data descriptions and keywords, and submission to sites such as the open directory project and incoming links and structuring in a search engine readable format and on and on… And as I learned all of this internet black magic I thought “does everyone really need to know all of this stuff? Sure it matters, but isn’t is someone else’s job to make sure that all of this just happens?

Each new way of creating a website has some alluring points, but actually none of them met all of my criteria. I know I can be a bit demanding when it comes to getting the best of all worlds, so I reviewed my criteria. What I wanted from my website service:
1.I wanted my website to be beautiful. It mattered that my website looked good. I have seen a lot of plain websites that appear amateur and can put off potential clients. Google’s offering – brilliant for being free comes into this category, as do many paid for offerings. Worse than being plain, there are many ways to create a website where is possible to create a beautiful website, but only just. In other words, you can get a beautiful website out of them, but only if you have spent many hundreds of hours studying graphic design. These sites include some free ones that appear great at first sight, but their appeal quickly wears off after hours of fruitless and frustrating pushing boxes around. iWeb for apple mac computers wins hands down in it’s ability to produce visually rich, appealing websites that are structurally sound. Sadly you still need to know how to get the website you create from your computer to a server with a domain name of your choosing, and it does not support keyword or description meta-data, embedded HTML or many of the other things that I wanted from a simple website service for my practice.
2.I wanted my website to be affordable. Free was ideal, of course, and I tried all of the free options, but I soon realized that there were some serious flaws here. In some cases what I was being offered for free was supported by advertising, which my clients would have to see each time they visited my site. In others what was being offered didn’t seem like a website at all. Just a bag of bits. I could assemble the bits myself and make a website out of them, but it all seemed very unsatisfactory. In no case with free services were there any real people to help, of course, and none of them included any guidance on that arcane knowledge about how to get found, or where to get good quality images or any of the things that I actually really needed. At the other end of the scale was paying someone to design my website. This can be a good solution if you know and trust the web designer and have between £500 and £3000 pounds to spend. I simply did not want to spend that much on my website. I did not believe it was necessary. That is not to say that a good designer is not worth that and more. There is an absolutely enormous amount of time and skill that goes into creating a bespoke website. From my perspective, this was the problem, that all of that skill had not been captured in a service that could deliver it at the right price. For me I wanted to spend no more than £150 on setting up the site and no more than £15 a month on maintaining it. These seemed like very sensible upper limits.
3.I wanted my website to be simple and flexible. It was important to me that I could edit and change my website as and when I wanted, and that should be simple and easy to do. That way I didn’t need to get it all right in one go. I could get it about right, then go back to it and adjust and grow in a much more organic way in my own time. I knew this simply would not be my experience if I could only make changes by phoning my web designer. I also wanted to be able to see my changes as they would look before I made them public. I wanted to be able to write content without worrying about HTML, the language of the internet, but I also wanted to be able to do all of the modern stuff. Linking to other sites and including photos are obviously requirements but I also wanted to be able to include video, embed from youtube, link to flikr, and include any of the other hundreds of widgets that are to be found on the internet. In other words, I did not want simplicity to mean impossibility.
4.I wanted my website service to be complete. I could see no reason why I, as someone who simply wanted a website, should have to unravel the difference between domain name registrars, hosting companies, web space, website software companies and all of the rest. I didn’t want to have a website and then pay extra to renew a domain name. I didn’t want to end up with a website that didn’t appear on the web, because I hadn’t paid extra for it to be submitted to search engines. I wanted someone else to take care of that, all in one package. Also I did not want to be presented an empty screen when I signed up with the instructions: here you go – make a website. I wanted more that that – something to work from.

Having reviewed my criteria and all of the services currently available I realized pretty quickly that such a thing did not exist. By that time, though, I was committed. If this service did not exist, then it should. It was a strange realization that as a software consultant with 25 years of experience in developing innovative software systems, who also had a passion for alternative therapy and an active practice, who had trained in the art and science of communication and was at that time looking for a way to use my talent in a more holistic balanced way than the telecoms industry offered, that I was almost exactly the person needed to drive the creation of this service. I set to work on almost two years of extensive development effort, with one aim in mind – to produce a way for therapists, counsellors and alternative health professionals to create websites that really served their needs. In other words one that looked great, that clients could find, that practitioners could afford, that was easy to set-up and use even for the those who are the most disinclined towards computers. In other words, websites that make you happy.

What I came up with was the Butterflytent. A website creation service that anyone can use. It is packed with innovations each designed to make the process work smoothly. All with the sole aim of ensuring that when asked about creating a website people say “Oh it’s easy, just go to the Butterflytent.”

Celia's Website

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Samaritans selection day

Posted by Rupert Meese on September 23, 2009


I recently volunteered as a ‘listener’ for the Samaritans. The Samaritans do amazing work and change the lives of thousands of people each year, often changing lives means saving lives, through the simple act of listening. Their philosophy and understanding, that advice is not the answer, is so in line with the principles that I work from as a Symbolic Modeller that I could not ignore my sense of a call to duty that I got whenever I considered volunteering. And so, I want to write about the selection process to encourage anyone else considering volunteering.

