Anxiety and fear aren’t the same

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same.

It’s important to see this, because they lead to different places. Anxiety – felt, allowed and responded to – can be an invitation into a new way of relating to the world. But fear so often leads us into actions that cut us off from ourselves, and from others, and from what’s called for.

It’s David Steindl-Rast who makes this distinction in his wonderful interview with Krista Tippett at On Being.

Anxiety, he says, is the feeling of being pressed-in by the world. It comes from the linguistic root anguere meaning ‘choke’ or ‘squeeze’. The first experience of it in our lives, the primal experience of anxiety, is that of being born. We all enter the world through a very uncomfortable occurence in which we are squeezed and pushed and all there is to do is go along with it. In a very real sense going with the experience is what makes it possible to be born into life in the first place.

And though we’re born through an experience of anxiety, Steindl-Rast tells us, at that moment we do it fearlessly. Because fear is exactly what comes when we resist feeling anxiety, when we try to deny it or push it away. Anxiety can bring us into birth, while fear – our denial, our resistance to what we’re experiencing – is a different move altogether: life-destroying, a totally different direction for our minds and bodies to take.

“And that is why”, he says, “anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.”

And what, he says, makes the biggest difference between anxiety and fear is learning to trust – trusting life, trusting the capacity of our own hearts, trusting others.

We live in times that give many of us good cause for anxiety. But instead of collapsing and narrowing ourselves with fear we can choose to feel, and choose to practice trust. One step, and another step. And perhaps this way we can allow to be born in us a capacity to respond to our difficulties without turning away, and a greater ability to live without choking off our own lives or the lives of others.

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How experiments open a new world

If it’s our everyday habits of thinking, action and relationship that keep the world as it is (and they do), then it’s experimentation that has the greatest chance of opening a new world with greater space for us to move in. And when the old world is no longer working out, or bringing suffering, we could all do with a way to open to a new kind of freedom.

This is the topic that Lizzie and I took up in yesterday’s Turning Towards Life conversation, which you can watch here.

Turning Towards Life is itself a big experiment for us, and is opening up new ways of talking, making sense, and building community. This week we grew to over 500 members. We’d be thrilled for you to join us, which you can do over at turningtowards.life

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Your glorious ordinariness

There’s a certain harshness in wanting change, transformation, improvement all the time.

Does it arise from feeling ashamed at how things are? At ourselves?

A response to the gnawing of the inner critic – its demand that we do better every day?

Today, can you allow yourself to know your glorious ordinariness? And the wonder of a messy, incomplete, everyday life? To feel the simple weight of the dishes as you wash them? To marvel that you can breathe, move, experience? To gaze into the eyes of your glorious, ordinary loved ones?

There’s much to be said for turning our attention away, some of the time, from what we imagine needs to happen and into the exquisite texture of what is here already.

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Tight spirals

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

We lead this way. We relate this way.

This is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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Cell walls

Human beings are not infinitely extensible.

We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.

First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.

Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.

‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.

We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.

A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.

And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.

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Being our home

A meditation for those days when we feel small, abandoned, or on the outside of our lives.

Bless these feet that carry me by day and by night.
Bless these hands that touch, sense, and bring the world towards me.
Bless these lungs, transforming air into life on every breath,
and bless this heart, for the continued heritage of all hearts
since the first broke into the stillness.

Bless this mouth, that can say what only I can say.
Bless this body for love, joy, grief, rage, despair and hope.
Bless this ‘I’ for incompleteness.
Bless this mind that discerns, wonders, confuses
and occasionally makes sense of the chaos.

Bless the uncountable mistakes, accidents, chances and failures
that keep life going and delivered me to this moment.

I do not know, really, what is mine to do.
But I do know that I am here,
along with so many others.

So bless the here-ness of me, and may it be my offering,
My thanks, my home.

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A new home for ‘Turning Towards Life’

The ‘Turning Towards Life’ project that Lizzie Winn and I began last year has now reached 15 weeks and almost 500 members. It has been an enormous joy to engage in such life-giving conversation with Lizzie each week and to hear from the many of you who watch and comment that it is been both meaningful and inspiring.

I’m thrilled to announce that as well as the members-only facebook group (where you can watch live, see earlier conversations, and join the conversation) the project now has its own public home at turningtowards.life

There you can find all the archived conversations, share them with others, and find ways to join in the community that’s growing around this work.

