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Soaring and grounding – A dynamic dance

This post is a personal reflection and attempt to distill some of the essence and impact of an incredible 6 month journey as a participant in THNK’s Creative Leadersip programme. Writing this in a samll cabin by a wild sea, a post-thnk adventure of self-exploration -expression and reflection.

(Photo by Andrew Dodd)

The journey so far… Coming up for air.

A slow dive.

Unfurling.

Soaring. Grounding.

A journey of passion and purpose, exploration, visioning, creativity, connection, meeting of minds, transformation…

I went seeking, seeking tools, guidance, support – things I thought beyond my reach, outside of myself. New, shiny things that I needed to learn.

But instead it turned out to be something radically different, unexpected.

It became a deep-dive of self-exploration, mirrored through powerful connections with others, with my class, my THNK tribe.

It became a space where I felt I could give myself permission to be who I am, to own my strengths and realise the gifts I have to give.

Permission to open up more fully to myself and share that more openly and honestly with others.
It became a shedding of old skin, emptying the “ballast water” as Andreas, my Challenge team-mate said.

There was no more ‘should’, or ‘shouldn’t.’

And the slow realisation that what I’m looking for may not exist ‘out there’, but already possessed within.

That, “at the centre of your being you have the answer. You know who you are and what you want.” – Lao Tzu.

Slowly discovered by letting opportunity come dropping into my life in the unexpected moments. Space for synchronicity to flourish. Learning to be kinder to myself. Discovering and tapping into the energy of the dance between all the dynamic tensions I hold. Between freedom, flight and focus. Between drive, acceptance and surrender. Between grace and grit.

This deep dive doesn’t easily reveal the essence of who we are. In fact, in the end of it all I was left with a ‘vision quest’, to distill the esence of who I am. It’s hard to recognise ourselves sometimes because we have so many filters switched-on, so many judgements, assumptions, expectations and fears that we rarely give ourseleves permission to simplye Be. Because that means we have to strip oursleves bare…what if we don’t like what we find in the process. Wounds that haven’t healed fully, the shadows of our souls, the tension tightly coiled around our core.

And in seeking the essence of who you are, its possible to loose yourself. But that’s ok, for a while at least. It’s ok because finally there is a safe space, a home and a tribe you belong to who understand and care, who are on the same journey. As much as I’ve learned to lean in, lean into my fears, lean into the wave as I drop down its face, I’ve also learned the power of reaching out. Of asking. It’s ok to ask for help. There is great strength in your vulnerability.

Getting lost, being naked, it’s really not a comfortable feeling, it’s challenging and downright scary. And that’s your cue, your call to to tap into the flow state.

So what’s that supposed to mean?

A state of creative flow happens when you take on an experience just beyond your comfort zone. Like the moment a surfer commits to big wave and taks the drop, that moment of surrendering to a force greater than yourself.
Nothing exists but total awareness in the moment. It is the point of no return, there is no going back and no knowing how the ride will end, what character the wave will morph into… It is exactly
how Krishnamurti described being fearless, “There, at that actual moment, there is total attention at the moment of danger, physical or psychological. When there is complete attention there is no fear.”
After an experience like that it can feel like you’re soaring. What is easy to forget is that the most challenging part isn’t actually taking the drop, making the ride, but coming back to shore. How do you land, come back down to earth – without losing the magic of the experience? How do you take that experience and share it with others? Distill the essence of who you are? For that you need to give yourself space to reflect.

It’s been a real leap out of my comfort zone….to give myself space for nothing at all other than the simplicity a journey into the wild, to a cold, forgotten coast and chasing waves and following the patterns nature dictates with and sharing experiences with my pioneering surfer Dad – who is the zen master of ‘Slow it down and be here now, with whatever presents itself in the moment.’