The Samaritans selection process starts online at (here) or by calling the special volunteer line (UK: 08705 62 72 82). Samaritans local branches are interested in anyone volunteering over 18 with the ability to listen and remain open minded. A comprehensive program ensures that volunteers are fully trained and supported in the role that they take on and no formal training is needed before applying. Volunteers are expected to put in

When you apply on line you fill in a simple form and the local Samaritans branch get in touch to let you know about the next information day. This is a chance to visit the Samaritans local office, talk to volunteers and get to know the whole philosophy and approach. This is a really interesting and informative day in itself. When I went it was to the office in an old terrace on the outskirts of town. The building was basic and the atmosphere that it gave was somewhere between cool and neutral, and somewhat institutional. I was a little unsure what to expect, but the four volunteers that hosted the day were each warm and enthusiastic about the service that they offered, and in that I had the clear sense of the value that they got from volunteering. Rosie, one of the volunteers, took us through the typical journey of a trainee volunteer: six weeks of training follow selection, mostly, in our case, on Tuesday evenings with a couple of Saturdays thrown in for good measure. Much of the training, she says, centers on ensuring that volunteers are actively listening rather than attempting to give advice. I know very well the power that listening with attention can have. In my circles we call keeping the listener/facilitators stuff out of an interaction being ‘clean’. Following the training, during which volunteers gain experience through roll-play and exercises, the volunteer starts on a rota, attending the office to answer phones and e-mail around once a week and including around one night shift a month. The trainee is far from ‘let loose’ however. At this point they enter a six month probationary period during which the trainee is supported by a mentor. Initially the trainee shadows the mentor listening to the mentor answer calls, then taking calls with the mentor close at hand, then having the mentor available to offload following any difficult calls, and so the process of becoming a fully fledged ‘listener’ is supported all of the way. That support does not stop at the end of the probationary period either. After every shift a duty officer is available to turn to following any particularly difficult or harrowing calls.

I left the information day with a very clear sense that the work being done by the Samaritans was too important to ignore and so I completed my application form, including two referees and was delighted to be given a date to attend the selection day, which the branch run three times a year.

The day started at 10 in the same building as before. Around twelve of us attended along with four Samaritans who’s job it was to make the judgment about admitting each of us into the fold. Having said that, the day was largely relaxed and informal. After some presentations about the work of the Samaritans we got to work with group exercises. These were largely designed to get us talking in the group, giving the selectors the chance to hear our voices and opinions and so get to know us a little. It was, in fact, a very gentle process. The final exercise after lunch was great fun – we were tasked with deciding, in groups, which six out of nineteen candidates should survive the end of the earth, the remaining thirteen perishing along with the rest of the population! The final part of the selection day was for each of us to be interviewed by two of the selection panel. This was also relaxed and enjoyable, with wide ranging and interesting questions.

All in all it was a considerate, well structured experience managed well by committed volunteers and I look forward to starting the training.

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Biodanza: The Sisters and Brothers of Mercy

Posted by Rupert Meese on September 22, 2009


We sit in the closing circle of the fourth international Biodanza festival. I sit snuggled up against my firm friend Carol. She reaches over and gently strokes my arm and I rest my head against hers. Four days ago we were strangers, but a lot can happen in four days. We’ve taken risks together and we’ve shared deeply. The strange thing is that the first time we ever spoke to each other was just five minutes ago.

Patra, who had spent the last days cooking for and looking after the 120 delegates spoke in the circle and said “I’ve been watching you all dance over the last four days and I’ve come to realise something: This this stuff could change the world”. He’s right.

So what’s going on. What is Biodanza (often pronounced bee-oh-danza) and why is this more than just a quaint hippy love-in? Well, the first thing is that we are, all of us, simple ordinary people. All walks of life, all manner of world views, all ages. Clare who’s in her sixties says to me with a big smile “I came because I was always told as a girl that I couldn’t dance and I thought it was time to learn something different. I had no idea that Biodanza was so much more than that”. The dance itself is straightforward, there are no steps to learn and it’s impossible to get it wrong. The days of the festival are broken into two or three two hour dance sessions or vivencias, with time to eat, talk and chill out in between. We have met together at Osho Leela, a beautiful and welcoming commune in Dorset.

Biodanza is the creation of Chilean anthropologist Rolando Toro. At the time he was working in a psychiatric unit for severely disturbed patients. One evening he organised a party for the residents and staff, to pass the time and offer a diversion from the chaos of ward life. The staff and patients dressed up and danced and as he watched he was struck by the changes he saw happening in front of him. He saw a kind of health and vitality returning to both the patients and staff as individuals and into their relationships. The quality of that difference was so profound to him that he set about understanding what was happening. The final result was a theoretical model of how specific journeys through movement and encounter with others could result in a reorientation towards the natural biologically driven physically, emotionally and spiritually balanced human condition. It facilitated a return to the way god or evolution intended us to function. Something that NLP founder John Grinder called the return to the state of grace that we are all born entitled to. He called it Biodanza.

A typical Biodanza session or vivensia goes something like this- music plays as we enter the room and we variously dance, lie down or greet friends. Niraj (of the Dorset School of Biodanza) the teacher for this vivensia lets us know that it’s time to start and we move to stand in one big circle, all holding hands. For the next two hours we will be silent. “We are silent because words take us back into the head” Niraj explains, “Biodanza gives us the chance to inhabit the body, and it is the body where the emotions reside. Biodanza is about reconnecting with the body, with the emotions, with the sense of self”. Music starts and slowly we begin to step to the right, moving to the rhythm. Being silent we look across the room and meet the eyes of those around us. The music sways and swings and as you look around and greet people eye to eye it is hard not to smile. In fact almost everyone ends up smiling, the joy just starts to spill around. You don’t have to smile though. Another key aspect of Biodanza is that it is built on authenticity. Every interaction with another is negotiated there and then in the moment. From how you feel and how the other responds. It is not about what is expected or what anyone else is doing, but how you actually feel in relation to the person in front of you right now, and how as you start to express that, the other responds to you. It is this negotiating of authentic felt relationships that at once carries much of the power and ensures that Biodanza encounters are safe and respectful.