I will still post a link to each week’s conversation here. We’ll be glad if you choose to join us, either by watching the archive or being with us live on Sunday mornings at 9am UK.

Follow these links to see the talks from the last three weeks:

Episode 13 – How to Know When You’re Wounded

Episode 14 – Advice from the Dying to the Living

Episode 15 – Turning Our Lives Into a Celebration

And more at turningtowards.life

On Angst

Perhaps uniquely among living creatures, we have the capacity to sense beyond the particular details of the situation in which we’re living. We can see its limits, and perhaps more importantly we can see our limits. We can understand that there’s a ceiling to our power and capacity, that our time is finite, that the future is unknowable, that our understanding is small, and that much of what we depend upon is way more fragile than we’ll ever admit.

There’s a special word for the feeling this evokes – angst.

We mostly experience angst as a feeling of absence, because in coming up against the limits of our world, and the limits of our understanding, we quickly conclude that something is missing and that we must be responsible for it. We feel that we ought to change things, make them better, fix them up. We feel our inadequacy in doing so.

And so we build cultures, organisations and lives in such a way as to shore us up against experiencing angst. We imagine that if we don’t have to feel this way – perhaps if we don’t feel too much at all – then we can assure ourselves that everything will be just fine.

Of course, in the end this doesn’t work out, because behind all our busy activity, our habitual routines, and our constant affirmations that we’re doing ok, angst is still making itself felt. In a way our efforts make it more apparent, because living in such a way as to avoid angst means making our world small and tightly sealed. The feeling that we’re deceiving ourselves and imprisoning ourselves and that there is some bigger way of living becomes even more present, even as we try to hide it.

Running away from angst, it turns out, amplifies it and robs it of its biggest possibilities.

The way through this?

Firstly, giving up the idealised notion of an angst-free future. Angst is, it seems, built in to the human condition and comes as a consequence of our capacity to see beyond ourselves. And so there can be no world in which angst is fully absent.

Secondly seeing angst not as a terrible something to be avoided, but as an invitation, a reminder of the truth of our situation, which is that the world is much bigger, more mysterious, and more possibility-filled than we can usually imagine. And that even though there’s really nothing to stand on, there’s much that we can trust.

Angst is then not a signal to hide away, but a reminder of the uniqueness of our human situation. And a call to step more fully into life.

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The right time to hope

There are a million ways to be. But we hold on tightly to the way of being that is most familiar to us – the one each of us thinks is who we are.

And so when we’re in trouble – or stressed, or feeling held back by the world or by ourselves, when we’re longing, wishing, wanting, despairing – we tend to do more of what we already know to do. What we always do.

Even when it hurts us.

Even when by doing this, we keep the world the same as it has been for so long.

We choose familiarity over our own growth, because familiarity seems to save us from risk. At least we know the world when it’s this size, this shape.

At least we won’t be surprised.

And, because of this, just when our habit is to rush to do something, it’s often just the right time to wait. When we’re certain we have to be certain, the right time to be curious. When we’re most familiar with holding back, it can be the time to act. When we’re sure we have to be strong, the right time to be vulnerable. When we’re most ready to judge can be time to suspend judgement. When we’re most harsh on ourselves it’s the time, instead, to be exquisitely kind.

And, when we’re most despairing, it’s often just the right time to hope.

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Things to think

Some things to think that might help us do what we’re really here to do:

We’re here and so soon we’re gone.

In comparison to geological and even to historical time our individual lives are the briefest flash of energy and vitality, and then we’re done. For most of us it’s true also that our lives are the briefest flash in our own personal experience – done way before we’re ready.

We’re living longer than anyone previously in history.

Which, if we’re willing to seize the chance and to take our own development seriously, might just give us the time to develop the intelligence, sensitivity, and breadth of vision to solve the problems we’ve made for ourselves.

We’re going to have to get way more intentional about our development than we are now if we want this to happen.

The world was here long before each of us arrived, and will be here long after we’ve left it.

Seeing ourselves as part of something much bigger in this way can help us give up our self-aggrandisement and also our self-obsession, both of which keep our concerns and our lives in very narrow bounds.

