Denny Jackson – singer and former Judo Olympian

Denny Jackson represented Britain in Judo during the infamous Munich Olympics. He was born in the East End of London, to a Cuban father and an English mother over eighty years ago. His father was a bare-knuckle fighter on the London barges (of which he will tell more later). He has faced discrimination his entire life and has literally had to fight for a voice at times. In fact he became one the countries finest judo fighters and made a living from singing. Although he had to bend the rules at times, he is truly a man of integrity. I met Denny only once but he made a huge impression – his warmth and wit are palpable. I think his story is inspirational.
Briefly tell me your story

My name is Denny Jackson, I am coming up to eighty one years of age. Born in the East End of London in a family of twelve. Very sporty family, had two brothers that were pro fighters, and my father was a full time bare knuckle fighter, operating on the Thames barges, that were thought to be outside of the judiciary – Bare knuckle fighting is illegal.
I am a Black Belt in Judo, and represented the UK in the Munich Olympics in 1972. I never packed up competition work until I was in my sixties.
Growing up in the East End was problematic, given that my Father was a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, and Black, originally from Cuba. My Dad married an English girl, which at that time caused a lot of problems, people would not tell you to your face exactly what they thought, but you could feel it, although as kids, it didn’t really bother us, because we were a close knit family, with a lot of respect for each other, and people learnt to give us respect, we could more than stick up for ourselves physically, and sometimes had to.
My Mother came from a family of sixteen children, so she knew about making ends meet. Times were tough. We were all christened Roman Catholic, but never practised.
During the war we were bombed out twice, in fact I have memories of sleeping on Stepney Green Station, I was probably about six years of age at the time. They evacuated us to Norfolk, despite what the Home Office wanted, which was to split all the children up and spread us throughout the country , but my Mum was having none of that, and despite officialdom she got her way.
When we arrived in Norfolk the reaction to us was, perhaps not hostile, but certainly inquisitive.
Children would point at us in the street and tug at their Mother’s skirts and say out loud “ere look at those dark skinned people” and someone else would say, “Well they come from London, it’s very smoky down there.” Once again the locals gradually accepted us, local so called tough guys learnt that we were not to be messed with. I remember having no idea of rural life, and running to tell my Mother that a chicken was having a poo, and an egg came out instead. I thought eggs were manufactured, and you only bought them in shops.
We did move back to the East End where all my sisters got jobs in the rag trade ( I had six sisters and six brothers) The rag trade was predominantly Jewish, but we always got on well with them, and were shown a lot of kindness, and generosity, though they had little more than we did. I suppose we were outsiders too, whatever, the East End Jewish Community at the time treated us as their own.
I have memories of taking a spoke from a bike, putting it up my sleeve, and then while a friend would distract the shop owner, I would dig the spoke in packets of Craven A or Woodbines , or whatever was available and hurriedly slip the cigarettes under my shirt, and sell them on street corners.
I am only a little fellow, and sometimes wonder if my lack of height was exacerbated by a rather dangerous game I played in and around the bomb sites. I used to get one of my Mum’s sheets, tie the corners up with string. I would then climb on to the roof of the damaged building, remove some of the slates or roof tiles, and slide down on the sheet, and my landing would be on soft sand, well, it was for most of the time, but sometimes there was no soft sand, and inevitably I would repeatedly crash land with quite a thump, which used to hurt my hips. One day my Mother remarked, that I was walking along as though I had messed myself, I was taken to the Doctor, who just dismissed the condition as growing pains. One day a neighbour told my Mother about my dare devil games on the rooves, needless to say she soon cottoned on to why her sheets had got so dirty. Damage had been done to my hips, the growing pain diagnosis was an incorrect one, and I continue to walk with a noticeable limp.
I developed a reasonably good singing voice, and used to make a pound or three singing in the pubs and clubs, which my Mother was not too keen on, because of the drug and underworld connections, and I suppose she was concerned for me, The Krays and the Richardson’s were quite prominent at the time, but I never got drawn in to that gangland scene.
I continued with the Judo, and my day time job making wooden packing cases, until I was called up for national service at eighteen. I was stationed in Aldershot, and threw myself into army routine, I put hours in the gym, building myself up, and getting fit. I applied to join the Para troop regiment, and was accepted. To be honest I thought my height might have been a problem, but I was fit, and keen as mustard, in fact I went through all the vigorous training with no injuries. I qualified, and got “my wings” and was immediately shipped out to Egypt, I think that was in 1952. I saw action in Trans Jordan, and pretty much did the tour of that region, with postings in Malta, Gibraltar, Tangiers and Cyprus. The duration of National Service was two years, but I enlisted for a further six, which in hindsight was a mistake.
On leaving the Army I saw an advert in the paper for paratroopers to jump from planes as a spectator sport, at the hugely popular Butlin’s Holiday camps of the time, jumping from planes at 6000ft. I was already to take up the job, but when my mother found out she was furious and reluctantly I had to refuse the job offer. One of my army colleagues did suffer a serious injury whilst doing these stunts at Butlin’s and landed up in a wheel chair, so I suppose that could have been me.
I stumbled along doing my music work, helping out on market stalls, whatever turned over a “bob” or two. My Judo training was still an important part of my life, in fact I spent three years at The Metropolitan Police training school at Hendon teaching basic judo to the young police officers.
I was married in 1957, met my wife in a night club I was singing in, I was blessed with two children, Mandy and Mark.
Where do you see yourself going in life?
Well at my advanced years I suppose all my focus is on my family, if they are Ok then so am I. I judge my life’s work on their contentment and happiness, and they are a gift to the world, so I am proud.
What is your purpose in Life? 
Difficult question, but I suppose that to have my family around me is paramount, my purpose was to provide for them and set them off into the adult world, knowing they were loved, it is all I could do. One of my granddaughter’s is a teenager now, but unable to walk, and confined to an electric wheelchair ,so I have a purpose to keep her confidence up, it upsets her when she sees her pals going off “done up” on their way to meet boyfriends, and dancing and having a good time. I have to help to make her strong, and was so proud when she beat off the able bodied kids to land the part of Nancy in the school production of Oliver, she sang and acted her little socks off, no one remarked about her wheelchair, but she got the part, not because anyone felt sorry for her, but because she had spunk and charisma. Oh! She is a bright kid alright, she has taken it now upon herself to learn Japanese, that’s a challenge, and she’ll meet it.
Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of you voice? 
Don’t know if this answers the question, but whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability, don’t cheat. Many times in my life I have gone back , and squared up to people and admitted that I had done wrong, if I had been dishonest with them in some way it played on my mind, and believe that I have always tried to put it right, to square the circle. I stole when I was a child, not just cigarettes but joints of meat from the butchers, or whatever. I could see my Mum was struggling to feed us, so what I did was for the family…..Yeah alright, it was quite exciting, but the bottom line was it helped the family. I told my Mum that I was given the produce from a very well dressed gentleman who admired the way that you always had us looking spick and span, and it was his gift to us…..Honest!
I could never have been a politician and smile in someone’s face promise one thing and do another, don’t think that would have been the job for me.
What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?
Be honest, don’t be sly or devious, people might be offended at first but far better, to be an open book.