As we dance in a now winding sinuous circle the music stops and Niraj introduces a walk. A simple one at first, just walking our own walk, to music, greeting others with the eyes as we pass, then in pairs, holding hands, changing often, being with another. There are many kinds of walks, the walk of power, the walk of purpose, the walk of sensuality, the walk of exuberance. I like the walks. This time Niraj demonstrates a walk of exuberance: joyful, energised, dynamic. Then it’s our turn. I am well aware that sitting with a coffee at home or at the office, that this could sound, well, a bit naff. It is different there though. The light shines in through the big windows, the rhythm of the music is doing something deep inside. My whole body is ready to move and I have the permission and guidance to enter into it. I walk forward, bouncing across the floor, arms raising high, swinging from the shoulders and spine and hips. Really inhabiting my exuberance at being here and living life. Quickly I’m laughing and filled with joy. It feels good. It feels good to share it with my companions in the room, all equally exuberant. This kind of joy is welcome in my life and this opens up a question which people come to again and again over Biodanza. The question is “But is it real?” My answer it that the effect, both immediate and long term, is real. There is an element of play about what happens. There was no particular reason for me to feel exuberant before this exercise and there may be none afterwards, and so I play by choosing to enter in and inhabit my exuberance. But what happens when I do? The immediate effect is that if feels good. Feels really good. But also it shows me the way in, shows me what it is like, how to get there, what relating to others from that place is like. It simply makes my exuberance more accessible. That right there is the real power of Biodanza. To enrich our maps with great new experiences of what is possible, and the more we do this in Biodanza the more comfortable and able we become to negotiate the same kinds of relationships outside.

The vivencia moves on from walk to dance. Sometimes internal, eyes closed, centred around the self, sometimes danced in relationship to others. Each has a special power and connects us in a vivid and fully embodied way to aspects of our humanity and tribal nature that are so underplayed and underdeveloped in our culture, in ordinary life. To reconnect with these missing experiences is like drinking the water of a cool sweet spring after months of thirst. The vivencia ends two hours later, as it began. Moving in a circle hand in hand, passing each other, saying fair well and thank you for what has been shared. A small sweet kiss is the frequent currency of our appreciation.

There are some kinds of profound truths that one can not easily convey through writing. Poets manage with the commitment and collusion of their readers. if I had the craft and blessing to properly render any of the profound shared experiences in poetry, I would still rather not impose that burden on you. My intention is to be as prosaic as possible in my assertion that Biodanza has that which is both necessary and easily accessible for the health of the human spirit in the complex and essential business of being in relationship with those around us.

I often write openly about my passion, vulnerability, tenderness, love and joy. One of the reasons that I do this at all is that I’ve seen the same in every human being that I’ve shared with in Biodanza, seen the same, and been moved to the core by the beauty of it. And when I’ve shared my felt and immediate emotional world, wordlessly, with another, I’ve been met with tenderness and acceptance. Actually, on reflection, and since I promised to be prosaic, it is also true that sometimes people are met with discomfort. The odd thing is that discomfort can’t dominate as is so easily can ‘in the real world’. Simple and universal humanity put before another, shared in the room, prevails, shines through, and discomfort, well, discomfort fails, fades, persists, whatever. Lit by the full light of the presence of another soul, a little discomfort is seen to be a very small thing.

I have said that we are ordinary people. I want to reiterate that. This is not an exclusive gathering of beautiful people. We are, between us, all kinds of wonky. One of the wonders for me is that the judgments that I make about people are always washed away in Biodanza. It so often turns out that the “she looks really unapproachable”, or “he looks bad tempered” are a very thin veil as we connect from the humanity beneath our masks.

There are some odd things to get used to as you walk around the festival. It is quite common to see couples curled up on sofa’s together or walking hand in hand. Not that there’s anything odd about that in itself, but Biodanza couples are not necessarily like other couples. They are, more often than not, the oddest pairings of the old and young, the trim and the crooked, the prim and the chaotic or any combination imaginable. It can seem odd when viewed through filters that expect all touch to be seduction and all intimacy to be a kind of mating. Of course the reality is something different. People respond to beauty and life affirming connection through what they have shared together in the vivencias. When you risk your vulnerability with another and they respond with love and kindness a bond is created. The more deeply one shares the deeper this bond runs. It often seems that the deeper love between a partnership who have shared like this is from the partner who was privileged to tend to the vulnerability of the other, as much as from the other who took the risk, shared their vulnerability and was met. And that is the nature of many of the pairs, basking in a shared love and intimacy that is not based on sex or courtship, but rather comes from a brief touching of souls.

If you’ve ever listened to a song written from the heart and were filled with emotion and wished that you could do that: be the source of that creative and passionate out-flowing, then in Biodanza you can. Really you can. Elizabeth Gilbert tells that the celebratory Spanish shout of “Olay” is a derivative of the Islamic Moorish chant of “Allah” which comes from seeing the work of god in the dances of the dervishes. She says “Olay” to all of those who put their heart into their creative work. For me it is “Olay” to all those with the courage to meet each other in Biodanza. Days after I return from the festival, while sitting quietly, I notice my soul dancing to itself, a light and sinuous dance to a joyous rhythm.