And maybe we can find out how much more there is than living a life in which we get comfortable or which is oriented first around our own likes and dislikes. Instead, seeing ourselves as the inheritors and custodians of a world can support us in having our lives serve everyone who’ll come after us.

There’s nobody coming to save us.

Many of us secretly wish for the moment we’ll get rescued from all our difficulty and all our worries – by a parent, a lottery win, a leader, a messiah. Our longing has us place wishful thinking above meaningful action. Let’s give this up and imagine that we are the ones sent to do what saving can be done.

Each of us is an expression of life itself.

In the our disorientation and our confusion, it can help to see how each of us, all of us, are an expression of life doing what life does – experimenting, learning, and responding.

Seeing ourselves this way opens a huge opportunity to take responsibility. And perhaps to trust ourselves enough that we can participate in our lives rather than fight against them.

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A luminous garment

We’ve allowed ourselves to become obsessed by youth.

The way this has shaped our public lives is quite easy to see, from the relentless focus on youthful beauty in our media to the cruelty of causal ageism in the workplace.

What’s harder to see is how it is affecting the narratives we have about ourselves.

We see all the ways that growing old is a falling apart, an endless series of losses, a disintegration. And so we try to stave it off, denying what is happening to us. As we grow older and as the time remaining to us diminishes, we become diminished in our own eyes. In this way we rob ourselves and others of our dignity.

But here is an account of ageing from the Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, which points to a different possibility:

All the days of a person’s life are laid out above,
one by one they come soaring into this world…
If a person leaving the world merits,
he comes into those days of his life,
they become a luminous garment.

Such a different way of looking, this – our inevitable, inescapable ageing as a gathering and weaving of the days of our lives into a single luminous garment. We wear the sum of all we have been and done in our bodies, on our faces, in our entire way of being in the world.

This gives us growing older as an integration, a chance to unify ourselves, turning towards the shadow parts that we pushed away when we were younger.

And it invites us to give up our dependence upon looking good or being liked, so that we can have our ageing usher us into the fullness of our humanity.

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Oh Beautiful Sky, and The Cradling

Episodes 11 and 12 of ‘Turning Towards Life’ are now available on our new Turning Towards YouTube channel, and are also included below. We’ll be live on facebook here as usual at 9am UK time each Sunday morning.

In Oh Beautiful Sky we begin with a poem written by Lizzie’s husband Matthew for his daughter. Our conversation turned into the topic of power – how we try to have power over others and over the world, and the difficulty this brings. And how cultivating awe and connection with something bigger than ourselves – the sky, nature – can remind us of a much truer power we have, power-with, in which we turn towards others and bring ourselves in a way that brings out the possibility of mutual commitment. And what different world of organisations, family, community and politics we’d cultivate if power-with was our central commitment in the world?

And in The Cradling we begin with a beautiful and powerful meditation from the work of Joanna Macy. We ask ourselves what possibilities there are when we remember the extraordinary and unlikely evolutionary background from which all human beings come, and when we remember also that everyone – even those people we judge most or are most afraid of – arises from exactly the same background and shares with each of us the same biology. Would we respond so easily with the impulse to hurt, or distance ourselves, or turn away? And if we did not, what then?

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The Cradling by Joanna Macy

Every week Justin & Lizzie host a conversation live on facebook, at 9am UK time, as part of the thirdspace ‘Turning Towards Life’ project. Each week we begin our conversation with a source that moves, inspires or stretches us, and see what happens. We’re delighted that hundreds of people are watching and listening.

You can see us live on facebook by joining our private facebook group, or catch up with the videos later on our YouTube channel.

Our source for this week is an abridged version of Joanna Macy’s ‘The Cradling‘ meditation, from her Work That Connects. You can find more information about the Joanna Macy’s work on her website.

Lift gently your partner’s arm and hand. Cradle it, feel the weight of it… flex the elbow and wrist, note how the joints are hinged to permit variety of movement. Behold this arm as if you had never seen it before, as if you were a visitor from another world… Observe the articulation of bone and muscle … Turning the palm and fingers, note the intricacy of structure.

What you now hold is an object unique in our cosmos:  a human hand of planet Earth.  In the primordial seas where once we swam, that hand was a fin  – as it was again in its mother’s womb.   Feel the energy and intelligence in that hand  – that fruit of a long evolutionary journey, of efforts to swim, to push, to climb, to grasp.  Note the opposable thumb, how clever and adept it is… good for grasping a tool, a gun, a pen.