John-Paul Flintoff – Writer, Speaker, Trainer, Life Coach and Maker of Things

John-Paul Flintoff is a writer, performer and coach. His books have been published in 14 languages worldwide. He is part of ‘The School of Life’ and a ‘Ted’ Speaker. I had to twist his arm to do this piece for me. He came face to face with his own ‘inner critic’… Was he of sufficient integrity to be included in the project?  I think he is, so he had to give in. He is totally inspirational and one of the most positive people I have ever met.
His latest book ‘How To Change The World’, is a practical manual designed to help readers identify the changes they want to see – and to overcome the obstacles that might otherwise hold them back. It contains ideas from history, philosophy and psychology – and from the many change-makers John-Paul has met during his 15-year career as a writer on The Financial Times and The Sunday Times. This little pearl of a book is utterly inspirational.
His other books include two memoirs, and a novel. The late Nobel winner Harold Pinter once said of John-Paul’s writing: “Very good. Very funny…In fact it made me laugh”. His next book, created with his wife Harriet Green, is a handbook of creative discovery, The Family Project. John-Paul has an unusually wide life experience, having worked as a bin man, an executive PA, a scuba diver, a poet, a taxi driver, a tailor, a gardener, an ice-cream salesman, a hairdresser, an assistant undertaker, a bit-part player in pantomime, a waiter, an illustrator, a high-wire window cleaner, a photographer, a very amateur boxer, a karaoke singer, and a rat catcher. 
He trained in theatrical improvisation with Keith Johnstone, and with the Coaches Training Institute he qualified as an ICF-certified life coach. Through both impro and coaching, he works to bring out people’s creativity, spontaneity, authenticity, leadership, and communication skills.                &        

Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?)…
I’m a tall white straight man, in my 40s, living in London in my own house. I’m a son, a brother, a husband and a father – I define myself, to some extent, by the people around me. I’m left-handed. I work for myself. I love making things, not only for the thing itself but for the making of it. The thing could be a painting, a song, a short film, or a loaf of bread. Or a set of plates and mugs and tea towels, which I recently designed for the Department Store For The Mind (
For most of my career, I wrote journalism for major newspapers and magazines. I interviewed many interesting and distinguished people. But I specially liked to write about people who hadn’t been written about much before – because the ones who’ve been interviewed a lot often seemed to come out with the same old stories, sometimes word for word, and that was no fun for either of us. People who were newer to the experience of being interviewed seemed to find things out about themselves while actually talking to me, which could be thrilling for us both. 
The other thing I loved to do as a journalist – loved it, can’t tell you how much – was taking a job and writing about the experience, instead of merely asking other people who already do that job to describe it. Among other things, I worked as an undertaker’s assistant, a taxi driver, a refuse collector and much more. I cleaned the windows on the tallest building in London. I was in a professional panto, for the whole period of rehearsal through to the show itself. Each time, I found it thrilling to walk in another person’s shoes, as it were. Not always pleasant, mind you: I got so much less attention, or respect, from strangers when I was a bin-man, or taxi driver, than I do as myself. 
I have written five books, including one that rejoices in the bold title How To Change The World. (Perhaps for that reason, it’s my most successful book, available in lots of languages around the world.) 
Despite what some people seem to think, my family wasn’t particularly well off. I grew up in a slightly run-down part of west London, in a basement flat, where I always shared a bedroom with my younger brother. We had no washing machine – clothes went to a nearby launderette – and we had a shower but no bath. My mother worked as a lawyer, but somehow also managed to do most of the things expected then of a “housewife”. As children, during school holidays, my brother and I used sometimes to sit under her desk in the office until it was time to go home. On the way home, we played maths and spelling games with her, and asked “What’s for dinner?” and she would say “Wait and see”, as if she actually had a plan – but as a parent myself now I suspect she was just buying time. The other answer was, “Worms on toast”.
Sometimes, to get us out of her office for a while, Mum might send us to play football in the little park nearby, adjacent to the House of Lords. I remember thinking very consciously that our childhood was taking place “where everything important happens”. I would not have been able to understand how very subjective that was. 
For most of his career my father was an actor-director. I felt extremely proud seeing him on stage or on TV, as if there could not possibly be anything more impressive. For most of my adult life I avoided performing, perhaps slightly out of a fear of competing with him, but in my 40s I discovered theatrical improvisation and I now teach it. 
For some time, after years of acting, my father worked in communications for the Labour Party, and for the UK government in Brussels. As a child I fiercely supported Labour too. But both my grandfathers, and one of my grandmothers, were staunch Conservatives, and for most of my adult life I have avoided party allegiance. I have always been blessed and cursed with a strong tendency to see the other person’s point of view, and a reluctance to believe that any one person or group has all the answers. Mind you, I know my parents believe that too. 
At university, I studied English, and did a Masters degree in Shakespeare. (No prizes for guessing where I learned to love Shakespeare.) That interest led directly to me writing a historical novel, which comes out later this year.
My first book was a memoir, about my experience as a pupil at one of Britain’s most in/famous comprehensive schools, Holland Park. I found the place terrifying, having previously been to smaller schools, among people with more privilege and generally better behaviour. From day to day, for several years, I was afraid of being physically attacked. I learned to keep quiet, and I shut down emotionally. I became less and less academically focused, and dabbled in crime and drug-taking, but managed to hide this at home. Leading a kind of double life, I felt very lonely a lot of the time, and lost a huge amount of confidence. It took years to learn to hide that lack of confidence, and many more actually to feel more confident.
Like (so far as I can tell) everybody else, I’m still subject to negative ideas about myself. Sometimes really painful ideas. But I’ve been lucky because through writing I’ve always been able to investigate myself and my ideas, and through writing my books I came to discover coaching, much of it premised on ideas from psychology and therapy. After being coached by a friend then in training, I decided to train as a coach myself. And I learned to recognise that the negative ideas flying around in my head are only ideas. They’re not necessarily true. And I like to share that insight with the people I coach – individuals, and groups in prisons, schools, community groups and corporations – to help them find ways to do the amazing things they always wanted to do. 