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Deeply Felt Community

Posted by Rupert Meese on September 11, 2009

Unstone Grange

Unstone Grange

I’ve just got back from a week at Unstone Grange, a large old ramshackle house in Derbyshire that was host to this year’s “Facilitating Ourselves”. Six days of community building using the model laid out by M. Scott Peck in his book “The Different Drum”. I want to answer straight away the question “what is community building (sounds a bit dull)?” The condensed answer is that community building is the attempt to create a community of people without compromising their individually. This does indeed sound a bit dull, but how you get there, and what happens when you do is absolutely crackling. It is singly the toughest most uncomfortable, most demanding and most deeply satisfying activity that I have ever been part of.


As the possibly apocryphal ad’ for Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition runs.

There were nineteen of us at Unstone Grange. Nineteen individuals with 189 relationships between us. Many of those relationships were already well established, many were completely new. All were forged fresh over those six days.

Our ordinary notion of a community is a group tied together by a common ideal. That the ideal bonds the community is normally key. Each individual submits to whatever the community ideal is, and, to the extent that the ideal is loose and undemanding, then the individual keeps much of their identity but is only loosely bonded with the community. If the ideal is vigorous and demanding then the community is strong but the individual must submit much of their identity in order to belong. And example of this might be a cult where there are accusations from outside of brain washing as the individuality of the cult members is subjugated to the ideals of the group’s leader. So what happens when there is no common ideal to submit to in the name of community? Chaos? Actually, yes, at first. For one thing there can’t be a leader. A leader, a benign dictator, could only create a binding ideal. The only commitment from members in this kind of community building is the commitment to not withdraw. To stay in the group, in the circle. There are facilitators in the group, it is their job to hold the group as it struggles to find it’s way to community. The only thing is the job of the facilitators is almost exclusively silence. So, a leaderless group with no clear ideal. Thankfully there are guidelines to help. The group meets in a circle for ninety minutes at a time, twice a day, the instructions are: to speak only when moved to speak; to speak in “I statements” rather than generalizations, for example “I’m annoyed” rather than “you are annoying” and to be specific not general such as “my divorce was awful” rather than “divorce is an awful thing.” Of course with no leaders these guidelines are often broken and it becomes down to the group to address that. I say it’s down to the group, but this brings up an important aspect of community building. When all individuality is fully respected there is no one left to speak for you. No one to represent your interests because only you have your interests. The difficult and painful thing is that you have to do it for yourself. If you don’t like it that those guidelines are broken then there is only you who can say so. So, it is often chaos in the circle, but when the chaos is allowed to run, as it has to be, at least two things happen. The first is that members of the community start to hear each other, start to sense each other as individuals. The second is that eventually everyone fully realizes that they are lost. Lost or stuck. Once that happens something else takes over, Maybe attempts to organise, or rescue each other, but these are doomed and run themselves out. Eventually a stillness settles, and community maybe, just maybe, community starts. It’s difficult to say what that means but you can tell when it happens. Someone speaks into the silence and shares from their heart. There are no attempts to patch it up, make it better or change it all. Life, after all, is seldom so simple as to be fixed by sage advice from someone across the room from you. Rather the space opens to that person who spoke and reaches up to greet them. All attention is with them, all hearts are present. You can simply feel it in the room. Someone will speak after them, and in some magical way, what they say is a response to the gift that has just been given and the whole group grows. When it works, community heals like a group waiting at the bedside of a Victorian fever patient. Waiting and hoping and willing towards health in a shared vigil that is both helpless and powerful beyond measure. Am I being clear? Can you imagine that? Eighteen unique individuals, all of whom you know and love for the pain that they have shared, waiting at the bedside of your darkest fear and longing? It is quite a remarkable thing to be part of.

Outside of the circle, in which we spend three hours each day, there are the ‘small groups’ and ‘open space workshops’, as well as cooking and tidying and time to relax or play. The small groups are groups of three or four, allocated at the beginning, who meet together for support. A kind of mini community. My group was a beautiful godsend to me. We met in the ‘Cedar Room’, a bedroom with three beds, and so our small group always had a little of a dorm-room feel about it. I shared it with three remarkable people who I loved and who showed me the most astounding commitment and courage in working through my stuff with me. They were a real strength to me and the source of some very special friendships. When it’s our turn to cook we spend three hours dancing madly about in the kitchen to Queen and serve our gorgeous vegan curry dressed in drag and with “I want to be free” blasting out.

Open space had a great range of workshops put on by the participants from Hakomi to men’s groups. I ran a Grovsian Clean Space workshop, taking the group through James Lawley and Penny Tompkin’s newly structured Clean Space Light process. It’s one that has just recently been refined in the Symbolic Modelling developing group. Evenings we spent story telling, playing games or talking around the fire…

It’s hard to convey the mixture of joy and struggle that all of this entails. F*** this is hard, is one common remark in the breaks. Another more eloquent in the circle is “it’s such a risk. God, It is such a risk.” And we do take the risk, often we do take the risk of being ourselves, in our glorious broken imperfection. And sometimes we are met with such love and compassion, and sometimes we hurt each other or confuse each other or loose each other. And this is where the true glory is: because of that one commitment not to withdraw, even in all that, we do not damage each other. We stay with it and work through the pain and confusion. Or we come back to it, or we find a way. And what results is so profound and so rare and so valuable that I don’t think there is a name for it.

Like Shackleton in the end I don’t think we were successful. Not in creating and sustaining community, but we came pretty damn close. We had moments and moments of extreme beauty, and pure joy. We were witness to life striving towards the light, struggling to express itself. We submitted ourselves to our own lives as bravely as we were able. We fought hard for each other, and when time ripped us apart again at the end of six days, the cry in the circle of “I will not let this end well, I refuse to end it well” was the one that moved my heart.