Open your awareness to the journey it has made in this present lifetime… how it opened like a flower when it emerged from the mother’s womb.… how it reached to explore and to do.  That hand learned to hold a spoon… to throw a ball… to write its name… to wipe tears… to give pleasure. There is nothing like it in all the universe.

Lift now your partner’s other hand and arm … Observe the subtle differences from its twin … This hand is unique, different from all other hands… Turning it in yours, feel the life in it …  And note also its vulnerability… no shell encases it, for those fingertips, that palm, are instruments for sensing and knowing our world, as well as for doing…  Flexible, fragile hand, so easy to break or burn … Be aware of how much you want it to stay whole, intact, in the time that is coming… It has tasks to do, that your partner can’t even guess at.… reaching out to people in confusion and distress, helping, comforting, showing the way.  This hand may be the one that holds you in the moments of your own dying, giving you water or a last touch of reassurance….  The world of sanity and decency that lies ahead will be built by hands like this one.  With gratitude for its existence, put it gently down; move now around behind your partner’s head.

Now hold your partner’s head, cradling it with reverence, for what you now hold in your two hands is the most complex object in the known universe… a human head of planet Earth… a hundred billion neurons firing in there… vast potential for intelligence… only a portion has been tapped of its capacity to percieve, to know, to vision.

Your hands holding your partner’s head – that is the first touch your partner knew in this life, coming out of the womb into hands, like yours, of a doctor or midwife….  Now within that skull is a whole world of experience– of memories of scenes and songs, beloved faces… some are gone now, but they live still in the mansions of that mind…. It is a world of experience that is totally unique and that can never be fully shared…  In that head too are dreams of what could be, visions that could shape our world.

Closing your eyes for a moment, feel the weight of that head in your hands. It could be the head of a Chinese worker or an Nicaraguan mother, of an American general or an African doctor. Same size, same weight just about, same vulnerability, same capacity for dreams that could guide us through this time.

Looking down at this head, think of what this person may have to behold in the times that are coming… the choices to be made… the courage and endurance needed.  Let your hands, of their own intelligence, express their desire that all be well with that head. Perhaps there is something that you want your partner to keep in mind  – something you want them not to forget in times of stress or anguish.  If there is, you can quietly tell them now, as you lay their head back down.

What we pay attention to (and what we don’t)

So often what we are doing in our lives (and hence in every activity, relationship, project) is joining the dots, stringing together the phenomena we experience into coherent narratives and explanations. In other words, we are always interpreting – and which interpretations we choose (or which choose us) is of enormous significance.

Of equal significance in this is our choice of phenomena to pay attention to. What we notice, and what we take to be meaningful, is a matter of both choice and practice. Choice – because an infinity of phenomena reach us and we pay attention only to some. Practice – because the way we pay attention (which includes what we pay attention to) is both a matter of habit (we most easily pay attention to what is familiar to us) and skilfulness (our capacity to discern and discriminate between different phenomena is something that can be learned, and cultivated over time).

The current cultural background of scientific materialism in which most of us are deeply schooled without our knowing it does not help us well in developing life-giving interpretations from which to live life, nor in learning to pay attention to what might be meaningful to us. This is not through any fault in science, itself a powerful and rigorous method for discerning deep and fundamental patterns and truths about the material universe. But looking at our lives only this way has us pay attention only to certain kinds of experience. We look only at what can be reasoned about, logically and in a detached way. We treat as true only that which can be proved, measured, quantified.

Scientific materialism, in its deep commitment to understanding the material world (and in understanding the world only as material) has little scope for understanding what’s meaningful to people, what makes our hearts sing, how we are moved by encountering or making art, what it is to love and be loved, what it is to care about life, the world, others. Or, more accurately, when it does have something to say about these topics it can only say that love is a particular firing of neurons in the brain, or an evolutionary adaptation to make it more likely that we reproduce; or that art is simply an adaptation that allows us to build social status, or that our appreciation of it comes because of the transmission of pleasure signalling chemicals to reward centres of the brain. And while all of these might well have a kind of rigorous truth about them when looked at from a materialist perspective, they tell us nothing about the meaningful experience of being human – what it is to love, or be loved, to create art, or be moved by it, to open to the mysterious and endless wonder of finding ourselves alive, or to be a whole world – as each of us are – of relationships, language, meanings, longing, desire, sadness, grief, joy, hope and commitment.

