When we think we’re unbreakable

For a long while, we think we’re unbreakable. We convince ourselves that what we’re doing – how we’re working, how we’re living – has no impact on us, really.

And for a while, as we try to do more, our level of stress goes up and our performance (or capacity to do what we’re intending) goes up too. We conclude that the move to make when things aren’t working out the way we intend is to push harder. And, for a while, it brings us exactly what we’re looking for.

But only for a while.

There comes a point where, for each of us, the body’s capacity begins to fray. It loses its ability to renew itself, to retain its coherence, to store energy and regenerate. Beyond this breakdown point, more effort not only results in less capacity, but in the breakdown of bodily systems themselves.  We get exhausted. We get ill. Our bodies show us what we have been committed to hiding from ourselves.

All too often, right at this moment where rest, recuperation, support and self-care are the only way back, we conclude that our dropping performance is because we’re not doing enough. And as we scramble to address the shortfall between what we’re ableto do and what we think we should be able to do, we make things worse.

Much worse.

This is no trivial matter. Study after study has established the link between sustained stress and heart attacks and other serious and life threatening illnesses. And yet in so much of work, and our lives, we act as if we’re invincible, even when the signs are right in front of us that we’re not.

It’s time we took our bodies seriously. And it’s time we considered rest, renewal, and support from others as a fundamental requirement to do anything well. Not an optional extra. Not a nice-to-have. And not some silly distraction from the ‘real work’ of business, or leadership, or parenting, or making a contribution.

Love is a Verb

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Love isn’t a feeling, though there are many feelings that come with love – joy, longing, delight, anguish, frustration, heartbreak. And when we take love to be a feeling we rob ourselves of any agency when it comes to loving. The feeling has gone we say. I don’t love him any more.

”But, as the psychologist Erich Fromm teaches us, “Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?”

When we start to see love as a verb, we are given the possibility and responsibility of loving free of our demands that we must feel a particular way. And, in doing so, we allow ourselves the possibility of loving not to get something, but as a gift to match the gift we receive by being loved. This is the path that allows us to love strangers we have never met before, people who are wildly different from us, and to love those close-in without needing proof of our lovability in return.

It may be that this path – loving as a verb – is what will eventually help us humans take care of those who we cast out, and those parts of ourselves that cast out also.


Lizzie Winn and I take up exactly this topic in this week’s Turning Towards Life, titled ‘They Just Look Like Love‘. In it we talk about Erich Fromm, and a wonderful quote from Stephen R Covey, and about the magical properties of simple practices for loving one another (like making a morning cup of tea for the person you live with who for whom you don’t feel love). And we begin with an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s new book ‘Cinderella Liberator’.

You can also catch our prior episode, ‘Walking Away During Supper‘, in which we talk about men and women, our stories about what men are supposed to be, and how the choices both men and women make about how to be men ripple out through our families, workplaces and community.

Love, Hate, Inner, Outer

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It increasingly occurs to me

That my relationship to the parts of the world

(most significantly, others)

Is most often a reflection

Of my relationship to parts of myself.

 

And that until I learn how to give up

Hating, despising, fearing and judging my interior world

I can expect to have a tricky time

Loving the outer world, in which I live every day,

As fully as I could.

Justin Wise, June 2015


 

We’ve been having a productive time with the ‘Turning Towards Life’ project, continuing to take up questions about how each of ourselves might bring ourselves most fully and truthfully to our lives. Perhaps most pertinent to the question ‘how do I give up judging and splitting apart my inner world?’ that’s addressed by the poem above, is our episode ‘Hokusai Says‘, which takes the work of the Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai as its inspiration.

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We have also considered the possibilities for our encounter with life and with one another are born when we cross the thin divide between ‘image’ and ‘realness’ in ‘The Call to Live Everything

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And, one of my favourites, what happens when we start taking ourselves just a little bit less seriously, and start to look at ourselves as if from a distance, in ‘One Thing Among Many‘.

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You can find the whole project over at www.turningtowards.life, and also as a podcast on all the major podcast platforms.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Famous

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I sit in the darkness, watching my daughter and her friends singing, dancing and performing with such joy and exuberance in a local musical production, and right when I could release myself into joy and wonder a dark, coiled-upon itself part of me claws repeatedly – ‘You should be able to do that’, it says.

On a gloriously sunny May Thursday, I’m hosting a conversation about leadership with a group of thoughtful, principled people who run a large hospital. Right when I could be at my most curious, open and available, there’s a part of me that tells tugs, hard – ‘You should be better at this’, it says, ‘You should be like them.’

In my living room, a long afternoon of freedom available to me, I’m reading Robert McFarlane’s beautiful book ‘Underland’, and I find myself checking the time again and again. ‘You shouldn’t be here’, it says and, more perniciously, its tendrils of shame that I haven’t published a book, that I don’t know what to say, that I’m not famous, slip through the gaps in my thoughts and wrap themselves around my heart.

On the tube, in the shower, watching a film, holding my loved ones and, more than anywhere else, in the dark of the night, the endless voice of comparison keeps speaking its poison. Its promise is alluring enough – salvation. If I’m equal to or better than the ideas it has about me, or the people it measures me against, I’ll be saved. Once I’m well known enough, or have made a world-changing contribution, I’ll be safe. If I make sure never to annoy anyone else, or disappoint them, if I keep up an image of gentleness or responsibility, everything will be OK.