Awakening the senses with the assault of nature and the elements. Feeling alive, doing what we love, playing like seals in the sea, and thinking about nothing at all. Letting the mind grow still. Letting go is harder than you think, slowly the tension I didn’t even realise I’ve been holding is releasing, and my body ached. I hadn’t realised how I had try to cover up wounds instead of exposing them to the fresh air to heal. Sometimes a fear that I’m losing my way creeps in. That I’m not doing enough, or not doing the right things, that I won’t be able to survive doing what I love, that I’ll fail. I haven’t been responding to emails like I should, I haven’t been hatching any world-changing projects, and I have no idea what happens next. And I kinda like it!

I trust that by getting to know myself better, by just being with myself and not trying to do anything I will already have what I think I need, what I’m looking for, at the moment when I need it. That this period of exploring, being and reflection will fuel me for my next jump into the unknown.

A very wise bear who said, “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” – Winnie the Pooh

Give that gift to yourself, honour what you’ve just come through and to take a moment before making the next leap of faith across or into the unknown.

Honestly, this last module hasn’t just been about ‘lifting off’, soaring, but also about coming home,getting grounded back in myself. Realising and owning my own truth and the power in that.

Things are perfectly what they are. It has everything to do with holding the present moment in its fullness without imposing judgement on it.

Flex and flow are my thing…

What I’m looking for I already have and I just need to open up more fully to that, to let it out, let it flow. To listen to and trust myself.

During the past 6 months I’ve created my own form of mediation, ‘stillness in movement’, and better able to find my zen, what makes me feel alive because I broke the limiting belief and cycle of needing to please, of ‘should.’ I’m more playful in my work and I react a lot less and I’m more aware of pressure points and when is the right moment to apply or release pressure. I’ve found greater belief and confidence in myself. By doing what lights me up, what I’m most passionate about I have greater conviction in my actions.

Don’t be afraid to put it out there, who you are, what you love…

My mission is to not lose any of these insights and to keep applying them as my life accelerates again, knowing that, although I can’t control the speed of the wave, I feel most alive on its edge, that I can choose the lines I want to draw.
And I have my own ‘accountability team’ to help me get there!

I’m a water dancer and a wave maker.
A seeker and explorer.
Freedom and passion are my code.
Grace and gratitude are my compass.


(Photo by Christian McCleod)

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Unfurling

Unfurling: “To become opened out from a rolled or folded state, especially in order to be open to the wind” or “To release from a furled state.”

 


 

I had forgotten the last post I’d written about the Art of Distraction. Understandable, I guess, as I’d written it in the midst of my Sea-Fever, when the pull of my life was in full flow – it captures the intensity and rawness I was living and feeling in the run-up to module 3 of THNK’s Creative Leadership program. How I was pushing my mind and body to the edge, again and again with little space for recovery…feeling caught in a whirlwind that I had no control over.
And then something shifted, on the edge of breaking point…Something subtle that taught me the value of being patient, especially with ourselves (patience being one of my greatest ‘learning edges’)…In those moments of feeling overwhelmed, breathe it all in…because it’s the stuff grace is made of, these uncelebrated moments, filtered and censored from a shiny, digital, live-streaming world. The stuff that takes grit and brings gratitude. The longing that keeps me hungry and ready for the next wave, ready to let my soul come pouring out. But first you have to be ready to let go, let the longing and desire wash over us without holding on…easier said than done.

I’ve been described as a ‘feet-forward’ person, driven by a sense of urgency that breeds restlessness…that can be a real strength, a proven characteristic of creative leadership, but it has a flip-side. The inability to let go, to stop mid-way, to turn a yes into a gentle no or to see what is truly essential.

“BE HERE NOW. BE SOMEPLACE ELSE LATER. IS THAT SO COMPLICATED?” – David Bader

I struggled with this in the last module and it’s what created this big shift. Being able to so quickly let go of the push and pull outside and to immediately drop into THNK-Now space.

This shift has a lot to do with experimenting and exploring ‘presence’…what it means to be truly present. The exploration of vulnerability. Realising that my power comes from my vulnerability and that by trying to shield how I really feel in order to protect my power I was only diminishing it, suppressing that energy. Presence comes after weeding out the weeds…

In module 3 it was less about the weeding and more about beginning to see the seeds take root, spread and hold-fast in the earth. It was about getting grounded through the power of connection…both connecting the dots of our inner workings, beginning to see more clearly the connection between our passion and purpose and how that translates into our story, and the connections between each other, my classmates.