When we treat ourselves or others as mere material objects and truth as only scientific truth – as we are encouraged to do in so many of our systems in organisations, education and government – we miss out on deeper interpretations that take into account that we are subjects too, living beings who act upon the world through our ability to care and make sense, and who possess an exquisite and precious consciousness and capacity for self- and other-awareness. Precious indeed, because as far as we can tell, compared to the abundance of matter in the universe, life is rare enough. And among all the life we know about, as far as we can tell, consciousness and self-awareness (the capacity to say ‘I’ and reflect on ourselves) even rarer.

Alongside our scientific materialism, we could support our understanding and care about being human by paying attention also to the insights of those cultures and peoples who came before us, many of which we have thrown out in our elevation of reason over wisdom. In treating only reason as valid, we’ve discarded ways of encountering truth that can include beauty, meaning and goodness alongside what can be logically proved to be true. Myth, art, poetry, music, legend and spiritual practices that bind us into communities of meaning and action are all worth studying and taking seriously here. They can teach us to pay attention not only to the deep insights of our logical minds but also to the wisdom of our hearts and bodies, and to our first-hand lived experience of being human among other human beings.

Which brings me back to the ‘dots’ we pay attention to – the phenomena we treat as meaningful in our lives. What we experience does not come labelled for us as important, or not, significant or not. We have to decide what’s worth noticing, and practice living lives in which we make matter what can matter. And it’s incumbent upon us to do this, by paying a deeper kind of attention to our lives and our experience, and to what we choose to care about.

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Every sorrow can be a form of love

When we’re feeling fear, sorrow, anger or emptiness at the world – or at any situation we find ourselves in the midst of – perhaps it would help us to remember:

That when we speak our fear we draw on the courage and dedication it takes to speak;

And when we express our sorrow it can arise from our love and care for what has been lost;

That we can speak about our anger best by finding the commitment to justice from which it comes;

And that our emptiness, our sense of what is still missing, is also the possibility from which something new can arise.

Every anguish, every sorrow, has its truest ground in a kind of dedication, hope and love. And when we can remember that, rather than just the anguish and sorrow, our chances of being able to contribute with dignity are deepened and widened and made more real.

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The Invisible Tug Between You and Everything

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.

– Ellen Bass

It’s so easy to feel our separateness from everything.

For a start, we always experience ourselves at the centre of our lives, right where our body is, while people and things come and go around us. We can easily conclude that we are the only solid something in the world, while everything else is transient.

And few of us live in the midst of community. We have practices that shape how we work, how we take care of ourselves, how we attend to our lives that emphasise how alone we are, and how self-reliant we must be in order to survive. It’s rare to find ourselves bound up in the midst of communities of depth, support and care that remind us in each moment how held we can be.

And then there’s the whole way our systems of knowing and learning are constructed, deeply influenced by the Cartesian view that we are essentially minds, separate from the world. And our economic system, which deems us useless unless we can prove our productivity.

It’s no wonder we can feel so alone, so afraid, so distant from everything. It’s no wonder it’s so hard for us to feel the way in which each of us matters, in which the world and we depend each upon the other.

But we do matter. And the world does depend upon each of us. And when we’re able to remember this, we have a much better chance of doing what we’re here to do.

This is the topic we took up in this week’s Turning Towards Life conversation, which begins with Ellen Bass’s beautiful poem The World Has Need of You, and which you can watch below.

We’ll be live again on Sunday morning at 9am UK time. you can join us here.

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For the sake of heaven

This week in ‘Turning Towards Life’ Justin and Lizzie began with Jennifer Wellwood’s poem “Unconditional“. We talked together about how difficult it can be to really accept our experience, how easy to run from it, and the consequences. Along the way we considered why it is that human beings so often prefer to be right than to stay in relationship, and how that’s related to our wish to defend ourselves. And we introduced the idea of an argument ‘for the sake of heaven’… which is when we disagree in a way that keeps a bigger context in view and allows us to let go of our own rigid positions.