As my dear friend and colleague Lizzie Winn says, all of this has us ‘pretzel ourselves’ into ever more distortions. And as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us in her poem Famous, there’s a more straightforward way to be in the world, one filled with dignity and aliveness which recognises the uniqueness of the being we already are,

… famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do

It may seem like a paradox, but it’s often when we give up our crazed attempts to be what we’re not that we have the greatest chance of flourishing and unfolding fully into what we are. It’s when, as Lizzie says, we can inhabit our qualities wholeheartedly, that we find the deep reserves of kindness or courage, wisdom or attentiveness, that allow us to meet the world.

Naomi Shihab Nye shows us early in her poem that all our attempts to save ourselves by holding ourselves in the grip of a comparison (such as with fame) are inevitably doomed by the transience of everything:

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

As Simon Seligman so beautifully writes, in response to those lines:

We are but a moment, and all around us nature and time, and the silence that came before us, are unfolding as they must. And so our voice, our moment, can only speak for itself, now, as we find it, and should let go of any hope that we will silence the silence.

It is always there, it should always be there, and without it we would not be able to hear our own voice anyway, just as light has no meaning without the dark. The silence does not need us to confer upon it any meaning or purpose; it knows it will inherit the earth.

We get to dance within and upon it for our span; it allows (indulges?!) us in this, and lets us witter on as if we were in control. But the water will close over our heads, the gravestone will be subsumed into the earth, and our one job is to accept and embrace both our living span, and its end, in time.’

Our one job – to accept and embrace both our living and its end. I know when I can do this, I can sit in the dark and watch my daughter, and let myself be overcome by joy and love and sheer wonder that she is here. I can work with a group of very capable leaders with curiosity and openness and truthfulness, without holding back and without closing down. I can love and speak and listen and create without holding onto a myth of safety or salvation. I can much more readily give up the demand for safe passage and instead participate, turning towards life with a whole-heartedness and playfulness that’s robbed from me when I’m caught in comparison with how I am supposed to be, or how things are supposed to be. I stop pretzeling myself to try to get life to go my way.

The poem, Lizzie and Simon’s wonderful words, and everything I’ve expressed here came from conversations in and around the Turning Towards Life project. You can hear the episode that includes Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, and much else, on our website here, and on our podcast.

Photo by Laura Wielo on Unsplash

 

 

Fear and Practice

I’m coming to see that of the three primary fear responses available to human bodies (fight, flight, and freeze), it’s freeze that’s the most habitual for me. Like many people who share a similar personality structure to me, the presence of fear or despair in the world is easily an opportunity to tune out, to dissociate, and to disappear in the midst of life. And this week, with ongoing news about the state of the earth’s climate, with the attacks in Sri Lanka, and with the ongoing presence of an energetic xenophobia in our politics, there has been ample fuel for the kind of asleep-in-the-midst-of-things that it is so easy for me to fall into.

All of this is one reason why I’m grateful for the increasing role of practice in my life. As I’ve written before, when I remember to live a life of practice – swimming, writing, contribution to community, meditation, Jewish practices, walking, music, intentional conversation – I feel more spaciousness in my heart, a renewed sense of aliveness in my body, and my mind is quieter too. I’m less convinced by stories about who I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing. Without practice it is easy for me to be swept up in my habits of absence, as if hurled by a swelling tide until I no longer remember that I’m swept up in anything and life becomes an invisible whirling torrent of fear and falling short and things to do and places to be. It should be of little surprise to me (though it often is) that in the midst of all that my body has tightened up, my heart more rigid, my mind filled with barely visible oughts and shoulds, judgements and obligations and disappointments.

It’s practice that allows me to rehearse, repeatedly, a relationship with the world that’s full of life, and full of expression, full of connection to others, and full of welcome for all of it – even the greatest difficulties. And this, I’m starting to see more clearly, is the very point of practice – that over time, done again and again, it allows us to experience life as if parts of ourselves that are more often marginalised, abandoned or simply forgotten have come home again.

I’m particularly grateful today for the poem Thanks by W S Merwin, which points to the restorative possibilities of giving thanks, practicing gratitude, right in the middle of the darkness. It’s what I’ve needed these past weeks, and the conversation that Lizzie and I had as part of this week’s Episode 82 of Turning Towards Life (another restorative practice for me) explores it in depth.

And, if you missed them, we’ve also talked in the past couple of weeks about the moment-to-moment choices between possibility and fear (in Episode 81, Two Paths), and about the problems being too certain about things can bring us (in Episode 80, The Place Where We Are Right).

You can catch up with all the conversations in that project over at turningtowards.life, and you can also find all our conversations on YouTube, and as a podcast on AppleGoogle and Spotify

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

All that he taught me by leaving

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I wrote the first words of ‘On Living and Working’ six years ago today, drinking tea and sitting on a high stool in the cafe window of London’s Wellcome Collection, a museum exploring the intersection of life, the body, science, and culture.