What do you see as your true purpose in life?
I like to help people feel free. To find new ways of looking at things, which leads to new opportunities – and an end to the feeling that we are victims of circumstance, or other people’s decisions.

How did you discover this purpose?
I think that it was always there, but I didn’t really see it until I had stumbled around a lot, making sense of my experiences. One of the great things about being a professional writer is that for years I have worked to turn pretty well everything that has ever happened to me into some kind of story. (If not always for publication.) I came to see very quickly that the story I tell about myself has a big effect on how I understand myself, and on others too. And I came to see the impact of different approaches to storytelling, and how even the tiniest edit could change something quite dramatically. Mind you, it can become exhausting to keep looking for the story, in any given situation, rather than just experiencing the present moment. It can make me very heady, and intellectual and disconnected. 
I wrote a book about trying to save the planet by being extremely self-sufficient – it was intended to be funny, to draw people in, not just to preach to the converted – and I met somebody, when it came out, who invited me to be coached by her. To be perfectly honest, I was slightly intrigued by the idea of being coached, but a large part of me (perhaps the bit that had worked as a journalist for years) was suspicious and a bit cynical and if it had been somebody else I’d probably have said, no thanks. But I like and respect Fenella Rouse enormously, and so I said yes. 
Despite being (as I can now see) somewhat resistant, and a bit too much in my head, I found it to be amazingly helpful. It was quite a revelation that we could have a conversation that was both supportive and challenging at the same time. I was also stunned by the power of some really obvious questions. I decided I wanted to train as a coach, and I did. And in the course of doing so I learned a lot more about myself, and my purpose. 

What are the key qualities in yourself or others that you value and why?
I’m conscious that this changes all the time. There’s a kind of ebb and flow that makes me be more outgoing sometimes, and inward at others. Generous at times and then more attentive to myself. It’s the variety and the contrast that makes life interesting, I think. The big picture? I have a very strong need to be with others, and I’m quite good at making people feel comfortable around me. I’m able to be terrifically earnest, and also I think capable of being quite funny. I value that combination because I don’t like it when others are entirely one or the other. 

Did you always have such a clear and honest voice? If not, what changed?
As I mentioned to you recently, I started writing the answer to these questions a couple of weeks ago, then gave up. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the idea that I could possibly be a person of integrity, because I know that some people will think that laughable. When I was at school I was very afraid, and timid, and I was less than straight with people. Having a kind of double life, of the kind I described above, is never going to help. But I don’t exactly blame myself. I didn’t set out deliberately to do that – it was a natural response to the situation I found myself in. I just didn’t think I could survive if I continued, at school, to be the person I was at home.
And you know what: I’m still not straight all the time. I struggle to “make a fuss”. I know from bitter experience that I really should make a fuss, when something doesn’t feel right, because the alternative is to create an even bigger problem further down the line, and the feelings will be even worse. 

How did you develop your voice?
It’s funny, looking back, that I should have wanted so much to be a writer. Because I’m not sure that I have ever really known what I wanted to write, until I did it. But I just did. Writing was a way to share things about myself that probably felt less terrifyingly exposing than, say, performance would have done back then. Now, I’m not sure. Now, I really like performance just as much. Maybe more. There’s something terribly lonely, actually, about sitting in a room with a keyboard. But I’m in that room right now, and enjoying watching the words come out of my brain. What makes them come? How do ideas arrive? I have no idea. They just land in my head. I can’t really take the credit for them. 

Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your voice?
I found it hard, at times, to be a journalist. Writing stories that I just didn’t particularly want to write. Not all of them: sometimes I found the least promising assignments absolutely fascinating. But at other times I fell into the horrible mistake of being, essentially, a hack. I wrote what I was asked to write, the way they wanted it, and it was just a bit workmanlike. Even fake. And that comes down to courage, and trust: I have got a bit better at looking at the work I’m offered and assessing whether it’s really something I want to do, and how I could do it in a way that would really satisfy or interest me. And if I don’t think I can, trusting myself to say no – which takes courage. 

What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?
Oh crumbs what a big question! The key thing is to reflect more on yourself, really honestly. When I say honestly, I don’t mean that we need to go around beating ourselves up all the time. For some people, the honest thing that’s hardest is to acknowledge their own decency, or even greatness. But we could all do with a better understanding of ourselves. And the greatest impediment to that is not giving ourselves time. If we are always busy busy busy, we don’t have time for self-reflection. I am terrible at this, because I take on way more than I should. But I do stop, every so often, and really take a bit of time out – it doesn’t have to be hours, even a few minutes can do – and check what’s going on in my head and in my body, and in my emotions. After that, I might write something, or draw something, and get a bit more centered still – and then I know what I need to do. Also, I’m getting much much better at sharing what’s going on with somebody who will listen. And we all need that, sometimes. 