You can find the poem, which we recommend you read before watching, here.

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Primary and Secondary Needs

Our primary needs as human beings:

Warmth, shelter, food.

and then:

Touch. The loving gaze of others.
Being welcomed by smiling faces, simply for being alive.
Community.
A way to express our feelings and experiences truthfully, and to be heard.
People with whom to celebrate, and with whom to grieve.
Intimacy with others, and with the world.
Nature.
A way to belong.
Being of service.
Art.
Beauty, wonder.
Encounters with the sacredness of things.

It is the nature of our primary needs that, when met, we feel filled, complete, connected. Nothing more is called for.

The consumer economy in which we live is dedicated to meeting secondary needs – which are a pale imitation of what is primary. Our secondary needs, even when met, can’t fill us. They leave us wanting more. And as such they are ripe for the sale, for the making of profit.

So it should be no wonder that our primary needs are marginalised, often ridiculed, in our education system, organisations, and politics. Why have real contact with others when there’s no money in it? Beauty, when it will satiate rather then create demand? Intimacy, when it interrupts our addiction to the latest products? Deep joy, or deep sorrow, and contact with what’s sacred, when it stops us from feeling like empty vessels that need continual filling? Why do anything if it can’t be linked to productivity, or profit, or economic growth? Why do anything that will have us stop our restless, rootless consumption?

You could say that it’s the systematic marginalisation of our primary needs, and the worship of the secondary, that keeps our whole economy going in its current form.

But it’s in meeting one another’s primary needs, needs that can never be met in the form of a transaction, that we are most fulfilled, and most able to take care of what really needs our care.

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The Wild Edge of Sorrow

Lizzie Winn and Justin Wise were live again on Sunday 26th November.

This week the source for our conversation is Francis Weller’s book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow”. We begin with two poems – Denise Levertov’s “To Speak of Sorrow” and Robert Bly’s “What is Sorrow For?”. We talk about the connection between feeling our sorrow, shared rituals and spaces for grieving, and aliveness. Along the way we touch on how restraining sorrow keeps the myth that we are separate going, and how our collective numbing to the losses of our own lives and the world is a way we keep perpetuating the more destructive aspects of our current culture. We end with the hopeful thought that finding ways to grieve together is a way to help us turn more fully and courageously towards life and all that is called for from us.

You can find both poems, which we recommend you read before watching, here.

And you can join our FaceBook group, now more than 400 strong, to watch live or later and participate in the lively conversation that’s going on in the comments.

Personal Guidelines for the Great Turning

Lizzie Winn and Justin Wise were live again on Sunday 19th November.

The source for this week’s conversation was Joanna Macy’s “Personal Guidelines for the Great Turning”. We talk about what can support us in responding courageously and truthfully in the midst of the enormous changes – political, social, environmental – which may only just be beginning and which could change everything. Along the way we touch on the life-giving necessity of beauty, how to know ourselves in a way that can give us the courage we need to step forward, and how important it is to realise that none of us is alone.

You can find Joanna Macy’s ‘Personal Guidelines’, which we recommend you read before watching, here.

And you can join our FaceBook group, now more than 400 strong, to watch live or later and participate in the lively conversation that’s going on in the comments.

Photo Credit: $owmya Flickr via Compfight cc

I am an emotional creature

In our conversation on Sunday 12th November, Lizzie and Justin began with Eve Ensler’s poem ‘I am an Emotional Creature’. We talk about being male and female, how society pushes us towards gendered roles and orientations to the world, and what gets left out when we gravitate to either one of the poles of emotion or intellect without the other.

You can find the poem, which we recommend you read before watching, here:
http://bit.ly/2zxcglq

Photo Credit: Darkrevette Flickr via Compfight cc

Wild Geese

Lizzie and I were live again this morning, The source for this week’s conversation was Mary Oliver’s powerful poem ‘Wild Geese‘.

We talk about the constraining effects of inner criticism and the limits of our over-effort to be good or strong or loving or clever. And along the way we stumble into some realisations about what’s possible when we learn to trust something other than our own self-judgement, and reach out to others for help.

And if you’d like to join in with the growing community that’s forming around this project, and the lively conversation that’s taking part in the comments, you can do so here.

Is anyone listening?

It’s amazing how often we assume our requests can be heard while ignoring the capacity of others to listen to what we’re asking.