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Original Volunteers in Marrakech

Posted by Rupert Meese on August 16, 2009


I have been in Marrakech for two days. Arriving I am met at the airport by a man holding a sign with the words “Original Volunteers”. He speaks little English and I, of course, little Arabic. We wait for Sally another volunteer on the same flight as she goes to get some Moroccan Dirhams. We stand for a while, then Abdul (we’re on first name terms now) starts to look agitated and ushers me outside of the airport. “A problem” he says. This is a little unnerving but I can’t get any more out of Abdul about what kind of problem. We wait outside the main doors. Sally finds us ten minutes later and we head to the taxi which turns out to be a beaten up old Mercedes with torn and tattered upholstery broken door handles and missing window winders. We drive to the old town. All hot, dusty and orange brown. Pass the ancient Medina city wall and pull up in a poor but busy market. The driver points to Sally and says “you only”, “only one place”, and to me “you wait here, five minutes”. Sally has some French and we get the idea that there is only one place left in the original volunteers house, that Abdul will take Sally there, then return to take me elsewhere. This was the last I saw of Sally, walking off with her rucksack down a narrow alleyway lead by Abdul. Abdul returns and we drive off. Back outside the Medina wall and on, then the wall again, back through another city gate and stops in the middle of a busy square. He looks around then calls to a young Moroccan man wearing shades. I’m wondering if I need to pay the driver, but there is some exchange and the young man says to me “Come”. I set of with my rucksack following him down a busy street. It’s hot. Topping 50 degrees (122 F). “Pretend you don’t know me until we get to the riad” he says. This is Rachid, he is soon to become my very dear friend. I follow (at a distance) along the street and into Djemaa el Fna the huge main square of Marrakech. It’s filled with people, stalls, snake charmers, dancers and the sounds of drumming, shouting, bells, cars and scooters. “You want orange juice?” Rachid says. Sure. We stop at an orange stall. There are many of these in the square and they are soon to become a mainstay of my Moroccan life. The vendor smiles and chats with Rachid, shakes and squeezes oranges with a flair that seems to involve elbows more than you might imagine. He fills two tall glasses with cool fresh orange juice which, when drunk, the body welcomes in like it hasn’t since breast milk, it’s a surprise in itself. We move on, out of the square down ever narrowing streets, then left through a small dark archway into a narrow high walled and strangely pungent alleyway, dodging mopeds and bicycles all of the way. People sit or stand in corners and doorways, tending to unfathomable business. Rachid sees Brian, another volunteer and calls after him. Brian is carrying a plastic shopping bag full of groceries. This seems to me to be the strangest sight that I’ve seen so far. I am amazed and full of admiration that someone could so casually go to the shop for groceries in this so strange and other worldly place. Brian, it turns out has been ill for almost two weeks, off and on. I like him immediately. We share a fondness for a cup of tea and although I have never had the kind of stammer that Brian does, I’ve always knew that I could have done. It makes sense to me. When later I show him my solution for making fresh coffee by using my scarf as a filter, he says “There’s nothing like a bit of improvisation for making small tasks seem more worthwhile”.

Rachid and I move on, down an even darker narrower alleyway – it must be 30 feet high and no more than five feet wide, ending in a dark archway and some impenetrable doorways. Here we are, we turn to an ancient studded low wooden door and Rachid lets us in to a rather lovely tiled riad apartment.

Over the next three hours I meet the fourteen other people in the riad. People come and go daily and so the group is in a constant state of flux, but today we are the fifteen volunteers that make up the house. I quickly hear the discontentment over the orphanages – they are all shut. Closed during August. What we, the volunteers were doing was running a club for street kids, helping at a kids summer camp and visiting kids in the mountains. This all sounded fine to me, but everyone had some view about how acceptable this situation was. “We should have been told” was the frequently aired view. To most people the “other house” was a mythical place where everything was running smoothly and everyone was doing what they came here to do.

I meet Pete, Julia and Phoebe in the kitchen and love them instantly. They, the three of them, are a day older than me, that is they arrived yesterday. They, the three of them, have a kind of energy that bubbles between them like they’re constantly playing some kind of three way volley ball. Looks, words, laughs, smiles, nods and agreements all flip about between them in a crazy game and it makes me want to play too. All three are young (as is everyone here), just out of university and, being a day older, they take me under their wing a little. We go out for dinner and we lounge on a rooftop restaurant together, eat tajine, drink mint tea and chat. It’s 10pm and the day has cooled to around 38 Celsius.


Next day it’s the children’s club and the street kids. I’m amazed at how cool and competent the people here are. Alyson, who must be 19 or 20 calmly negotiates the taxi , head held high in the bustle and confusion – it should be no more than 4 dirhams, she says, to Dawdiat. Don’t let them charge you 50. Alyson and I climb in the back and squash up against the two Moroccans already there. Two others share the front seat. The seven of us in the one car career off among the cycles, mopeds and donkey trucks in the intense heat. I look over and Alyson is not even sweating, she doesn’t even look hot. She’s just sailing in the taxi, completely confident of where she’s going. There’s something quintessentially British about her, something Kristen Scott-Thomas. I can learn something here I think, and picking up from her energy I cool my body down, let go of the stress and find some poise. It doesn’t last long once we’re in the Children’s club. I sit at a table packed with twelve ten year old boys and playdoh and we launch straight into a riot of words and ideas in at least three languages. “Teacher, Teacher – Asmitek?”, “Bushka, Bushka, ana Bushka”,”Tweener”,”Teacher, Teacher – regardez”,”Khobs!, “Khobs, Ayah”,”Parle vous Frances?”, “Repeat, repeat an ilallah…”, in an endless cycle with always at least three boys at once wanting attention. Sweat pours down my face and back constantly as I get stuck in and shower in responses and questions, repeating a word I catch here and another there. The boys think I’m hilarious, it’s like having some kind of merry idiot sitting at the table with them, and this is fine by me. I came prepared to be ridiculous, intentionally or not.