Anders Draeby Soerensen – Existential Psychotherapist and Writer

Anders is the top Danish existential psychotherapist. He is also a supervisor, writer, academic and coach – and much, much more. He is publishing a book on the subject this year. I love his humanity – he wears his education and erudition lightly. He is concerned about living a truthful, meaningful and spiritual life. I was deeply moved by this interview…

Q&A – 
Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?)…

My name is Anders Draeby Soerensen, combining the Scandinavian names ‘Anders’, which means ‘man’, and ‘Soeren’, which means ‘serious’ or ‘star’. Thus, translated into English my name means ‘man who is the son of a serious star’, and somehow this name covers my personality: Masculinity, depth and spirituality. ‘Draeby’ means ‘flourishing town’, and it was a place, where the Vikings used to drag their boats over land. The first person named Draeby, my ancestor, was a Danish theologian who visited Johan Wolfgang Goethe in Germany and he was the first person in the world to translate Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations.  

I was born in Aarhus, Denmark in 1972 as the child of a doctor and a nurse. My personal ambition as a young man was to become a psychiatrist. However, when I started working in a psychiatric hospital, I did not like the psychiatric system, and I never finished my medical training. I did not feel that medicine and the hospital sector was able to contain humanity and humanistic ideas. This was the first revelation of my life. 

Instead, I went on to do a BA and a Master’s degree in Philosophy and History of Ideas as well as a Master’s degree in Humanities and Health Studies at Aarhus University. Originally, my youthful hope was that I could help change the world through philosophy and create a better understanding of misery and suffering. However, at the age of 30, I had to realize that academic philosophy and the history of ideas were too distant from reality, and that academic philosophy was not a way to become a better person or create a better world. This was the second revelation of my life.

Thus, for the following 10 years, I worked on establishing a counselling unit at Aarhus University for students with mental disorders. Alongside, I studied psychology at Aalborg University and in 2007 I did a foundation course in Psychotherapy and Counselling at Regent’s University London. Beginning to study and work in the field of psychotherapy gave me a sense of meaning, and especially, I was interested in existential therapy, which fitted my background in philosophy. Therefore, I began to study at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling. However, at the age of 40, I felt it necessary to leave university counselling, because I discovered that big institutions are not able to contain progressive ideas. This was the third revelation of my life.

Having finished my doctoral degree in Existential psychotherapy and counselling, I now work as an existential therapist in private practice, teach existential and stoic philosophy and therapy, and I do research supervision at the Department of Educational Philosophy at The Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. I have never given up on my youthful ambition to change the world and give a voice to suffering people, and I do have a dream of developing existential therapy and spreading the word.  

What do you see as your true purpose in life?

I think that I have four true purposes in life. The first one is an ethical purpose, to be as good a human being as I can, improving my moral character, doing good to other people. The second one is a philosophical purpose, to look for truth and justice, searching for the light, loving wisdom. The third one is a spiritual purpose, to be a loving person, living from love as the goal of life. The fourth one is a professional purpose, to be a good teacher, a good therapist and a good writer, inspiring other people, helping others, making a difference in the world.  

How did you discover this purpose?

Following my 40th birthday and my departure from university counselling, I have undergone a gradual existential and spiritual awakening. I am living next to Soren Kierkegaard’s gravesite, and for a long time, I used to go there every morning and ask Kierkegaard, what I should do with my life. Until one day, I suddenly realized that my searching and praying was the answer to my prayers. Thus, the answer to my question was that I went to ask Kierkegaard every morning. From that moment, everything started to change and I have become a different person than I used to be. 

What are the key qualities in yourself or others that you value and why?

People usually tell me that I seem calm and nice. These are some of the key qualities in myself, which I value the most as my social appearance. Some other key qualities are my integrity, my intellect, my curiosity, my courage, my kindness, my openness, my humility, and my persistence, and I value these qualities, because they have given me the ability to rise every time I fall. I do have experience with the most painful and dark sides of existence, and from this I have learned to appreciate life, stand by myself, being tolerant and kind to other people, never lying to or injuring others. 

I value people who do have some life experience and are not to conformist. People who had the experience of falling and seem to have learned from their own conflicted history. These people often tend to be open, tolerant and curious, and they make me feel more comfortable and interested. Especially, I value honesty, justice, morality and humility, because these qualities make people clearly distinguishable and easy to be around. Furthermore, I value people who have a profound interest in the role of philosophy, therapy and spirituality to everyday living. These issues are my own passion in life, and I find it interesting to be around people who have the courage and abilities to.

According to a Buddhist proverb, the teacher appears when the student is ready. I have always appreciated the true teachers in my life. Without them, I would be nothing. That does not only include my schoolteachers who had a significant importance to me. It also includes those teachers, authors, mentors, therapists, politicians, supervisors and friends that have given my mind the possibility of developing. In recent years, I have taken special inspiration from philosophers (Soren Kierkegaard, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), existential therapists (Emmy van Deurzen, Viktor Frankl, Bo Jacobsen), politicians (Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela) and spiritual guides (Martinus) who all express a high degree of integrity and insight.  

Did you always have such a clear and honest voice? If not, what changed? How did you develop your voice?

I did not always speak with my own voice, but my existential and spiritual awakening taught me to listen to myself. My own voice is my intuition and it offers me spiritual and existential guidance. My revelations and rebellions have made it clear that if I do not keep to my own voice, my life will darken, and I will disappear. My existential training has provided me a way to understand the need of separating myself. However, I have also discovered that my personal voice connects me with life and the world in a spiritual sense. Thus, speaking with someone else’s voice, detaches me from myself, the world.

Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your voice?

I do experience challenges, being around people who are very selfish or conformist, because they tend not to allow other people their own voices. However, growing older it has become rather important to me, choosing who I want to be with. Therefore, I rarely spend time in company with people who are not able to listen or tolerate.  

What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?

The most important advice is to recognize that it is a long and often painful process. It does take a lot of courage and engagement, and the result might not be what you expected. However, it is always worth the effort to learn, create, experience and share in life. Standing out from the crowd is a difficult process, but as Kierkegaard or Danish mystic Martinus states, this is the main task of living. Once you start, there is no turning back. Never give up hope.

Marta Rocarama – Artist

Marta is a visual artist and sometimes musician – she is a woman who experiments with how she expresses herself. Her message and her medium are her voice and her purpose.  Her interview is human and her message heartening. Part of being an artist is having a vision and then setting about creating it. Often times the vision and the artistic result are quite different. An artist has to live with this paradox. Further they have to have the courage to let their art go out into the world and be seen and interpreted by others. An artist has to know when to let go and often to let go of their ideas of perfection for integrity. Most people don’t trust their imagination – yet an artist does… 

Image copyright Marta Rocarama

Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?)…My name is Marta, I am from Raval in Barcelona, and I’ve been living in London for the last 15 years. I don’t know where I’m going, but I am opening up to some geographical changes… I would like to learn another language.

