Mark Russell spots some parallels between writing, martial arts, and the Life Matters course.
I’ve worked very hard at two disciplines in my life: writing and martial arts. The common theme I found is that my heroes in both are the people who internalised the fundamental techniques to the point they have no technique.
The ultimate form is formlessness.
I was about halfway through the Life Matters course when I saw the correlation.
The program, run by Initiatives of Change Australia (IofC), is a three-day retreat that guides people on the tricky path towards becoming change-makers. Part counselling session, part empowerment, part team-building – it defies easy description, but it basically functions as a starter pack for like-minded people looking to make a real difference in the world. However, it doesn’t push attendees towards a particular cause. Instead, the course tries to change you from the inside out, allowing you to be an agent of change in any context. Life Matters aims to be nothing less than transformative. To make you formless.
The change experience
The program is conducted at IofC Melbourne’s headquarters, Armagh, a sprawling, old-world estate of labyrinthine rooms and bright garden grounds in Toorak. It was an imposing sight to arrive at, fresh from work on a Friday night, three-days’ clothes crammed into the bag in my hand. I was let in and joined the other course-goers, milling around the main foyer. There was a decidedly summer-camp vibe – strangers feeling each other out with nervous small talk before one of you inevitably leans in to whisper, “So… do you know what this is?”
This is undoubtedly on purpose, because the getting-to-know-you bits are crucial for the task ahead. In fact, they are the task ahead. You’re there to get a window into the people around you and hopefully have a glimpse in the mirror too.
Participating in Life Matters involves two different, simultaneous experiences – one as a group, and the other personal.
The group experience is one of sharing and growth. 'Be the change you want to see in the world' is distilled down into practical knowledge and steps. But it’s also about discussion.
Everyone present has their own unique perspective and, since many conversations began with some variation of ‘Why do you want to change the world?’, the chitchat can get pretty profound. Some of this is structured into the program, when we split into breakaway groups and were asked to share our fears, beliefs and hopes. But discussion also sprouts in the breaks between sessions, over the communal meals, or in the kitchen when your group draws dishes duty. It took a while to get these weighty talks going of course, but that’s because we all took our time giving in to the vulnerability that Life Matters cultivates.
We all got there, however, and by the end all of the group sharing, deep thought and quiet time created an environment of openness and kindness that was infectious.
The personal experience is easier to pin down. For me, Life Matters was a time of retreat and reflection. Being at the very bottom of the 35+ age bracket in this particular cohort, in a variation billed as 'Life Still Matters', meant I mostly heard stories from fascinating, intuitive people who had anything from five to fifty years’ life experience on me. These stories were heartbreaking, or hopeful, or eye-opening, but they all resonated and helped me towards the deep sense of peace the experience gave me.
Even the house contributed
Armagh has the kind of silence that big, old houses earn – a place to hear, and be heard. On the second day I felt this silence drape over me in a way I’ve never experienced in the city. I grew up in a country town and touring the grounds (and, no doubt, delving into my past) pulled me back to my childhood. It took a conscious effort, but I decided to embrace it – drop the cynicism for a few days and lean into my hippie-dippy side.
Walking around the garden, I pushed myself to not just smell the roses but look at all the plants. Really look. It reminded me how much I value the meditative state that lets you slow down and appreciate the world.
Life Matters' goal is lofty – to change yourself so you might change the world. I’m not sure yet if I’ll accomplish either – and it’s hard to say which goal is more intimidating – but my time at Armagh did leave me with the knowledge that those things are possible. Maybe I’ll become a formless change-maker, maybe I won’t, but I got the niggling feeling that it’s up to me.
So, 'yes' to life
What I can say conclusively, is that I would recommend Life Matters (for 18 to 35-year olds) or Life Still Matters (for those over 35) to anyone looking to change or better understand themselves and their world.
And if, after reading this, you’re still not exactly sure what you’re in for – good. You won’t get a blow-by-blow from me. I don’t want to deprive you of that first question, the one that informs the real search for change. ‘So… do you know what this is?’ - Mark Russell
- The next Life Matters course takes place from 25-28 January 2018 at Armagh. It’s too late to register for this one, but courses run periodically throughout the year. For more information, see the programme page and contact firstname.lastname@example.org.