Eventually it’s all over and we meet the others and make our way through the poor back streets of new Marrakech to the old hall where the street kids club starts. The building, like every other building in Marrakech, is salmon pink and square. This one has has high barred windows most of which are broken. Rachid unlocks the main doors and we enter a high hall empty but for a few plastic garden tables and chairs. Rachid hands out coring books, pens and a couple of tennis balls and a skipping rope. The kids start to arrive out of nowhere and pretty soon we’re swept up in the energy, running around playing hand tennis in this huge oven. I’m overdoing it I know. Overheating, but by the time I notice it’s really too late. I’m going to be stuck with feeling sick and a cracking head ache. Still, I’m having fun. I teach the girls the clapping games that my daughter taught to me before I went. “Hi lo Chickelo, Chickelo, Chickelo” is soon ringing around the yard and I have a queue of girls waiting to try it out… The girls catch on quickly and soon come back to teach me – “We’ve changed it” they say. Boys, it has to be said, are rubbish at this and generally prefer to create intersecting games of volleyball, football, and hand tennis. When we leave a few hours later we all walk down the street, volunteers, little kids, teenagers, and all of us, between us, are clapping a complex and varying rhythm, walking and clapping. We’ve been here.

Back at the riad Mel and James have arrived. I’m a day old now, practically a veteran and it’s nice to be introducing to newcomers. Mel asks where the shop is and I say “Oh, it’s only round the corner, I’ll take you if you like”. It feels nice. Only problem is I know I can’t take Mel around the corner to the shop because right now I have to throw up from overdoing it in the heat.


The next morning we are off into the mountains. A hours bus ride to Oui Toria where we meet with Mohamed, Hamed and Fattizara who sings and dances constantly and brings a Djembe. Then the mini-bus up into the Atlas. The mini-bus operates on the same principle as the taxis, fit as many people in as possible. In a mini-bus (i.e. van with benches in the back) as many people as possible does mean many many people. The benches aren’t bolted to the floor and glide and rock as the mini-bus travels the bumpy roads and the heat of the day starts to build. The clapping starts again and for the next hour of cramped, oven hot, bumpy ride we play and sing and joke and laugh. It seems as though this kind of bus ride is designed for having fun. We pile out at the top and walk and chat and sing up the dusty road by the flowing river. The first village that we stop at has a natural mineral water spring. This makes the village into the seaside of Marrakech. The narrow main street is full of stalls and covered over with plastic sacking strung between the roofs for shade. It has a similar air to the souks – the covered markets in Marrakech only the poverty stands out much more clearly. It is on this trip that I make an important discovery- that when Rachid says tentatively “would you like to…” a really good answer is “Hell yes”. This discovery stands me in good stead through the rest of the trip and brings me to (among other things) the most delicious yoghurty gunk in a glass, amazing spiced coffee from a man sitting on the side of the road with a Thermos flask, and some incredible herbal tonic made from twenty four different roots, herbs and spices by an old man with a kettle.

Right now Rachid says “Would you like to have a little something to eat?” – I’m not very hungry but only he knows when we’ll eat again. “Sure”. He leads the way into an empty concrete building. There is a row of plastic chairs and a man behind a concrete counter on which rests an old fire blackened kettle – I don’t think I’d even have recognised this as somewhere to eat. I sit with the Moroccans and chat and eat white beans with bread. They show me the knack of eating the beans and bread together with the first three fingers of the right hand. The something in the beans that I at first take to be broccoli turns out to be sheep’s intestine, turned inside out so that the flowery fronds float in the soup.

We move on from this village having tasted the mineral water which is cool and salty. We continue up the mountain and after a little while come to the second village, the Burber village. This is not like the Marrakech sea-side. The whole village is made from mud and straw bricks and is eerie for being exactly the same cor as the bare hillsides around it. There are virtually no windows in any of the buildings and inside the dark doorways there are glimpses of well – very little. Dust floor and sometimes a plastic table.

We drum and chant as we walk through the streets and the children come out and, cautiously at first, begin to follow. We work out way down to the river valley, cross the clear water flowing over a pebble river bed and make our home for the day in the mouth of a sand floored cave. There we drum and clap and sing (and these kids know how to drum, clap and sing), we hand out felt tip pens and coring books and play all sorts of games. Mostly organised by Rachid who has such a natural and easy playfulness that is a pure delight to be with. At the end of a long day we pack up and do the whole thing in reverse. Back through the Burber village saying goodbye to the kids, back down to the mineral water village where we stop and inspect the tajines – As Rachid and his companions lift the pot lids and peer at the curled up piles of potato and carrots it seems to me that they look pretty old, cold and unappetizing, however the Moroccans give the nod of approval and we settle down in the shade on a muddy blanket or on broken and rickety plastic chairs and chat and drink tea. Here I discover a variant on the Moroccan mint tea which I quickly come to love. Here it’s made with a herb called Louisa which grows in these mountains and has a soft and sweetly citrus nature. Needless to say the tajine when it comes in 20 minutes is piping hot and the best that I eat in Morocco rich and subtlety spiced. Then onwards, back down to the mini-bus – twenty minutes of negotiation. It’s more expensive getting back of course. Once you’re there you have to get back of course! Thirty people in the mini-bus, more singing, tired but cheerful, goodbye to the guides, then the long bus ride back to Marrakech to walk through Djemaa el Fna stopping for a quick orange juice, through the mediaeval alleyways and back through the low studded door to meet with our friends and eventually to sleep together out on the roof under the stars. All this in order to be variously lulled, soothed or irritated by the 5am call to prayer from five mosques and so begin another day.