What do you see as your true purpose in life?

Practise creativity in any way I enjoy. From Art to motherhood. But still work in progress.

How did you discover this purpose?

I feel a sense of purpose when I’m painting, dancing, singing, learning to play an instrument, enjoying quality time with friends and partners…. Or when I’m involved in these activities, I don’t even remember anything about a sense of purpose, I just feel good and I feel those around me benefit too. Is there more?

What are the key qualities in yourself or others that you value and why?

I value integrity and courage…. and a sense of humour. I believe we need courage to find out who we are. Definitely, I need a sense of humour to understand that this is a never ending quest, and that sometimes I really do not like what I see, and integrity to take on everything I discover about myself and others without judgement. To keep going, I need all 3. 

Did you always have such a clear and honest voice? If not, what changed? How did you develop your voice?

I don’t know. I could be more honest. That’s the plan. To keep going. Singing is a very good way of exploring this subject. And relationships, with people, with animals, with everything.

Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your voice?

Every day, with all sorts of people, in all sorts of places. Most of the time I’m not aware I’m still thinking: this person likes this or that, so if I’m like this or that he/she will like me. And then I realise I don’t know anything about this person, that I’m imagining what he/she likes and behaving weird based on my own conjectures…. Old habits die hard. Nice thing is I’m becoming more aware of this thought process more often than before, and then I can stop it sometimes. Gotta laugh, really. Plus it’s much more interesting to pay attention to the other person, who is an infinite magical being too, and then be awed by the wonder of the Universe in all our cluelessness.

What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?

Make sure you have fun everyday, and be present. 

Sister Margaret Taylor – Counselling Psychologist, midwife, nun and inspiration

Sister Margaret is a counselling psychologist with a practice in Brixton. She facilitates and runs workshops nationally and internationally. I have rarely met someone so warm and unjudgemental. She is a woman of deep faith and personal wisdom. I hope you enjoy her interview – I did.
Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?)…

Where to start? I was born during world war 11, the ninth child of my parents (Irish and Scottish) background into a working class family with middle class attitudes to work and education. My mother thought I was a fibroid in the womb as she was 40 and believed her child bearing years were over! Owing to her health at that time I am told it was suggested to abort me to care for her other children. She responded that the ‘Hand’ that gave her this child is the only Hand that would remove it from her. Both parents were catholic, but religion though integral to our life was not rigid. She was full time at home, sewing most of our clothes, keeping house and only took part time employment when I was 12 years old, to give her some pocket money!! My father, whose own father had drowned at sea in the north of Scotland left school at 10 years. He had various jobs, delivering milk, very early in life, steward at sea, joiner and furnisher repairer and deliverer and later maintenance man and tramcar cleaner. He saw his role as providing the food and keeping the roof over our head. Home was a safe place, and even when punished for petty stealing of shopping money and telling a lie, the storm usually passed fairly quickly.  

We moved house when I was seven years from a flat to a semi-detached house with a garden front and back. I remember the joy and the sense of achievement in my parents not having to share the garden on washing day etc. It was also a blessing for me as unknown to me was the seriousness of what was happening I was being groomed by a neighbour who sexually exposed himself, giving me chocolate at the same time. Two years after leaving this place I cycled back to see my friends and was beckoned from a window by this same man. I remember distinctly waving to him with a definite “No”. Something had moved within me and I knew what he was asking me was now wrong. I had never told my parents what had been happening, but I am grateful for the circumstances that changed in my life. My brother died when I was 2+ years, he was 4+ years. He was always present in the house, not spoken about but there. I was told I had a guardian angel looking after me in heaven. I was aware later in life that I carried a lot of my mother’s sadness, and since I was the only child at home, while she grieved, (the sister next in age to me was 8 years old). I became aware of this much later in life on questioning why I felt sad when I had no reason to be. In dialogue with my mother I was able to let this go. 

At school I was more interested in sport, or just enjoying myself, and was relieved when I managed to slip into the next year. Friends were important throughout this time where we built trust among us. Confidences were exchanged and bonds were made. Risk taking was part of my character, taking dares to wear outlandish clothes and walk down the main street, walk narrow walls that were dangerous, occasional truant from school. All of this changed when I started at nursing college as now I was interested and wanted to do well 

At 18 years of age I left home in Scotland for England to embark on a life-commitment as a missionary sister, which at that time entailed never returning home. Boarding the train my father told me to come home if I see it is not for me. I was fired with love, wanting to give my all. I received so much but the journey like any other life journey has to be lived and experienced with its lights and shades. I expected everyone to be perfect and although I was aware of my own limitations I expected others to be better than me. It took time and is still taking it to recognise that while the outward journey is essential for competence, security only comes from the journey within, to self-acceptance not only of myself but of others round about me.  

I had also never taken into account that I would never have children of my own, loved for myself alone. I reflected on whether I would be more given, more alive if I left religious life, which I did for one year, and it was the “YES” of my commitment that brought me back. I had no sooner done this when I met a man that I love and knew loved me. It’s strange, for as difficult as it was, experiencing being loved and loving made me more committed to the Gospel or to Jesus. I now knew I was made for love and a life-giver. I no longer felt barren! I accepted who I am and allow others to be themselves.

The work I have done in Asia, Africa and UK has helped me to engage with life, nurse, mid-wife, health visitor and counselling psychologist. I see all of this as bearing life and engaging with life. My desire was to give compassionate love to others and this to me is the Gospel message of love. To give birth to Jesus is to give life and love.

This is where I come from, but where am I going?

At some levels I don’t know. I have been blessed, with wonderful friends, Engaged in work that I have enjoyed, met interesting people, experienced joy and sorrow, anger at injustice, rejoicing when I witness other’s success especially when I have played even a minute part.  

Where I am going? I would life to reclaim parts of me that busyness has stunted, enjoy and be life-giving to me and not to walk past a door that is opening for me. From being a low achiever early in life to a high achiever later, I’d like now to live the balance. To reclaim some of that carefreeness I had when young!           