THNK has been a process of alternating divergence and convergence to find my focus…the essence of what matters most. The open spaces and sharing my ‘ask’ allowed for more unraveling, encouraged by an ecosystem of trust, a shedding of old skin.

As my vision clears the boundaries between my dimensions, my ‘skins’ are beginning to dissolve and merge into a whole. Unfurling and taking form. Permission to not only explore and find my own way but to create new ways…and I don’t have to do it alone…in fact, a core part of creative leadership is working together with creative teams… an aspect I thought I was lacking until know…through ‘mirroring’ and ‘flower showering’ from other participants, I saw myself through their eyes and my reflection was unexpected.

We often put ourselves last, or don’t take a step back.

My THNK class-mates are like my personal accountability team! They help me…

  • Cultivate good habits / daily rituals
  • Reflect on priorities, replace ‘what if…’ instead of ‘should.’
  • Reach-out
  • Cause, don’t do by making my priorities align with what I want to happen
  • Embrace the crazy
  • Explore all the dimensions of my passion, “It’s really important to know the why behind the what and the how.” – Carrie Rich, one of the most inspiring women I know and CEO of Global Good Fund

 

(With Carrie on a boat in Amsterdam)

(Ayana, wowing us with her stunning voice)

 

It comes back to presence, that is to be, ‘Open to and in touch with your own authentic feelings and those of others.’

By crossing the threshold of my dreams I’ve opened up myself – it’s brought openness and vulnerability that at first left me raw and exhausted but now is making me stronger. Another gift is understanding the need for nourishment. That it doesn’t have to require a sabbatical or becoming a hermit, it can be found in the beauty of small things…the power of one moment meditation…a new appreciation for ‘micro-adventures’ to fill some of my longing and need for wild places and immersion in nature, the importance of daily ritual in my otherwise unpredictable, intense schedule…

That said, there should always be space and priority given to taking macro-moments for deceleration too…to get beneath the surface so you can refocus your energy and really get your creative flow going.

 

 

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The art of distraction

In the midst of a sea-fever…

I call surfing my ‘good addiction’ but like any good addication when we fail to get our fix the withdrawl symptoms kick in. At first this heightened sense of restlessness and energy is a powerful way to explore new frontiers, throwing my self into physical, ‘out-of-the-mind-and-into-the-body’ activitivies like two weeks of intensive training and performance with circus folk at the Irish Aerial Dance Festival and Fidget Feet. I get real busy ‘doing’, throwing myself at life, pushing hard…so hard that I realise I haven’t stopped moving the last 6 weeks.

I haven’t taken a moment to pause, no space for stillness…when I breathe in the goodness of the moment I inhale the sweetness of salt, taste the tang of the sea on my lips and I’m reminded of my wave-riding loss and feel the pull of a black hole because I know nothing can replace that feeling. I’ve been on a constant edge between letting go and holding on…My friends notice that I’m distracted, a distant look creeps in, I begin to feel caged…a madness I can’t explain.

Relationships amplify everything and my relationship to the sea and surf can be a powerful creative space, full of longing but I’ve also felt tired, worn out, scared, defeated, unsure, lost, alone to the point of loneliness…

I don’t care so much who you
pretend you are

when you’re well fed,
well dressed,
well slept,
put together, prepared,
And so called ready…

When the polish is fresh and the face
newly painted, airbrushed layers
covering freckles, pock-marked skin
with storied layers hidden;
the script locked on papers in hand,
it’s less interesting, this version.

No, see, I care who you are when you’re
tired, worn out, beleaguered, scared,
underfed, miserable,
alone.

I want to know
who you are when you’re not
caught up in the throngs or masses
styling yourself around other idols or dreams,
chasing a relentless reality of productivity in some Western idea of
what is Good.