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Man without a Reason

Posted by Rupert Meese on July 7, 2009

The JCB pulled away and there I was, left alone on the plinth.  I was filled with a strange sense of something hovering between wonder, delight and horror.  Wonder and delight at the beautiful newness and strangeness of the situation, and horror at the already building expectation that I should do something, that I was about to spend the next hour in uneasy defiance of.  I hadn’t really considered the crowd.  Not myself in relation to all of those people in any case.  Choosing to worry about them later I went back to my awe and wonder at being there, looking from this unique perspective around at Nelson’s column, the National Gallery, the fountains, the people.  I share my sense of wonder with them, but not many really want it.


My attention is drawn to the other figures on the other three plinths.  Bronze, flowing robes, horseback, I became aware of my own scale in relation to them. Very small.  All of this makes me feel insignificant.  Wonder is about gone now, and I see what’s going on in the crowd.  People look up, smile and wave and I do too.  I say crowd but I’m attentive and refuse to mistake the people there for a crowd as if they were a single entity rather than many individuals.  It’s one thing this perspective from the plinth helps to highlight.  I see people milling around, through the square, at the base of the plinth, moving, standing talking, waiting.  I’m distant enough to see the movements and patterns in the crowd and I’m close enough so that I can see everyone clearly and, when anyone looks my way, my situation is singular enough so that I know if they are looking at me.   Probably about one in ten, one in twenty people I make an easy connection with.  Things seem to make sense to these people: I’m there on the plinth – we’re told it’s art, and they can view me and find anything they’d like in it.  We exchange a look, a smile or a wave.

Smaller than a lampRain

There are another 5% for whom this does not make sense.  The expressions on their faces let me know in quite a colourful range.  I see contempt, dissatisfaction, hostility.  I’m expecting this and hold myself steady.  It’s not long before the first shout of “Do Something”.  I look down, smile, shrug – shout “Do you want a little dance?”.  I’m magnanimous and understanding.  The dissatisfied move away to be replaced by others, always it seemed from the corner above the square where they congregated to be better able to share their disapproval with me.  There’s an expression which sums it up – “You can afford to be generous.”  I could, and each time it cost me.  Each tender message of inadequacy projected up from the disoriented or hard done to was like a bite from my bearing.  Although I could afford it I had started to feel like one of the Antony Gormley figures made from so few ball bearings that they seemed on immanent verge of collapse.  I checked out the feeling and wondered about going with it.  Seeing what kind of collapse that would be.  I had, after all, promised  authenticity.  Structural integrity was still in tact however, and I carried on like a flak damaged Lancaster.  I think this is maybe where the art is.  Without anyone there it would have been easy to spend the hour playing, exploring the space, being in the wind and rain. What’s it like if I sit right in the corner?  Where’s the middle?  What does it feel like if I jump really far?  But people were there, and I was there in relation to them.  And no of us really understood what that relationship was.  Why was I up there? What did it mean to be elevated to that position in relation to everyone else?  “What was my point” as someone shouted from a car.  The discomfort of that ambiguity seemed to make some angry and dissatisfied.  Perhaps I did my bit by not having a point, not making it easy, distracting us all with entertainment.  I was there as the man without a reason.  No performance, no cause, just there, up high, happy to be unworthy.  With all of this, what endures is that it was a wonderful experience and a great privilege to be there, and I am grateful for the help and support of everyone who helped make it what it was.

P1010187In the National Portrait Gallery

Maybe I’ll write later about how I cost Antony Gormley a better slot on the evening news by refusing the insistent instruction of a snake eyed lady, clearly accustomed to getting her own way, and a round man in the square discreetly and equally insistently waving his umbrella while hoping to inspire me into a “Singing in the Rain” routine.  It makes “nicer art” apparently.

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What was it like up there?

Posted by Rupert Meese on July 7, 2009

So, I put myself there in the public gaze for an hour on the 4th plinth.  I didn’t know that the experience would be so hard to make sense of. My instinctive response is silence, to withdraw from it for a time, and I’m also driven to write, so here is what happened as best as I am able to tell it.

On the plinth

I checked in at the One and Other reception at 2:30 ninety minutes before I was due to take my place on the plinth.  Reception is a portacabin on the opposite side of Trafalgar Square to the plinth.  I opened the door to a buzz of activity and a crowd of assistants in red and white ‘One and Other’ tea shirts.  I got the friendliest and most  attentive welcome along with the invitation to make myself at home among the organized chaos.   I was photographed and interviewed by a charming assistant, given a cup of tea, a safety briefing and lots of words of encouragement.  The staff all seemed really enthusiastic about the project.  Antony Gormley came and went, emitting precise and unequivocal instructions on camera angles, procedure and so on and making sure that everything was as he wanted it.