How did you discover this purpose?

From an early age I wanted to nurse, perhaps because nurses were very kind to me when I fell off of walls… Healing and later as a mid-wife assisting in bringing new life into the world, my purpose has grown into being a mid-wife for others in their pain, to being true and free. Taking time in meditation and each evening to reflect on my day as to where life was present and absent, clarified this for me. Energy was increased when I lived my purpose. Also feed back from friends positive and negative, on where my strengths lay.   

What are the key qualities in yourself or others that you value and why?

I am a simple woman, trusting but not fooled. I enjoy freedom, taking initiative, and awareness of the power of presence. I like to laugh and enjoy humour. I value honesty where this is possible, an honesty that wants the best for the other, and not just ventilating! Above all to be present to each situation as much as possible and to learn from my mistakes.

Did you always have such a clear and honest voice? If not, what changed? How did you develop your voice?

Most of the time I did not feel I had an honest voice. It was a matter of responding to what was being said. However, what changed in me, though not fully, is learning how to say what may be considered unpalatable in a way that does not diminish and can be received by the other. Saying something ‘as it is’ though honest may have the opposite effect to what the speaker desires. I love the saying “you catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than a bucket full of vinegar”.

Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your voice?

Yes, there are times especially when I feel the person is not listening and words are better left unsaid. I don’t find this easy as I want to make the person listen. However, silence can often say more than words. Or fear when the consequences to others is at stake. There is no easy answer but if I lose my own truth what do I have?    

What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?

To be real, to weather the ‘ups and downs’ of life and know that your purpose will be revealed through both. Now to wait for the ideal moment, but to enjoy life and start with what you now know, and allow it to open other doors for you. Take time to reflect on your deep desires, open your heart to life and with awareness of what closes it, take time to heal the wound and move on. The past is history, the present is all we have and lived well will shape the future. 

Meg John Barker

Dr. Meg John Barker is a writer, therapist, and activist-academic specialising in sex, gender and relationships. MJ is an original thinker with a unique voice and a clear purpose. Like many others I came to MJs work and thinking on gender which is truly wonderful and insightful.

Meg-John is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and a UKCP accredited psychotherapist, and has over a decade of experience researching and publishing on these topics including the popular book Rewriting the Rules. Website: Twitter: @megjohnbarker.

Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?)…

I’m Meg-John Barker (MJ for short). I grew up in Bradford in the 1970s and 80s. I studied psychology at university, did a PhD in that area, and stumbled into working as a lecturer. But my passion for exploring and writing about people’s relationships with themselves and others didn’t really develop until I was around 30. It’s been a gradual process of allowing myself – more and more – to study what really fascinates me, drawing on the ideas and approaches that make most sense to me, and writing in the ways that I feel I’m best at and find most fulfilling.

In the last few years I’ve been writing more about more self-help style books – and other materials – for general audiences rather than for academics. I see myself going increasingly in that direction, weaving together my therapeutic work with my writing, and producing the kind of creative and critical self-help that I think would be useful for people. I’m particularly excited about projects involving comics and animations, for example, or mashing up self-help with other genres such as ghost stories, or memoir.

What do you see as your true purpose in life?

I see my purpose as being somebody who brings together and synthesises a lot of information and ideas about the topics that I’m passionate about, and then finds ways of putting that across which will be accessible and engaging for folks. It’s all about connection for me: connecting with the people who I learn from through reading, conversations with colleagues, and my therapy work; and connecting with the people I’m talking to through my writing, workshops, mentoring and counselling.

Another important element for me is that my work locates individual experiences in wider culture, and encourages people to engage critically with the messages around them, rather than getting caught in a spiral of blaming themselves – as individuals – for their struggles.

How did you discover this purpose?

I’m sure that a major element has been my ongoing reflection on my own life, and what has been helpful to me: wanting to put stuff out there into the world that might be useful to others who are struggling in ways that I’ve struggled.

Also there’s been a process of gradually allowing myself to pursue what I see myself as being best at. We receive so many messages about what we should do in life, or what a ‘proper’ person in our line of work should be doing. I try to hold those messages lightly and focus more on the question of what seems most useful and valuable. I know that it’s when I pursue those projects that I feel most alive, and that what I produce is of the highest quality.

What are the key qualities in yourself or others that you value and why?

The key qualities for me would be walking the walk, balancing criticality and kindness, and engaging with others in accessible and inclusive ways. 

I value people who put their ideas into practice in their own lives as much as possible and who reflect on their own experiences to inform their work so that it’s grounded in what actually works in practice. I think that kindness is probably the most vital human quality: it counters the self-criticism that lies at the heart of most mental health problems and emotional suffering; and it counters the judgement of others that is the root of so much human conflict. So I value people who treat themselves and others with kindness, and manage to balance that with a critical approach towards the wider structures, systems, and dynamics that often exacerbate suffering. Finally, I value highly people who are able to put forward their ideas in ways that are engaging to others, and include everybody, so that people can take away practical and helpful suggestions, and feel embraced rather than alienated by what is being said.

Did you always have such a clear and honest voice? If not, what changed? How did you develop your voice?

I think as a kid I did have a tendency to point out things that I found baffling in the world in something of an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ manner! However, the strong messages I received at school about how you had to be in order to fit in managed to stifle that for a long while. At the same time the experience of being bullied also gave me a much better insight into how other people might be struggling and how to engage with people more compassionately.

I think my voice is still developing, and it comes best when I manage to get out of my own way. By that I mean dropping all of the ideas I have about who I should be and what I should be doing, and allowing myself to go with my gut and write and talk about what feels most important to me, in the way that feels right, and drawing on the ideas that I find most useful.

Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your voice?

Definitely. It is when I find myself caring a lot what other people think of me so I start trying to speak in a way that I think they will approve of, or saying what I think they want me to say: trying to be ‘cool’ or ‘nice’ for example, so that other people will think well of me. That’s a real ongoing struggle for me, and for many of us I think. I try to remind myself of the following things:

That doing that generally makes what I’m saying or writing lower quality

That even if I get the approval I’m looking for it will be precarious because it’s not based on who I really am, and the other person or people may feel let down when they get to know me better!