Some examples:

You made a request by email

If your recipient didn’t read it, didn’t see it, or is overwhelmed by emails and messages, as so many people are, you probably don’t have a listener, no matter how many times you insist that you’ve asked, or how sure you are that they should have read what you said.

You asked at a time when the other person couldn’t pay attention

If they’re busy, anxious, fearful, or distracted then just because you’ve spoken, again, doesn’t mean you have a listener. Even asking someone face to face who is distracted this way does not guarantee they have any capacity to hear you.

You assumed the other person should be interested in what you have to say simply because of who you are

Your seniority, fame, position of authority, sense of yourself as interesting or important are no guarantee anyone is listening. Neither is being a parent or a partner or the boss. Assuming you do is a route to many difficulties.

Can you think of times you might have asked when there’s no listener available, even if the request seems obvious to you? And if so, what might you do to make it possible for people to genuinely hear you?

You might need to think about timing, place, tone and the medium through which you make your request, as well as the mood of your request (sincerity, cynicism, frustration). All of these will have an impact on others’ capacity to listen.

If you find yourself thinking “I’ve asked them time and time again, but nothing ever seems to happen” you might well still be assuming you have a listener when you don’t.

And now you have a place where you can look to resolve your difficulty.

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A billion miles

It’s a small shift, but a potentially profound one.

What if you choose to see what you’re in the middle of right now from the point of view of a year ahead? Or ten years? Or a hundred?

Or if you were to watch this moment in life from the viewpoint of the moon? Or from the far edge of the galaxy?

From here, what changes?

Do your worries and fears have the same hold?
Do the same things seem important?
From what are you freed?
What’s called for, now?

Sometimes, we need the perspective of a billion miles and an aeon in time to see what we’ve got caught up in that’s trivial. And that what really matters is quite different from what we’ve taken it to be.

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Fuel for Your Fire

In just a month over 350 people have joined our new Turning Towards Life project on FaceBook. It’s been thrilling to find a new way to talk about many of the concerns, ideas and possibilities that are still an inspiration for the On Living and Working blog, and I think it’s likely that our conversations will in turn be the inspiration for more writing over the coming months.

I was particularly touched by our latest conversation on Sunday morning, which took John Neméth’s song ‘Fuel for Your Fire‘ as its starting point. The question we wanted to address is both simple and central to many people – how can we have our difficulties be a source of life for us, rather than a reason to turn away in shame, fear, or avoidance?

It’s certainly a profound question for me. It’s easy for me when I’m in some kind of trouble to imagine that I am somehow special, the only one experiencing life in this particularly challenging kind of way. And when I take on this relationship to my troubles what I notice most is my separateness from everyone and everything – as if I am uniquely cursed, isolated from others and from the possibilities of care and help.

All of this, it turns out, is a profound misunderstanding. If anything, it’s our troubles that show us how human we are, how essentially alike we are. None of us are free from disappointments, mistakes, changes to our circumstances both within and beyond our control. None of us is free from loss. And when we know this to be an essential truth of our human condition, perhaps we can give up self-pity and instead take on the dignifying work of contribution. This – that contribution is often the most dignified and life-giving path for working with our difficulties – has in recent months, and when I remember it, been such a blessing in my own life.

We’d be really delighted if you’d join us in the 30 minute conversation below, which takes up all these themes and asks ‘How can our troubles be part of the path?’.

And if you’d like to join in with the growing community that’s forming around this project, and the lively conversation that’s taking part in the comments, you can do so here.

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On the Hidden Cost of Hiding

In our Turning Towards Life conversation of Sunday 15th October Lizzie Winn and I took up the topic Hiding – the many ways we hide in our busyness, in our work, and in our wider lives. We consider what it is that causes us to hide, and what the costs are in aliveness and in the holding back of our contribution.

Our conversation was prompted by a piece written on this blog, called The Hidden Cost of Hiding.

You can join us live on FaceBook at 9am each Sunday morning here.

The Longing for Realness

Our Turning Towards Life conversation of Sunday 8th October Lizzie Winn and I took up the topic of our longing for realness, and the many ways in which we hold back from being real and truthful with ourselves and with the people around us.

You can join us live at 9am next Sunday morning here.