As I finished the first post a call came in to say that my father-in-law had died.

We drove to his home that evening, curving our way through the rush-hour traffic, and sat in the kitchen drinking more tea and preparing ourselves to enter the small ante-room where he had spent the last weeks of his life.

The dead are so incredibly, shockingly still.

In the absence of the ongoing micro-movements that animate even someone who is sleeping, in the absence of breath, there is a perfect, uncanny silence. And it is the absence that reveals just how alive it is to be living. No flutter of the eyelids, no flexing of fingers or toes, no gentle rise and fall of the chest, none of the tiny cues that a person is present that I find my own eyes searching for. Just silence, and an absolute stillness like the stillness of stone, but strange and unsettling and sacred and exquisite and perfectly, unarguably real.

In the jarring realness of absence, in this space where his warmth and movement and presence had been only hours before, I am brought into a fresh encounter with life’s unlikeliness, its strangeness, its fierce beauty, its transience. I am thrown back into life by my contact with not-life.

And I see how often I forget that I am actually alive. How readily I act as if I am not fully here: deadening myself and numbing myself and absenting myself and distracting myself. As if finding myself living in this brief shining flash of consciousness is too much to bear. Or as if I will always be alive.

But here in this quiet room I see that one day I too will be this still, as will everyone else I love, and everyone else they love, and everyone else they know. And another day, in the unimaginably far-off future that will still come too soon, everything will fall into stillness and this grand experiment that we call life will itself be over.

Somewhere I always know this. But when it fades into the background, when I am ‘had by’ this knowledge, its shadowy presence can easily act as an encouragement to go to sleep, to exist as if some of me or all of me is already dead. It’s simpler that way, quieter. Apparently. And though living this way actually scares the hell out of me, the fear loops back on itself, fuelling and feeding the addictive numbness with its guileful promise of safety.

So it’s better to know the truth directly, I think. To keep reminding ourselves how different we are, even in our most humdrum everydayness, from absence.

To be human is to live in this dance between remembering and forgetting ourselves, being awake and asleep, being present-in-life and dead-to-life. At least, that’s how my life seems to be. But there are practices of presence, and remembering, and truthfulness that we can take up if we so choose – practices of art and body, movement and song, contact and attention that can help us return to the intense realness of life when we have lost our way. We can choose to stare directly into the unbearably bright light of our own ending so that we have a chance of being here, right here, while we are actually here. To be like fierce angels, heralding the sunrise. To be alive, before it’s too late.

On this 6th anniversary I’m grateful for words and language, for writing and speaking and those of you who read and listen to the many forms this project has taken since it began. And I’m feeling grateful for Sidney, my father-in-law, for all that his way of being showed me, his way of singing and hoping his way through, and for all that he taught me in his leaving.

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

The Path of Beyond and Beneath

The latest conversation in our ‘Turning Towards Life’ series is here. In ‘The Path of Beyond and Beneath‘ we ask what we can do, when we get wounded, to stay in a relationship with others that’s dignified and respectful of everyone’s humanity? It’s a question pertinent both to our personal relationships and to our troubled, fractious conversations about the big issues of our times.

You can read the source and watch the conversation here, or listen on Apple, Google and Spotify podcasts.

Photo by Hoang M Nguyen on Unsplash

The mystery of Time and Death

I’m thrilled to announce that ‘Turning Towards Life’ is now available as a podcast on Apple, Google, and Spotify.

In our latest episode we talk about the mystery of time and death. We consider together two different ways that we turn away from the reality of time – either by tuning out from the fleeting nature of things and the urgency of our response, or by eating up time in a panicked flurry of frantic activity. Somewhere between the two, we discover, is a way in which we can meet time more directly, more lovingly, and in a more responsive way – and in a way that helps us both decide what matters and invest our activities with mattering.

Along the way we talk about the changes that time brings, in our bodies and the bodies of others; the mystery of where time ‘goes’ when it has ‘gone’, and we bring to mind those we have known and have loved who are no longer with us and find out that they are still present, in time, even though they are no longer here. And it occurs to us that this is the nature not only of people but of all moments that continually arise, disappear, and yet travel with us.

Photo by Harry Sandhu on Unsplash

Entering into a partnership with life

Here’s a double-bill of ‘Turning Towards Life‘ conversations about entering fully into life, without holding back.

In ‘Life While You Wait‘ Lizzie and I explore what it might be to enter into the vast mystery of life with an attitude of welcome. What happens, we wonder, when we meet ‘what is’ with an open heart, and when we drop our demands that life somehow bend itself exactly to our will? Along the way we consider the ways in which life is an ongoing invitation to improvise, and how we might relate to the circumstances that come our way as an opportunity to participate rather than as a justification for our resentment or flight.

And in ‘Let Us Begin the Journey Home‘ we return to a poem by Rumi that calls to these confusing and complex times. We explore together what can happen as we soften ourselves so that life, in its bigger sense, can reach us. What are the possibilities, we wonder, in seeing that we each take to be ‘me’ or ‘us’ or ‘life’ is always something of a misunderstanding? And if we open to a more expansive story that frees us, at least somewhat, from our grasping and our aloneness?