No, I care you you are
when your soul flutters a bit and smiles,
when it sparks at the strange language of tender raindrops on dewy skin,
shivery hairs erect in the water’s spotlight, goosebumps
whispering hello to the wind.
When your feet fight to do the darndest, weirdest things, those
“silly dreams” and things no one else thought of; and
you almost don’t let yourself think them either,
because they’re strange, different, or seem
too obvious to you.

I care who you are when the world isn’t watching,
when the lights are down and
your hair is a scattered mess and
sweat stains pool in your armpit creases and
the sour smell of unwashed skin is the forgotten leftover of
your ambition’s messy chase towards your project, the thing at hand.

I want you (you want you)
crazy, tender, raw,
different, unique, silly, strange,
whatever you-ness is you, under
all that posture, pose and pretend;

My eyes flicker with green fragments of light against the roaring
C train’s metallic brakes squeal to a grunted stop
when I see the tendrils of humanity stream
uncannily in and out of subways, trains of thought
departing from each mind into the stuffy underground air,
mixed with kiosks filled with sugar and chips and
magazines of big-bottomed ladies tantalizing the sexual fantasies of thousands,
a cesspool of potential ideas, waiting,
for ignition, for permission,
a start that begins within.

In this, this messy
pursuit and nonlinear pattern-chase of never-ending arrival,
things fall down and apart,
logic feels lost and you feel so messy that you wonder,
is this it, am I doing it right,
am I doing it right?

Because who you are then —
when the worst conspires against you —
or the doldrums of daily commuting monotony threatens to close your creativity
when you’re lost, confused, meandering, processing, contemplating, cultivating,
this, this, is the essence of your humanity.

Show me who you are
when the ladder slips, when
you miss the subway by a moment, when
your face cracks, painted black smears blurring clarity tears
on makeup-caked cheeks, showing the beneath, when
your friends leave, departed for otherworlds
or better promises, when
your project busts, your pants rip down the center seam,
your mind breaks against the weariness of repetition,
and you breathe it in anyways, and
find a smile to give the departing train, and
hug your friend a tearful departure, and
laugh at the failed pants debacle and somehow,
you pour out gratitude and kindness and
showcase the kind of humanity that
is built from resilience,
grace,
pressure.

If you can do it then,
if you do it when
it’s not easy, –hah! easy
when it’s difficult,
my eyes shine and spark with fierce
love for you, my sisters,
my brothers,
my partners,
my fellow humans,
working in the thick of it all
to find compassion, to showcase fierce grace,
to find the love deep
in the center of it all, to be
full of life.

If you can do it when
it’s a struggle, a hustle,
you can do it any time.

there is power, grace, and love buried inside
of the fiercest form of grace;
swimming taught me this—
when you’re tired, scared, unsure, insecure, and think you can’t:

do it anyways,
do it because you have no right,
because the odds are stacked against you;
because your mind plays tricks
and tenacity builds your soul

because adversity shouts You Can’t, You Can’t,
yet you still fucking can,
so
why not,
do it anyways.

And then
go on,
do it better than the rest of them,
knowing that if you do it now,
through this,
in spite of this,

then you can do anything.

do something.

- by storyteller and Sandbox sister, Sarah Kathleen Peck

Breathe it all in…because it’s the stuff grace is made of, these uncelebrated moments, filtered and censored from a shiny, digital, live-streaming world. The stuff that takes grit and brings gratitude. The longing that keeps me hungry and ready for the next wave, ready to let my soul come pouring out. But first you have to be ready to let go, let the longing and desire wash over me without holding on…

“Let go of what you need to let go of: this is what frees up space…and embrace the uncertainty” - Sarah K Peck

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A Slow Dive

My experience of expansion in THNK’s first module shifted to a focusing inward, a gradual convergence in module 2…The first module was a complete unknown and I tried to go with an open mind, open to the unexpected, without judgement, and to let new experiences flow. I had cleared space in my life to do that. To allow for that space to create, to be fully present.

The second module came so quickly I felt like it caught me a little off-guard…I found it interesting to observe how I was more open and willing to go blindly into the great unknown than when I already had my mind engaged, my perspective filtered, looking through different lenses, or as Yoda would say, “too many minds.”

