This weekend I took a step outside of my comfort zone – and I’m so glad I did. A friend suggested attending a Street Wisdom event being facilitated by an ex-colleague of hers, I was in the area, so I signed up and went along. It seemed fitting at the end of mental health awareness week to get involved in an event which, while it doesn’t explicitly say so, is grounded in mindfulness techniques.
The Street Wisdom events were new to me and are billed as giving participants the skills to see the urban environment in a new way, ask a question and use the answers they discover to move forwards in life. They are run for free by volunteer facilitators – the strapline being ‘you don’t pay fees, you pay attention’. Intriguing – yes. Uncomfortable – almost certainly.
I met the group at Chichester Market Cross on a beautiful bright Sunday afternoon. A total of ten people, some had come alone and some, like me, with someone they already knew.
Our facilitator, Kat Hounsell, outlined all we needed to know about the Street Wisdom approach. I loved the straightforward overview – a bit of information about the background of the approach and just enough information to complement the purpose of the afternoon, which was simply to go with it, and see what conclusions presented themselves. What follows is an overview of my own personal experience and conclusions, though I have tried also to offer a summary of the format of the event itself. These events will offer a unique experience to each individual. This was mine:
The Street Wisdom events cover three hour long sessions. It sounds a lot but it passed in a flash.
We started with a set of 10-15 minute wanderings, armed with a simple question each time to tune you into using your senses in a different way. The first one was simply to wander and see what you are drawn to, the second to Slow. Right. Down – your movement, your thoughts, your breathing. The final wandering we were challenged to find the beauty in everything. Each of these exercises was followed by feedback from the group on our observations and experiences. This set us up to be tuned into the environment around us ready to hit our individual quests.
This is the main purpose of the afternoon and inevitably the most personal and unique experience. We were sent off, with our newly tuned senses, to wander, focussing on our own individual question to see what answers the streets had to offer. We were encouraged to speak to people if we were drawn to do so. We had been advised to keep the question manageable – something bigger than ‘what shall I have for tea’ but more manageable than ‘what is the meaning of life’. I had settled on considering the level of risk I was willing to take in relation to my chosen new career path where I am seeking to go self-employed but struggling a little with the concept of embracing not knowing what might happen next. I took my quest to the Bishop’s Palace Garden behind Chichester Cathedral – not exactly ‘the streets’ as such but well-populated on a sunny afternoon. I sat on a bench by the entrance to the main garden, watching people making their decisions and not really knowing where to start with my own. So, I started by doodling my surroundings (if nothing else this proves why I did not pursue a career in art).
Eventually I stopped procrastinating and started thinking about talking to people, and what it was that I would ask – ‘have you ever regretted taking a risk?’, ‘was it taking the risk itself that you regretted, or the outcome of taking it?’ and ‘have you ever regretted not taking a risk’. This took me to thinking about the ‘what if’ questions for me in thinking about committing to being self-employed. What if I took the risk and it didn’t work out? What if I played it safe and it didn’t work out? And finally, and somewhat inevitably, what if I took the risk and it did work out?
I sat and watched a steady stream of people walking through the gardens, intending to pick someone to ask my questions, and that’s when I had my moment of revelation. In observing my own reticence to stop someone and talk to them I realised that I was trying to choose someone who I thought would tell me exactly what I wanted to hear. Someone who looked adventurous, looked like they wouldn’t be risk averse and would tell me to look for the right opportunities and take them. That realisation confirmed that actually I didn’t need to talk to anyone. This isn’t a straw poll. It isn’t a democracy. Its my choice, and it turns out I already have the answer.
The final session of the afternoon involved coffee and talking (never a bad thing) – initially in small groups and then sharing key experiences with everyone. This wasn’t forced – if your question was personal there was no pressure to share. After spending quite a time on my own, and finding some answers, I was full of the need to talk it out, so this was really valuable to me. Some had come without a clear question, but had found one, and started to formulate some answers. The general feeling was that the group had got far more from the experience than they had expected. This is credit to the group for being open to the event, but mainly to Kat for making a group of strangers feel comfortable enough to share their unique experiences.
I can’t resist sharing one anecdote from the afternoon. One chap had wandered with a question about how he could make sure his life was more adventurous, and he asked people about their most adventurous experience – only to be met with one candid response that theirs was having had sex in a tree. It just goes to show that having the courage to ask the question, even of a stranger, could lead you anywhere!
The real beauty of Street Wisdom is that it works like a wave. Once you have been on an event, you can sign up to facilitate your own, and so the movement grows. So long as you aren’t facilitating for profit the sign up and materials are free to download and use. And that’s exactly what I intend to do. It will work anywhere that has streets, and life, and people. I was so engaged in my own experience yesterday that it was difficult to focus on others and I’m looking forward to being able to do just that.