That I can’t be all things to all people and it is totally fine if some people really connect with what I produce, and other people don’t like it – how could it be otherwise?

That everyone makes mistakes and has limitations – and if somebody does criticise what I’ve done in ways that are spot on it is fine – and important – to own up to that.
What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?

I think the most important thing is developing kindness for yourself, and that is incredibly hard and a lifelong journey. When we can treat ourselves kindly we can manage to get out of our own way more and speak more authentically. We’re also less concerned with putting on a front for other people, or justifying ourselves, so we’re more able to hear what other people are saying, to connect with their experience, and to act in the most compassionate manner in any given situation. Practically I find Buddhist mindfulness and journalling to be helpful daily/weekly things to do in order to develop more kindness towards myself and openness to others.

Professor Emmy Van Deurzen

Emmy is the foremost existential psychotherapist in Europe, if not the world. She has written many books, runs the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London and has taught and inspired many of us. I hope you enjoy this wonderful interview. 
Q. Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?) 

I am a woman in my mid sixties and I was born in the Netherlands a few years after the end of the Second World War, to parents who had been through the occupation of the Netherlands and who thought themselves fortunate to have come through this ordeal alive. My identity was completely shaped around the sparse circumstances in which I grew up, sharing a box room with my elder sister, in a one and a half bedroom flat until I was seventeen and being acutely aware of how dangerous and tenuous life was because of the war stories our parents told us. My parents spoke liberally about their deprivations: the deaths in the camps of some family members, my father’s year of hiding in an ice-cold loft, his severe pneumonia and near death, the bombings they and other family members were caught in to lose everything, the fact of living in fear, without safety, food, electricity or heat. I grew up feeling guilty of longing for a room of my own and was acutely aware of my great privilege in living in a time of relative peace. I learnt to value the freedom of movement across Europe that my parents introduced me to at a very young age, as they took us roaming around every country, in a small car, with two little tents, so that my sister and I would befriend people from different countries and speak different languages. These qualities of enquiry into other people’s lives and experiences and the desire to help other people improve their lives, has always remained a very strong motivator. Hard work, fairness, freedom, equality and honesty are basic values to me. But I have also been driven by a sense of duty in paying my debt of freedom and education back to society, by giving more to the world than I take from it. It has always seemed vital to me to be on the way towards somewhere and to engage with whatever I do or whatever presents itself as fully as possible. It is about being fully alive and making the most of what has been given to me. There is undoubtedly an element of survivors’ guilt in my psychological make up, which has made me very concerned for victims of war and abuse over the years and highly motivated to try and lessen people’s pain or suffering. I like to think of myself as a freedom fighter and this commitment to championing truth and freedom has sometimes gotten me into deep water. Sometimes I have been recklessly blind to the need to protect myself sufficiently. At other times I have been too trusting of other people’s ethics and good intentions. While I have lost much by being too generous and trusting, I have no regrets about it. The losses have been the price of my good conscience and I prize this above the gains I might have made had I been more politically and strategically motivated. I have achieved more than enough in the world to be content about my lot in life. 

Q. What do you see as your true purpose in life?

I see myself as a little pocket of consciousness that is currently alive enough to be capable of acting as a space or a medium for transformation. This means processing my own daily experiences in a way that creates greater awareness and greater understanding both in others and myself. But it also means working as hard as I can to contribute something beyond myself. This I do in having created organizations for the benefit of others, teaching people methods with which they can help themselves and others in turn and also running those organizations in such a way that people feel at home in them and find what they come to do inspiring and transformative. I find that a lot of my energy goes into simply maintaining those basics. There is always a new challenge or two at all these levels and nature abhors a vacuum: as soon as one thing is sorted another problem arises. So, life’s purpose is very much about problem solving and not minding this but learning from it, all the time and enjoying that process. Alongside this I do my best to lecture, write and contribute to social media in a way that is refreshing and stimulating, communicating as best I can to spread the ideas as wide and far as possible. This is simply In order to contribute a bit of truth and renewal to a troubled world filled with turmoil. My previous preoccupations with my own survival or acknowledgement by others, or even with the desire to be a good person, have now mainly been taken over by my commitment to truth and the search for the right way to be in the world in order to make the most of the years of human existence remaining. I am therefore happy to say that I am on the way to becoming a bit wiser. This pursuit of wisdom will undoubtedly be overtaken by the experience of accepting decline and death some time in the not too distant future. I find that thought more liberating than constraining and feel the urgency of completing as many remaining projects as I can still undertake and contribute. 

Q. How did you discover this purpose?

I learnt very early on that I was a spiritual, serious and sensitive person and that I was rather more interested in right and wrong than most of my peers or even elders. This mainly derived from my oversensitivity, which was and is one of my most defining characteristics. I knew about this from the beginning, because my parents and sister told me regularly that I was soft and soppy and cried too easily and too often. I cared deeply for other creatures and other children and did commendable and sentimental things to protect others at times. For a while I had a bit of a young person’s hero complex, as I became the caring member of my family, when tensions arose in my parents’ relationship and also because of difficulties between my mother and my sister. My mother got into the habit of relying and leaning on me emotionally and this made me wise before my time. It also made me into a bit of a goody two shoes and this did not endear me to my sister, whose voice was quite dominant in the household. It was not really surprising that I became suicidal as a teenager and left home at eighteen to go study and work in France and never returned to the Netherlands, moving from France to the UK eventually. 

What are the key qualities in yourself or others that you value and why?