I found the transition harder this time, harder to let go of the demands from the world outside and to become fully present in my THNK home took a few days. In part, this was because, THNK module 1 had flung the doors in my mind wide open! It felt like there was a universe inside expanding and the earth’s orbit was accelerating. How in hell was I to focus, to bring it all in, to begin to articulate my vision?!

The beauty of this experience is that you are not alone. This module was more about the deepening of relationships and truly meaningful connections with my fellow THNKers than about the ‘dos’, the projects, the challenges, the tools…

There was always someone to give you a gentle nudge at just the right moment, someone to lean into or to lift me up and out of the darker, fatigued or hidden recesses of my mind. Lots of THNK hugs and sharing, all tuning into the same frequency, creating this beautiful resonance – a sound wave that carried us through the stress points, the cracks in our emotions, our vulnerability…without breaking.

This module was about visioning but instead of trying to search ‘out there’ it was really about how we visioned our Selves. A Heroes inner journey…to first articulate my Self. A storytelling process that has continued well beyond the module timeframe, spilling out into my life – a process that feels like a slow, deep dive.

I have been struggling a little with how our stories get shaped – selectively, the bad bits easily edited out, self-censoring who we really are…
Now, I’m exploring ways to break-down my script, those limiting beliefs and uncover the false truths, the hidden narrative, the edited-out footage of my life that impacts my future, how I make decisions, my behaviour…to find my own truth.

Or as Sharon Chang put it so beautifully, “If you want to shift a script you have to change it in your heart.”

Visioning is process of truth and that’s tough work. It happens at the crossroads of ‘Should and Must.’

Storytelling comes from our desire to understand and to be understood, as powerful a human need as sexuality and self-preservation. To be a storyteller, one that moves to act, requires the integration of deep inner work with inspired action…It begins with getting to know ourselves, by asking, “what is my wave? My ‘Must’? The thing that pulls me?”

When we do this, it results in a new way of being that challenges old assumptions and pushes you to imagine new possibilities.

My vision for myself…is not to keep it bottled up! To share who I am, what I want, to ask for what I need…

I went through a literal, physical release at 90s shoegazing band Slowdive’s first gig in nearly 20 years at Hoxton, London, not long after THNK. I realised that the law of expansion had been broken by suppression. The frequency of the music had released that in me, so my tightly bottled emotions spilled out and my narrative began to unravel. I felt open, lighter.

For me, I need to shine, to let all the colours out and to be free to express the fullness of that in the most self-expressive, creative way I know how. To shed the heavy armour that only weighs me down and restricts my movement, to open up to myself, to keep releasing and to wear my vulnerability well. Slow it down and breathe deeply.

In free-diving, it feels counter-intuitive but, the slower you move, the more you relax and the less effort you put into the ‘doing’ and just let your mind be allows you to overcome the fear, to dive more deeply and to stay below the surface longer than you thought possible.

I have been searching for focus and clarity so I can articulate my vision but the focus and clarity comes when we can articulate who we are. When we uncover our truth and know ourselves.

It’s tough work that needs support. We need to bring others in…

“The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Others who can hold up a mirror to reveal the parts of ourselves we wanted to keep hidden, or the beauty inside that for too long we denied. Friends who can hold us when we unravel, who can help us put the pieces together to reveal the vision that was broken and fragmented but that we always had inside.

Or friends who can get you to sing in public and learn how to sing in ‘whale’!

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Coming up for air

Then…

When people ask me simple questions like, what do I do, or where do I live, there’s usually a delayed pause as I try to search for a category I might fit or a place I might belong. The best description I can give is that I am a multi-passionate being, my homeland is and always will be Ireland but I live a nomadic existence. In my sporting life, in school and university I was told that if I didn’t narrow my focus I would end up being Jack of all trades but master of none. Such a damaging statement, how can you ever discover all of your passions if you don’t explore…? I am an explorer, a seeker. To be an explorer is the most human thing, we are all explorers. Exploration takes us beyond known limits, ignites our curiosity and stimulates our imagination. Ultimately we explore to know ourselves better.