Perhaps, we find, there’s a way that we can find ourselves deep in the midst of the sacred ordinariness of life, ready to contribute and participate without being so convinced of our smallness, separateness or fear. We recorded this conversation the midst of week of great political uncertainty here in the UK as a way of finding and remembering, together, how much more than this is always present, even though we so easily forget.

Photo by Pawel Tadejko on Unsplash

On Being a Path-Maker

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We human beings are both path-makers and path-followers. Both are important, but it’s our innate capacity to follow paths that makes possible so much of what we are able to do, and gives it its character.

Notice this in your own home. How the door handle draws you to open the door, how the kitchen table is an invitation to sit, how the half-full fridge calls you to open its doors and find something to eat. Notice how a library is a place you find yourself hushed and reverential, how you push and shove to take up your place on a crowded train even though you would do this nowhere else, how you rise in unison to shout at a football game, how the words on the page guide you through the speech you are giving even when you’re not concentrating closely on them, how you quicken your step in a darkened alley, how you find yourself having driven for hours on a busy motorway without remembering what actions and choice any of the minutes entailed.

Our capacity to follow the paths laid out for us is no deficiency. That the paths support us in the background, and that we do not have to think about them, is what frees us for so much of what is creative and inventive in human life – including our capacity to design entirely new paths for ourselves and others.

To be human, then, is always in a large part to find ourselves shaped by what we find ourselves in the midst of.

It is all of this that exposes the limits of our individualistic understanding of ourselves and others – an understanding we use to make sense of so much of what happens in our lives. For when we are sure that it is the individual who is the source of all actions and behaviour, we are blind to the paths that we find ourselves in the midst of, and the possibility that we might lay out other paths as a way of supporting ourselves. And we tend to over-emphasise the role of individual will-power as a way to resolve things or change things.

And as long as we concentrate only on getting ourselves to change, or to muster up more ‘will’, we miss the opportunity to work together to change or lay out the new paths which could help us.

Indeed, working to change the paths that lend themselves to whatever difficulty we wish to address may be the most important work we can do. And this always includes our developing – together – the skills and qualities that support us in being purposeful path-makers in the first place.

Photo by Felipe Santana on Unsplash

Waiting to Know

Waiting until you know for sure what’s going to happen – where people are involved – means waiting for ever.

With machines, it’s easy. With sufficient understanding of mechanics you can often predict exactly what’s going to happen. Cause and effect, straightforward to establish.

But human situations are nothing like that, even though we pretend to ourselves that they might be.

Take a meeting, for example.

Should you speak up about what’s on your mind? Now? Later? What effect will it have on your colleagues? On the decision to be made?

You cannot know for sure.

Whatever insight you have about the situation can only ever be partial. You can’t know what’s going on for others. You can’t know what they are thinking of saying. And you can’t know – even if you know them well – how they will respond to your speaking.

You have to act knowing that you’re speaking into an unknowable situation. And that speaking up will, in all likelihood, change something, at the very least for you.

But staying quiet is an act too, changing things no less than speaking up. So you have no choice but to be an actor, whatever you do, and however much you pretend it is not the case.

We get ourselves into trouble when we forget all of this. We imagine that we can only act when we are able to predict the outcomes of our actions. Or we blame and judge ourselves and others when things don’t turn out the way we expected.

And all the while we’re holding back our contribution, our insight, our knowledge, our creativity, our unique perspective because we’ve set ourselves standards of understanding that were never – could never be – reached.

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The Abandoned Parts of Ourselves

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Dear readers. New writing is in the works!

Meanwhile, the Turning Towards Life project continues to dive deep into big questions of human living. If you haven’t joined us yet, I invite you to explore this week’s conversations and the growing archive on the links below. Over the past 74 weeks we’ve explored some fascinating topics that can contribute to a more full engagement with the joys and difficulties of being a person.

Last week, in ‘The Seven of Pentacles‘, we talked about seeing through the stories we have about life that have us either be too small (and which have us give up) or too big (when we demand that the world goes just our way); what it is to see that most of life doesn’t unfold in a ’cause and effect’ way; patience; participation in life as a way of meeting life; and ‘living as if you liked yourself’ – finding our goodness in the midst of everything that happens.

This week, in ‘The Abandoned Parts of Ourselves‘, we talk about adult development, about the loyalties to particular ways of doing things that we enter into during childhood, and about what it is to find ourselves free – to a greater or lesser extent – to pursue what is increasingly ‘ours’ to do in the world. Along the way we grapple with the many kinds of orthodoxy that shape us throughout life – family, religious, societal – and explore together how we might turn our loyalties to them into a bigger kind of loyalty which takes in life itself. We end with a consideration of the support and community that can help us find a life that feels true and real and which can joyfully welcome the parts of us that our loyalties – up until now – have had us turn away from.

What to Remember When Waking

The latest conversation in the ‘Turning Towards Life’ project, What to Remember When Waking is here.

This week – how to live in the middle of life’s mystery without being swallowed by fear, or losing touch with ourselves, how to have our lives be informed by the depth and imagination of our sleeping dreams, and what it is to find a way to be a gift back to the life that is a gift to us. Our source this week is by the poet David Whyte.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Muted

Because we are story-telling beings, we humans have a million ways of avoiding being present to what is right in front of us – people, projects, possibilities, suffering – and what is within us – thoughts, feelings, and the sensations and wisdom arising in our bodies.