Around quarter to 4 I got ready.  This consisted of me getting rid of my phone, watch and junk from my pockets.  My intention being to be there without any kind of prop or distraction, nothing to fiddle with, just to be there.  I refused the radio microphone for the same reason.  The radio mic was an option to allow those watching the internet feed to hear me.  I wasn’t planning on saying anything at all really.  At around ten to four the wind picked up, the sky turned grey, rain started and the team got motherly.  Did I have an umbrella, a rain coat, a warm top?  It was cold up there, and so on.  It was very sweet.   Until then, and in line with my principle of no props, I had been planning on going up wearing only a shorts and a shirt, on the principle that it was a summer day and if it rained I’d get wet, and that would be fine.  I like to walk and I know weather.  More importantly I know that I can adjust my blood flow to be comfortable in a cold wind, and I can adjust my heat production and metabolism to dry out in the wet and be well in the cold.  However, constant rain might not be nice, so I grabbed my umbrella and then capitulated and put on my wool over shirt.  We went out the the JCB Cherry Picker behind the cabin and climbed in to the cage that was to lift me to the top of the plinth.  My sense of wonder started the moment the cage lifted about a foot from the floor and the JCB started to trundled slowly around the corner and towards the plinth.  The whole thing filled me with joy, like being a kid and getting to ride on a fire engine.  The JCB moved through the crowd, people smiled or looked disinterested or unimpressed as they liked.  I was beaming as the cage lifted up, past the current plinthian – a man in the panda suit with his phone number on a board.   high above the plinth, forward and then down to land on the edge.  The door opened I exchanged good wishes with the panda suit man, he stepped in, I stepped out, and I was there on top of the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square being a piece of Antony Gormley artwork.

To be continued…

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Playing with Rosie

Posted by Rupert Meese on July 3, 2009

I’m off to play with Rosie.  Rosie is the most playful person that anyone could direct me to and she’s agreed to talk to me to help me figure out some stuff.

As TED says, apart from being joyful and energizing it turns out that play matters.  This talk from the guys at Serious Play is really worth watching:

So, what am I doing playing with Rosie?  The first thing here is that this is a modelling exercise.  If you’re not familiar with the idea, it is, in essence, that people who excel in something are, almost by definition, doing something different to the rest of us.  Using the tools available from the science of subjectivity in NLP and symbolic modelling (i.e. by asking), we can find out about that difference and codify something significant about the structure of that experience or behavior that we are interested in.  What all that means is that I’m going to do what I can to copy Rosie’s way of playing.

My plan, before I go, is to find out through Rosie about Social play – I don’t know Rosie but I’m assuming because people have identified her as playful that they meant social play.  If it’s something else then I’ll only know when I get there.  What is interesting about social play?

How does one know when it is necessary.  If social play is a mammalian function (which it seems to be) then how do we know when we need more.  What internal feeling or signal is the hunger equivalent for play.  What happens to those that don’t play, are we not receiving that signal, wrongly attributing it to something else, or choosing not to satisfy it in some other way?

What are the mechanisms of human play signaling?  We all recognize play signals in dogs and cats, what are the key ones among humans?  How does someone who excels manage that negotiation differently to the rest of us?

How does play end?  What are the kinesthetic or social signals that tell us that play is at an end?

How does play relate to identity?  When playing is seems that the notion of self becomes somehow more fluid.  That as play allows aggression that is not aggression for example, so it allows parts of our selves to be exercised as not self and parts that are not self to be tried on as self.

What is the relationship between play and doubt?  There are some structural similarities, both are in some sense the negation of certainty while the experience of each is quite different.
So, these are the things that I’m hoping to find out more about.  I don’t suppose we’ll get through all of them, but I’ll write more when I know more.

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The Marrakech State Orphanage

Posted by Rupert Meese on July 2, 2009

I’ve just volunteered to work in the Marrakesh state orphanage.  I’ll be going with a group called original volunteers, who seem helpful and well organized over the phone.  I’ve exchanged e-mails with some folk who’ve just got back and they had good things to  say so fingers crossed.  I’m going on the 21st of July and have the flight booked (about £160 each way with Easy Jet).
I hope to get immersed in teaching English and learning Arabic (along with Moroccan and Islamic culture).  Learning is something that I’m good at.  I don’t know about teaching, but I do know how to learn and if I can use that and pass it on in some way to some of the children then that will be great.  John Grinder – the co-inventor of NLP claims to be able to learn a new language to the point that a native speaker is comfortable conversing with him in 72 hours.  He talks about the importance of learning in a context where the words mean what they mean.  Often learning in a classroom all words mean the same thing – that is scratchy sound of blackboard, sitting still, trying to concentrate, fear of being called on, etc. etc.  I guess that working in a rich context is much easier with a small group.  I’m not sure I have any strategy for working with a large group of kids.

This is something of an inspiration in the way Gever Tulley talks about the need for kids to problem solve.

I don’t for one minute imagine the same resources are going to be available in the orphanage but the principles are probably still good.

On learning arabic I love this…

I’ve been singing it a lot.

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Chillies and Grapes

Posted by Rupert Meese on June 29, 2009

Chillies and Grapes

I’ve just completed the second in the series of online books about the transformations that take place in symbolic modelling.  In this one there’s no need to enter your e-mail address half way through as there was in the first.  I was never too keen on that coercion.  The idea was OK, to have people sign up to the newsletter in order to read to the end of the book.   Mostly those people who did are the ones who got to hear about the second book, so that was good.  One has to have someone to tell these things to, so I’m grateful to everyone who did sign up for the newsletter.  The problem was it just felt a bit… well, mean somehow.  So this time no coercion, but if you find yourself curious to know more then signing up for the newsletter could be the answer (click here –> http://www.zenlistening.com)

In Chillies and Grapes I was working with a client who got deflated very easily.  There are all sorts of fascinating observations to be made about the nature of his symbolism and the source and course of the transformation that he created.  It’s certainly on my list of things to do to write a commentary on the book and how the symbolic modelling progressed.  As it is, please enjoy the story ‘in the raw’, an uplifting account of how one man, one tender human being, found new vitality.

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