 

 

As a surfer I feel at home in an unpredictable, powerful and constantly changing environment. I’m comfortable with the uncertainty and embracing the unknown. My life is one of constant motion but last summer I became stuck, everything was moving so fast I couldn’t keep steady in the movement or discern the flow in the stillness. The conscious choices I had made felt like obligations.  When feeling stuck I’ve realised the healthiest solution is to shift your perspective. Usually I get this by going surfing but the sun was hot and the sea was flat so I went to the park to do handstands instead. Nothing like going upside to get the blood pumping some energy around the body again. After the handstands, I sat in a cafe with my friends, animatedly talking about my next project – to make a documentary about female surfing pioneers, in Iran. My conversation was overheard by a tall blonde Dutch surfer who introduced himself. Floris had just returned from a surf trip in Sierra Leone and was planning to do a similar film project there. He told me about a project out there called, Tribewanted – a community-based, eco-retreat by a guy called Ben Keene, I was fascinated. When I dug a little further I discovered that the seed for the project was planted during a program with THNK. If that’s not serendipity then I don’t know what is. Luckily for me I was in Amsterdam for the summer and lived near THNK’s amazing HQ in an old brick gas-works building in Westerpark, so I dropped in for a visit to learn more.

 

 

THNK describes itself as a school for creative leadership on a mission to develop the next generation of creative leaders that will have a societal impact on the world. They don’t just generate ideas but they make shit happen. Their Creative Leadership program uses sexy words like ‘quest’ and ‘sensing’ to reframe ‘personal development’ and ‘research’. Most importantly THNK creates a space to bring together inspirational leaders to engage with and learn from each other. It felt like an opportunity to find my flow again.  After so long going solo, as a surfer, explorer, and the last 3 years doing a PhD – all individual, lonely, solo-pursuits – a new network of serendipitous connections began to evolve around me once I reached out to THNK and long before I knew I would become a participant.

 

 

…Now.



It’s been a week and I’m just coming back down to earth after my first module on THNK’s Creative Leadership program with 34 incredible, inspiring leaders from around the world. I can’t begin to capture the immensity of all that I experienced in one of the most intense weeks of my life. My brain was certainly pushed and pulled in directions it’s never been before but more than that, something deep within seems stirred up. Perhaps a better way of describing the feeling is like coming up for air after a long, deep dive.

 

I will try to distill the essence of the experience for me…

It felt like having a mirror held up to my Self, being able to feel the resonance of my own behavior through other’s reactions, sharing and feedback. I learned the importance of flexing our courage muscle so we can dive deep down to uncover hidden strengths and unravel so-called weakness. Even though I may not yet know how my dreams, intentions or goals will manifest, by pursuing them I come to know myself better and I am transformed along the way. We explored our passion and purpose in playful and challenging ways. I discovered the rudder and the sails of my seafaring soul (Kahil Gibran) – my purpose and my passion. The biggest gift of all, for me, was finding a tribe where I feel like I belong. It is because of the diversity of our perspectives and experiences combined with our shared passions (including spontaneous bollywood dancing) that there is such meaningful connection.

 

 

Stillness…

I’ll be honest, I was shattered after this first module but full of a new kind of energy – the kind of energy that leaves you feeling, raw, vulnerable, open and alive. For me it comes back to the importance of sensing the flow in stillness, being steady in movement.  As the super creative surfer-artist, Ran Ortner says, ‘We can’t be at our most responsive unless our nerves are quieted.’ At the end of it all I lay under a cherry blossom tree in Westerpark in the fading light of the day, the Spring sun leaving behind a freshness. It had a calming effect on me. The delicate beauty of the flowers unfolding, emerging for the first time after a long winter. They reminded me of the vulnerability and resilience of my own heart. Just as our bodies need to recover after an intense workout, so too do our minds and hearts.  So take a deep breath because it won’t be long before the deep dive begins again.

 

 

Note: The title for this blog was inspired by my friends’ stunning exploration of the relationship between surfer and the sea at Finisterre.

 

 

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