We so easily spin stories, throw ourselves into guilt and reminiscence about the past, worry about and try to anticipate the future. And while each of these have their place, they so easily distract us from what we’re most directly in the midst of.

Missing what and who is here robs us of the opportunity to experience life in its richness as we go.

More importantly for everyone else, it denies us the opportunity to bring ourselves at our fullest. Because in our distraction, we respond not to the needs of the moment, but to the needs of our fear, or to our wish to not have to face the world as it is.

Our deepest possibilities for connection and contribution are muted – whenever here is not where we are, and now is not what we’re responding to.

Photo Credit: firexbrat via Compfight cc

See Paris First

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The latest conversation in the ‘Turning Towards Life’ project, ‘See Paris First, episode 71, is here.

This week we take up the topic of fear, and how our avoidance of it can shrink our lives. We consider together what it takes to live in an ever larger world of both meaning and contribution, and how that nearly always calls on us to move towards what we’re most afraid of.

As we go we talk about the ways in which fear draws us away from our capacity to respond to what’s actually happening now, the kindness to ourselves that’s required to work with all of this, the perils of living in a narrative of ‘self-improvement’, how it is that our fears are also a kind of loyalty to something that matters or mattered, and the ‘leaving home’ that’s required to find a new and more spacious home in which we can live.

Photo by Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash

Catching up – latest conversations from Turning Towards Life

For some time I’ve been publishing the full posts – videos and writing – from the Turning Towards Life project here on ‘On Living and Working’. As an experiment, this week, here are simply the links to the two most recent conversations. You can find the full text and videos on the other end of the link and, always, at turningtowards.life

I hope you enjoy these. They were both rich, deep, joyful conversations which have generated a lot of conversation over in our free-to-join facebook group which is always the first home for this project, and where the videos are streamed live every Sunday.

Week 69 – For Those Who Have Died

Week 70 – Con Trick

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The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

Here’s Episode 68 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

This week, the urgency of belonging to the world, inspired by a poem by Mary Oliver, who died this week. Lizzie and Justin talk about the power of ongoing practices to shape the world; the many ways in which we’re taught that we’re in some way separate from things, and what we might do about that; what it is to feel safe, even when life is risky; and the gifts that we make to others when we find it in ourselves to write, or teach, or speak – in one way or another to make art.

The Fourth Sign Of The Zodiac (Part 3)
by Mary Oliver

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

True listening is worship

Here’s Episode 67 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

Our conversation for this week begins with a piece by John O’Donohue, from his beautiful book ‘Anam Cara‘.

True listening is worship

It is lovely to have the gift of hearing. It is said that deafness is worse than blindness, because you are isolated in an inner world of terrible silence. Even though you can see people and the world around you, to be outside the reach of sound and the human voice is very lonely. There is a very important distinction to be made between listening and hearing. Sometimes we listen to things, but we never hear them. True listening brings us in touch even with that which is unsaid and unsayable. Sometimes the most important thresholds of mystery are places of silence.

To be genuinely spiritual is to have great respect for the possibilities and presence of silence. Martin Heidegger says that true listening is worship. When you listen with your soul, you come into rhythm and unity with the music of the universe.

Through friendship and love, you learn to attune yourself to the silence, to the thresholds of mystery where your life enters the life of your beloved and their life enters yours.

John O’Donohue – Anam Cara

Photo by Jenny Marvin on Unsplash

Dancing With Me in My Kitchen

Here’s Episode 66 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

One of the weirdest and yet most understandable features of being a human being is how we’ll box ourselves in to an identity – a particular way of being in the world that allows this but doesn’t allow that; a way that we lay out familiar territory for ourselves, fiercely bounded by shame and self-criticism, that easily stops us from bringing ourselves fully to life and from experiencing all that life is bringing us in each moment.

This is our topic for this week, inspired by Anthony Wilson‘s poem ‘When the Holy Spirit Danced With Me in My Kitchen’. The poem is below, and you can read Anthony’s generous and moving response to our conversation here on his blog.

When the Holy Spirit Danced With Me in My Kitchen

the first thing I noticed was his arms,
thick and hairy like a bricklayer’s
with a tattoo of an anchor
as Churchill had.

‘Coming for a spin?’ he grinned,
in an accent more Geordie than Galilee,
and he whirled me
through tango, foxtrot and waltz
without missing a beat.

‘You’re good,’ I said.  ‘Thanks,’
he said, taking two glasses to the tap.
‘You’re not so bad yourself,
for someone with no sense of rhythm
and two left feet.’
He gave me a wink.

‘It’s all in the waist.
The movement has to start there
or it’s dead.’

‘You’ll find it applies to most things,’
he went on, grabbing the kettle.
‘Writing, cooking, kissing,
all the things you’re good at,
or think you are.’
He winked again.

‘You don’t mind me asking,’ I said,

‘but why are you here?’

