By Jack Phillips
Personal development is big business. Sometimes, when grasping for words to describe the work that Embercombe does, struggling to name the unnameable, I might employ the phrase. But what does personal development mean?
To me personal development suggests the addition of some quality to a person’s existing self. The development of a skill perhaps, the adding of some resource or refinement, an augmentation. And of course there is an element of that in the experiences Embercombe provides. Growing connection and the capacity for connection, building confidence, equipping people to see the world with different eyes, all of this might be seen as personal development of sorts.
But my sense is that the magical, near numinous quality of what Embercombe offers might more often serve as precisely the opposite. As a taking away, a stripping back, a simplifying. Not an adding of armours, defences or tools but a dismantling of such. A reassessment, a retreat, a realignment of beliefs and the stories we carry about ourselves, others, nature, the world and our place in it. None of which fits easily into a conventional narrative of personal development.
Global politics notwithstanding, we might tend to view “development” as a positive thing. Personal development might be understood as a moving forward, a growth, a progression. As such it fits easily into a way of viewing our lives and the world as following a predictable, linear path of improvement.
In contrast any moving backward, any “degrowth” or regression, might tend to be viewed negatively. But it’s clear that any true spiritual practice involves not merely a striving upwards toward the light but also a dropping downwards towards the dark. Any adding must be accompanied by a taking away. We have to descend before we can rise. This is not a predictable or linear process. In this context the narrow confines of the personal development narrative do little justice to Embercombe’s important work.