My true purpose in life, judging by the life that I have actually lived to date has been to test my abilities and use whatever talents I was given in the best possible way. This includes learning to be open when possible and safely closed when necessary. It has also been about learning to be more and more perceptive in making the distinction between those two situations and more flexible in the process of adaptation. This undoubtedly has meant that much of my life has been about learning to love and to live in loving relationships without cyphering myself away. In first instance it has been about learning to love myself enough to make room for my own evolving strength and understanding. But beyond that it has been about loving other people, my parents, my only sibling, the people I have lived with and given my trust to, my children, my stepchildren, all of their partners, and their children, and also to some extent my colleagues, my friends, my students, my clients, even those unknown people who write to me out of the blue. I have found it easy to love people, but hard to be hurt in that process. I have often protected myself too much or too little and though I find it easier now to adjust and be flexible in my engagement or disengagement with people, it still remains a mystery to me how it can still be so hard at times to get it right, when it feels as if I just want to be as caring as I can. I have learnt to accept what I might previously have considered to be my failings, or shortcomings. I see them as part of this temporary creature that is called Emmy van Deurzen and in many ways I am now quite detached from that individual and don’t identify with her so much anymore. I can see some of my faults as assets and vice versa. I just think of the whole personality business as a superficial layer of what I am. The character traits are mere instruments for understanding both myself and other people better. They are at my disposal and can be used in many different ways, but do not define who I am. My high sensitivity and everything that flows from this remains a key factor in what I do and what I can contribute. It makes me super aware and observant and highly empathetic and generous, but in consequence I can also sometimes still get easily hurt, overwhelmed, irritable, impatient, unfair or suspicious. I have learnt to protect myself by switching off, building in lots of moments alone, paying attention to what goes on in me, to be able to respond to the needs I detect in myself. In other words, my particular attunement to the world is both where I learn and where I find my instrument through which to communicate with the world. It is the channel of my aliveness. It is the conduit of my understanding. There is always an endless amount more to learn about all of it. This I am sure, will run and run till the end. 
Did you always have such a clear and honest voice? If not, what changed? How did you develop your voice?

My mother instilled clarity and honesty in me from as early as I can remember. My father was definitely a freedom fighter and esteemed fairness and justice very highly. They both valued me for my natural sincerity and kindness but at the same time they criticised me for my naiveté and my tendency to be delicate and slow and dreamy. I remember my father telling me to toughen up or go faster a hundred times. In those respects I compared poorly to my very dynamic and accomplished sister. I remember my mother regularly exhorting me to wake up from my imagination and do practical things. They were right of course, as I discovered over the years. I had to learn to be realistic as well as idealistic and to deal with people or organizations with different priorities than mine. I had to learn to earn my keep and stand up for myself. These have been hard lessons that have taken me many decades to learn fully. Now I feel much more at ease, for having accomplished what I have in creating a movement and having published numerous books. I derive confidence from the knowledge that many people appreciate me for speaking up for integrity, freedom, care and many other things that I value. In the past I have often had to hide my light under a bushel, to fit in, but now I just want to be who I am and feel finally at ease with that. It is by making my own path, and setting up my own organizations, instead of fighting with the powers that be, that I have found a way to trust myself and to do things in the way I think is right and best. It has allowed me to be creative. Getting validated for that has been essential. Lacking in validation and appreciation has often been the hardest thing. So I think it is very important that we give that validation to each other whenever possible.  

Q. Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your voice?

I have obviously struggled a lot along the way to where I am now. I found it hard to find a voice that was acceptable, first in my family, then in being a foreigner and outsider, first in France, then again in the UK. I struggled for so many years to establish my academic career. I found it hard to hold my own when my message was usually in complete contradiction with the established way of doing things. I was never successful in job interviews, as I did not fit in very well and was considered a maverick. I had no choice but to create my own institutions. With hindsight that has been a good thing, forcing me to make new paths of my own, developing my own voice and my private ways of doing things. I have had to carefully listen to criticism and to the inner voice and vision in order to get it right. So ironically, at the times I was being rejected by others, I found it easiest to figure out what I was about. In opposition I could go deeply inside of me to ask challenging questions of myself and try to fathom out what was right and what was wrong. It was during the times that I was most connected to the establishment that I have been most at risk of losing my clarity of vision and integrity. During those times in the early nineties, I would feel duty bound to speak as the chair of an organization or the head of an institution rather than listen to myself. It was a good thing my social success didn’t last very long and I had to reinvent who I was and wanted to be, again and again. Later on I have also found that popularity and notoriety, as in being a minor celebrity in one’s field, is a similar trap. It becomes all too easy to play into the persona you have created and start saying what you think other people are expecting you to say, rather than what is important at the moment or what you really think and feel. It is nice to find a simpler way of life that has a lot of time built into it to ponder about things, to escape from this trap. It is also good to continue to be committed to hard work, so you don’t have time to take yourself too seriously. The only time that I do think is non negotiable is time to contemplate life to get clarity about current predicaments, sorting things out for myself.    
Q. What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?

It is always possible to live more in line with your own beliefs and more importantly with transcendent universal and eternal values. It is good to build the search for these into your daily existence. Those of us who do not follow a particular religion and therefore do not have a set way of living up to its rules and spiritual practices, need to set such practices for ourselves. I think it is vital to read about many different religious practices and to read as much philosophy and literature as you read about psychology or psychotherapy. There is so much that has been written about human existence, worldwide: a true treasure of wisdom that has been accumulated over the ages and throughout the lands. I find it fascinating and nourishing. I also have set ways of practising what I preach: I give myself plenty of time in the morning and in the evening, preparing for the day or preparing for sleep. Those transitions are so significant to the way we carry on during the night or the day. I really only understood this when I had young children and I learnt how important routines were and how they set the tone for the child’s response to the world. I treat myself with the respect I learnt to have for my babies and toddlers: I try to eat well and slowly. I take time to digest and rest. I take time to stretch and bend and ease myself into the day. I go for at least one long walk in nature each week and preferably more than that. I aim to resolve tensions in my relationships as they happen or at least before the end of the day. I try to challenge myself as much as other people to be more honest, more real, more engaged with reality, whenever I can. I give myself breaks, as often as possible. I tune into my sensations and feelings and thoughts and intuitions all day and sometimes all night. I process my memories of the past and connect them to new plans for the future. This makes me feel purposeful. I aim to be modest in the face of criticism and generous in praising others. There are lots of other ways and means I have found to stay true to myself and I aim to learn something new about this each day and think of this as my on-going search for existential freedom. I think such freedom makes life a joy despite its many difficulties and worries. It helps me transcend the sorrows and feel a sense of purpose in each day. To be asked to talk about it here confirms to me that this is not just a peculiarity of my way of life but something that has value for anyone who is alive and who wishes to make the most of it.