‘I thought it was about time,’

he said. ‘I mean, you’ve been full stretch,
haven’t you, what with your job,
feeling like a taxi for the kids,
your family living far away,
and you ‘in your head’ all the time
as you said to someone last week.’

I looked at him and nodded.

‘Go on.’

‘I was going to.’
He got down some mugs.
‘Let’s say I was concerned about you.
The thing is, the three of us,
we like you a lot.
We think you’ve got real potential
as a human.  You’re kind and humorous.
You’re also a little scatty.
We like that.  By the way, that fish curry
you made on Saturday was first class.’

‘You know about that?’
‘Everything you get up to,’
he smiled.  ‘It’s nothing to panic about.
Really.  To tell you the truth
you could do with loosening up a little.
Try not beating yourself up the whole time.
A little less rushing everywhere
would do you good, too.’

‘I thought you might say that.’

‘Look at me,’ he said.

‘I came to say:
Keep Going, and Relax.
Also: keep things simple.
If you are doing one thing,
do that thing.  If you are talking
with someone, listen to them,
do not blame them for being hard work.
Write as if you were not afraid,
and love in this way too.
Be patient with everyone, especially
your relations, who (I can assure you)
think you are rather special.
Make big decisions slowly, and small decisions
fast.  Do not make bitterness your friend.
Pray (I will not mind if you use
made up words for this.)
Garrison was right: ‘Why
have good things you don’t use?’
What you have been given to do,
give yourself to it completely,
only by emptying yourself can you become full.’

by Anthony Wilson from Full Stretch

Photo by Ali Kanibelli on Unsplash

The Best Thing for Being Sad

Here’s Episode 65 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

This week we talk about learning. Not the kind of learning that fills us with facts, but the kind of learning that allows us to open ourselves to more spacious interpretations of our lives, and which helps us to take new kinds of action and enter into relationships that are more truthful, compassionate and alive.

Along the way we talk about what it is to have a kind of ‘critical reflection’ about our own lives, about the gift that human beings can be to one another when we share our stories and when we can hold our stories ‘lightly’ enough to neither abandon them too quickly nor be rigid about them. And we consider how doing this together – in community wherever we can find it – is necessary for cultivating the courage, hopefulness and care that the world calls for.

Here’s our source:

The Best Thing for Being Sad

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn… “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails.

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins… you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn.

Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.”

— T H White, from The Once and Future King, quoted by Parker Palmer in ‘The Courage to Teach

Photo by Ali Kanibelli on Unsplash

Increasing Light in the Coming Year

I wrote this post in December 2016 when, unusually, Christmas and the Jewish winter festival of Chanukah exactly coincided. This year Chanukah was over in early December, but the rest of the content seems just as relevant today as it did two years ago. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and that it will be useful to you in the coming year, and that 2019 brings many forms of goodness and opportunities to contribute, to everyone.

Today, the final day of 2016, is both the seventh day of Christmas and the seventh day of the Jewish festival of Chanukah. The two festivals coincide only about every 30 years or so, when a combination of factors pushes the Jewish year – in which the months turn by the cycles of the moon – later into the Gregorian calendar than usual.

Chanukah always falls in the week with the longest, darkest nights of the year, straddling the new moon that falls close to the winter solstice. As with winter festivals marked by many traditions, it’s concerned with our capacity and responsibility to bring light to the dark.

And so, after starting with one candle last Saturday and adding a candle each night, people all over the world will tonight be lighting eight candles to mark the final night of Chanukah and, coincidentally, the final night of this calendar year.

As the rabbis who shaped Chanukah some 1600 years ago said, it’s our responsibility to gather light, to increase light, and to be light. It’s harder to see this in those times when the world itself seems shining with hope and possibility. But in the darker hours, when the sun is down and even the moon is obscured from view, we see the darkness itself more clearly. And we see how easy it is, when we’re gripped by fear or self-righteousness, to wittingly or unwittingly contribute to its spread.

As we end a calendar year that has seen an upsurge in the politics of division and fear, a new legitimacy given to voices – in Western democracies at least – of prejudice and rage and suspicion of the ‘other’, and the election in the US of a powerful, narcissistic leader with a fragile ego, let’s remember our human responsibility to increase the light around us and between us.

Let’s increase it with art and poetry.

Let’s bring light by being fierce advocates for reason, critical thinking, and science. By learning, ceaselessly. By feeling, fully and truly. By reading, widely. By overcoming our self-diminishment enough to say what’s called for.

Let’s bring light by giving up treating ourselves and others as objects, or commodities, or means-to-an-end. By opening to one another.

Let’s bring light by giving up using language as a way to cover up truth in our organisations, our institutions, our schools, our families. And let’s do it by giving up the cover of ‘it’s only business’, or ‘that’s just the way politics goes’, or ‘it’s my truth’ as a way to gain power over others or to silence them.

Let’s bring light by finding out how to be ones around whom others’ hearts soar, around whom others can find out what’s uniquely theirs to bring and then bring it without shame, or self-reproach.

Let’s do it with song.

Let’s bring light by getting over our self-pity, our resentment, our sense of how unfair it is that our lives are whatever way they are.

