← Back to Writing

The Water and Ice Within

May 25, 2021

Water moves.

It can’t help but flow, towards the sea, towards greater unity and harmony. It’s soft and it’s strong. If its path gets obstructed, it will find new ways to get to where it wants to go.

We are like water.

There is a flow, an aliveness to us. There’s an instinct to move, to be in the world and to express oneself fully. There’s a yearning to belong to a greater whole. And when faced with obstacles, we find new ways to reach where we want go.

But, like water, we can freeze, too.

When we’re frozen, we can’t move. We’re stuck in place. There’s no room to maneuver, and no space to think. We’ll feel blocked from moving forward and from being who we want to be.

No matter how hard we try.

I view my coaching work as helping people to reconnect with their aliveness.

People say they sign up for coaching because they want to find or achieve their goals. But in our work together, it becomes clear that the deeper longing is to access more of who they are.

There’s a desire to tap into more energy, ingenuity, and vitality. To access a deeper state of presence. To feel more fluid and connected with oneself and others.

To feel less stuck.

Often, we attempt to combat stuckness by trying harder. We work longer hours. We read more books. We start new habits, diets, and workouts, and take on more than we can bear.

In a cultural paradigm that resolves around “hard work,” it’s easy to tell oneself to keep pushing, forcing, and defeating the enemy within.

But the harder you try to break the ice, the more it cracks and falls apart.

When you hammer what’s frozen, you’re left with nothing but sharp edges and cuts on your hands and legs.

A year ago, I started Yellow with Rob Poynton. It’s an online space of learning for a complex world. There is no set curriculum — we respond to what is emerging from the groups and design as we go.

The participants don’t “work hard” to learn. Neither do we.

There is no homework. There are no defined learning objectives, deliverables, or defined outcomes. Although we design each session beforehand, there is no strict agenda. Often, we’ll throw our ideas and plans out the window, because something more current, more real, more alive emerges from the participants on the day.

These principles don’t come from a place of laziness (although there is something to be said for that). When you give people the space to be themselves, with care and attention, they’ll find what’s needed to grow and learn themselves—without “trying hard.”

“The all too common idea,” says educational philosopher Zachary Stein, “that learning is something that requires professional guidance and state-sanctioned materials is profoundly misguided. … Your mind does not need to be coerced to learn—learning is its natural state.

In Yellow, we’ve experimented with everything from conversations on truth and noise, to embodied practices like breathwork, to playing with messy art, Shakespeare, and poetry. These activities circumvent the controlling, analytical mind—the Berlusconi of the brain, as Iain McGilchrist says—and allow people to tap into a different way of knowing and of being.

By including and welcoming more of the human, the participants are able to reconnect with more of who they are. They’re able to to get in touch with parts of themselves that have been stuck, hidden, or blocked.

They’re allowed to move and flow as they are.

As frustrating as is it to feel frozen, it’s important to recognize that ice is always taking care of something. Often it’s protecting something in the past, right now.

For a one-year-old, managing terrifying overwhelm by numbing and freezing the body is the only viable solution in the absence of fully attuned caregivers. It’s more manageable to feel nothing than to feel all of one’s overwhelming fear and pain.

Similarly, for a three-year-old, limiting oneself in the frozen state of “being a good boy or girl” makes sense, if the only way to secure safety and belonging is to make sure others don’t get angry or annoyed.

These strategies are intelligent, necessary trauma responses for a child. They get us through the day. Tragically, however, we can end up living our lives, decade after decade, on top of strategies that were designed to protect a three-year-old child, not a thirty-year-old adult.

This is not only sad — it’s exhausting. Limiting aliveness drains energetic resources. Energy that would normally flow freely instead gets devoted to managing, constraining, and restricting oneself. The result is physical symptomology, psychic exhaustion, and a broken heart that longs to open wide.

Trying harder to break the ice on top of that doesn’t help.

Ice only becomes water by melting.

Melting ice requires heat.

Heat is movement and increased connection. The more molecules of hydrogen and oxygen that get in contact with each other, the more liquid the ice becomes.

Ice melts when it reconnects with more of what it is.

The same is true for us. Melting happens when we allow ourselves to get in touch with more of what we are.

“A failing system needs to start talking to itself,” says Margaret Wheatley, “especially to those [parts] it didn’t know were even part of itself.”

This process of reconnection can come in a number of forms. It could be by getting more in touch with the body. It might be by allowing your messy side to express itself through art and play. Or it could be by getting to know the wounded child within.

Even grief is a process of reconnection and vitality. “There is some strange intimacy,” says Francis Weller, “between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive.”

Reconnection, whatever its form, is a process of turning toward what is here, and meeting it full on.

It’s getting to know, intimately, the neglected or veiled parts of oneself.

It’s a melting of the ice in body, heart, and mind.

Drip by drip.

Trickle by trickle.

Then, one day, as you turn your head, you might just hear the faint beginnings of water surging forward, unleashing its whoosh and its roar. Without trying hard.


Subscribe to my newsletter to get my occasional writing spanning philosophy, psychology, living and leading.