 

The source text for our conversation was written by Lizzie for her Sacred Rebellion blog:

The Longing for Realness.

As we commute with our hair washed and our smart clothes on,
Nothing is truly hidden of our flailing marriages, our domestic madness, our financial ruin, our anxious bodies.

Because we, ourselves can see it and feel it, even if we’ve become expert at hiding away and letting it all fester in our bodies and homes.

We get so lonely in our own, small worlds of circles upon circles of self criticism, questioning and confusion. Compensation, defensiveness, self-absorption.

We look good, like we should. Function well as the world tells us to do.
And mostly inside there’s much occurring, that doesn’t get to the light because keeping up appearances is safer in our world than being straight and honest.

What if we’ve got it horribly wrong?
What if our humanity has a requirement to be joined by other humanity, to remove the shame of our messed up minds, hearts and bodies?

What if our dark bits are there, calling us to bring them to the light, and we keep shutting them in. Until they make us ill, make the world ill?

What about us is really unacceptable? In truth, the full spectrum of our experience is acceptable. Surely it has to be.

Here’s to a world where we are each other’s acceptance as well as our own. A world where looking like we’ve got our shit together is less valued and approved of than being real, vulnerable, disclosive and open.

— Lizzie Winn

What will it take to give up our busyness?

Even when we see that our endless busyness is stifling us, holding back our creativity and contribution, narrowing us – even when we see that in many ways it’s killing us – it’s so hard for us to give it up.

Why is this?

It may be in part that we’re unwilling to stand out from those around us – to risk the feelings of shame and awkwardness that come from taking a stand that we call our own.

And it may well be that we’re unwilling to cease our busyness as long we’re unwilling to face loss. Because to give up rushing will indeed be to lose a particular identity, a way of keeping our self-esteem going, and of course the end of all those activities with which we stuff our time. And we human beings can have a hard time with loss.

It’s only through turning towards inevitable loss that we open the chance for life to reach us.

I think we ought to do that sooner rather than later. Because loss will be forced on us in the end in any case. And by the time it comes there’s a real possibility that we’ve missed our lives because we weren’t willing to choose to face it earlier, of our own accord.

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Days Are Numbered

The first conversation in the thirdspace Turning Towards Life project with Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn went live on Sunday October 1st. Lizzie and I took up the questions and possibilities posed in my post ‘Numbered‘, which Justin wrote in 2015 in response to the imminent death of a dear friend and teacher.

Our wide-ranging conversation covers living truthfully with the knowledge that life is finite, bringing ourselves wholeheartedly and courageously, and what it is to not turn away.

Recordings of all the conversations will be posted here week by week, and available under the new ‘Video‘ tab on justinwise.co.uk.

And the very best way to interact with what we’re bringing is to join our FaceBook ‘Turning Towards Life’ group, which allows you to see us live on Sundays at 9am and to be part of the conversation.

On account of nothing we did

Ordinary life can seem so – ordinary – that it’s natural to slip into taking it for granted, as if it were obvious and straightforward that we’re here, and as if it will go on this way for ever.

Many traditions have practices to remind us that it’s anything but ordinary to be able to move, breathe, think, make breakfast, travel, work, love, argue, sleep, produce, write, speak. And that it’s anything but ordinary to have a body that can do all this again and again, which can heal itself so often without us having to do anything. And that none of it lasts nearly as long as we might hope.

Here’s a morning blessing from Judaism, said by some as they use the bathroom for the first time in the day, that I think is particularly brilliant for its combination of straightforwardness about life and death, piercing insight, and gentle humour.

Blessed are you, Eternal One, Creator of everything, who formed human beings in wisdom, creating within us openings and vessels. It is revealed and known before you that if any one of them is opened or closed it would be impossible to remain alive and stand before You. Blessed are you, Eternal One, who heals all flesh and performs such wonders.

Finding daily practices to remind us of our bodies’ unlikeliness and wonder – even in the most ordinary of circumstances – does not require religious belief of any kind of course (and in Judaism, by the way, belief is secondary to practice, the actions that shape the world of possibility and relationship again and again).

All it requires is opening to life. And reminding ourselves that we are each here on account of nothing that we did.

And that by one of the most unlikely miracles imaginable we each find ourselves for a brief time, embodied, in a world ready and waiting for our participation.

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