Let’s bring light by learning how to listen to, and speak with, ever wider circles of people who have lives, commitments, and beliefs very different to our own. And by standing for kindness, and dignity, being a force for the elevation of life rather than the diminishment of it.

Let’s bring light by dedicating ourselves to projects and commitments that are bigger than our own comfort, and bigger than our own personal gain.

Let’s remember that we can only do this hard and necessary work by being committed to our ongoing development. And that we can be at our most wise and compassionate only when we do all this with the help of one another.

Photo Credit: ShellyS Flickr via Compfight cc

Stuck on the bus

I know, you’re stuck on a crowded bus, in a boring meeting, in a traffic jam, washing the dishes, doing your expenses, waiting for the cashier.

I know, from here, life seems pretty boring, mundane, lifeless even. I know, it seems like what matters is happening somewhere, to other people right now.

I know how often I am caught in seeing life that way.

But perhaps that’s mostly because we imagine, or at least feel like, we’re going to live forever.

But if you were dead, if you were no longer around, if you were offered just one minute more of life, and it had to be this moment in the queue, in the bus, in the meeting, with the dishes, would you take it?

I’m sure I would.

Then you might see this humdrum moment for the absolute wonder that it is – filled with enormous possibilities for curiosity, discovery, and purposeful action. Or for just looking in amazement.

And if your answer was yes, is there any chance you might start seeing things this way, at least occasionally, in the life you already have?

Photo by Edgar on Unsplash

When We Mistake Who We Are

Here’s Episode 64 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

This week we talk about how we might understand the mystery of being human. So often we both find ourselves in a place of real confusion, and it’s tempting while there to treat the confusion as something wrong – either with life or with ourselves. We know this is true of many other people too.

But there are bigger narratives to step into when life seems a mystery, or when things are breaking down around us and within us. One powerful and stretching source of different perspectives is the 13th century Zen teacher Dogen. Our source for this week begin’s with Dogen’s suggestion that we are all a kind of ‘time’, and follows with some questions and interpretation by our friend and colleague James Flaherty.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another. The way-seeking mind arises in this moment. A way-seeking moment arises in this mind. It is the same with practice and with attaining the way. Thus the self setting itself out in array sees itself. This is understanding that the self is time. 

-From the essay “Uji” by Dogen (1200 – 1253), philosopher and Zen teacher

When we mistake who we are, we hopelessly strive to protect ourselves, fruitlessly attempt to defend what we feel we need to maintain ourselves and, at the deepest level, feel unmet, unheld, unknown by the world. All of this because we define ourselves, feel ourselves, know ourselves as much too small and then insist that everyone submit to our definition and treat us as this smallness. All of this of course is quite normal and what our culture produces; nonetheless, it is the source of our discontent and our sharing that discontent with others—see dysfunctional families, territorial politics at work, wars, crime, violence… you get the picture.

Dogen, in the quote above, has a different possibility for us to enter into, a different path to take. What if we are the same being as the world? What if we are the same being as time is? Even if we think that world is limited (by the way, Dogen means the entire universe, not just the planet Earth) we know that time has no beginning or end that we can imagine. If we are time, which is inseparable from all other phenomena, then certainly we don’t have to defend, protect or feel relationally wounded.

And the answer to “How far do I extend?” is answered quite differently.

— by James Flaherty

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

A quiet and genuine joy

I remember the moment with gratitude, though it was tough at the time.

“You have no idea how self-judgemental you are”, Andy had said to me. And it had cut like a knife. But he was right. I was thirty-five years old and had over many years become seasoned to the harshness of the world.

I didn’t know it as harshness to be so filled with self-doubt and such worry about how I was doing all the time. It was just the way the world was. Unquestionable. Invisible. And I had no idea that it wasn’t so much the world that was harsh but my own inner experience.

Andy’s carefully timed observation was one of those moments when what had been in the background for so long came crashing into the foreground – when what I had been swimming in for so long was made apparent to me.

It was a doorway into a profoundly new world in which I began to see that most of what I thought others were thinking about me was actually what I was thinking about myself. And that I no longer had to believe everything I thought so completely.

Eleven years later, I’m still sometimes out-foxed by the shape-shifting cleverness of my inner critic. But I am more often, and more quickly, able to spot it and see through its ways of holding me back and of pulling me apart.

And, more and more, in the space that envelops me when it steps aside, I’m able to feel a quiet and genuine kind of joy.

Photo Credit: Kristofer Williams via Compfight cc

 

Can You Just Love Me Like This?

Here’s Episode 63 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

This week we talk about poem Lizzie’s sister Hollie wrote which has gone viral in the past year. We believe it’s so popular because of how harshly we treat our bodies in our minds and hearts, and Hollie’s call for us to treat our bodies call with simple, powerful loving-kindness.

During our conversation we talk about what it is to know ourselves in a gentle way, to appreciate the miracle of an embodied life, and steps we might take to be less caught up in the punishing narrative of shame, self-improvement and comparison that fuels our understanding of our bodies at this point in history.

Today I asked my body what she needed,

which is a big deal

considering my journey of

not really asking that much.

I thought she might need more water.

or proteins.

or greens.

or yoga.

or supplements.

or movement.

But as I stood in the shower

reflecting on her stretch marks,

Her roundness where I would like flatness,

Her softness where I would prefer firmness,

All those conditioned wishes

that form a bundle of

Never-Quite-Right-Ness,

She whispered very gently:

Could you just love me like this?”

-Hollie Holden

Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

Fear is Easy

Here’s Episode 62 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

This week we begin with a source, Fear is Easy, written by Justin for his blog.

Our conversation covers the unavoidability of fear, how contagious it is, and the choices we must each make about whether to be uncritically ‘had’ by it, or whether to reach past it to bring forward other qualities that can help us to respond. Along the way we talk about the gifts we human beings can be to one another in the act of remembering – showing the others around us qualities they may have forgotten and turning, together, towards doing what’s called for rather than freezing, numbing ourselves, or turning away.

Fear is Easy

Fear is easy.

Really easy.

It spreads, like wildfire – my fear becoming your fear becoming their fear becoming my fear again.

It makes us feel special – if I’m so afraid, there must be important things to do, like saving myself or saving the company or saving the country. At last, because of fear, I have a role to play.

It makes things look simple – there is no choice here, no nuance, no time to talk together or think together about what’s really called for, or if we’re doing the right thing, or what the consequences over time might be. There is just action, this action, my action, and now.

It helps us look right – how dare you suggest another way, a different way? Can’t you see what’s at stake here? How risky this is? How much we have to lose?

It saves us from having to listen to one another – if you’re not with me you’re against me, and if you’re against me you must be wrong, and it’s because you’re wrong and all of those others of you who are wrong that we’re in this terrifying mess in the first place.

It saves us from having to think – that there might be another way to see this, that your point of view might have merit, or integrity, or something to offer.

It saves us from shame – at the ways I’m hurting you, or hurting myself, or hurting those who will come after us.

It sells – the idea that I’m the best, that my way is the right way, that we’re the chosen ones, that they’re out to get us, that you have to work harder, that you must never stop, that our values are under threat, that we have to do this vital but terrible thing, that after all it’s only business or politics or necessity.

It allows us to justify – these punishing targets, our culture of hyper-activity, my monitoring of your every move, the hours I expect you to work, our obsession with measurement and deliverables, my not listening, our race to the lowest common denominator, your being available at every moment, our treating others as objects.

Of course, fear works best when it doesn’t display itself as fear. It’s at its most potent when dressed up as civility, and best practice, and just-doing-business, and competency frameworks, and HR policy, and micro-management, and ‘smart’ goals, and this-is-work-not-a-playground-don’t-you-know.

Fear is easy, and fear is cheap, but it’s dignity that sets the human spirit free to contribute, and create, and address our difficulties, and listen, and change things, and improve our situation. And dignity takes work, and courage, and honesty, and sincerity, and integrity, and wisdom and compassion and humility and love.

Yes, love. Not a much-respected word in many organisations or in politics, and easily dismissed by the easy politics and business of fear. But it is indeed love that reminds us how brilliant human beings can be, how capable, how varied, how much there is to marvel at in our situation and our capacity, and how much we need all of this right now, just as we always have done.

by Justin Wise, from justinwise.co.uk

 

PhPhoto by Marina Vitale on Unsplash

 

Only One Wild Way

Here’s Episode 61 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

This week we begin with a source written by Lizzie:

Only One Wild Way

Being broken open is the gateway to God
Letting creation in, allowing the Divine
Means living from a truly softened heart
And it means letting life have its way

It hurts and it’s physically painful
We tried to fight to keep it closed
There’s only one wild way to live once you’ve been opened
Like a can of sardines and the metal is sliced and the lid can’t be put back on again

There’s no shutting up shop
Backing into oblivion again
Not for an opened heart
Beaten around by life
By what happened
Who I’ve become
What they did
Who they are

And everything else

A heart once opened is like that forever
And maybe that’s what grief is made of

The love becomes fully obvious when the body is removed from our touch
And it’s hard to bear how much we love each other

It hurts to go direct
It pains to be truly and messily intimate
And as we wriggle into this space
Of deep connection
In all its Individual and specific glory

We find ourselves
Unseparated
Excruciatingly aligned with life itSelf
As it sears through us
And wipes us out
At the same time as bringing us to life
As our shell falls away
And we are mushy

Smashed to smithereens
We run the bath
Make dinner
Wonder what our loved ones might like for a Christmas gift
Put the bins out
And carry on

With our broken hearts leaking out love just about everywhere

 

Photo by Honey Fangs on Unsplash

 

Foundations of Coaching with me, Jan 21-22 2019, London

On January 21-22 I’ll be teaching our two-day introduction to coaching, an inspiring, moving, deeply practical exploration of ways to work compassionately in support of the development of others.

We meet in a lovely venue in London, in a small and intimate group, to enter into the possibilities of ‘integral development coaching’. There’ll be conversation, the philosophy of being human, music, coaching demonstrations, and a chance to practice. Many of the hundreds of people who’ve learned with us over the years say the two days are eye-opening, heart opening, and sometimes life changing.

And it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to meet some of the many of you who read, watch and follow here.

I’d be delighted if you chose to join me.

All the details are here.

On the economic narrative, and its limits

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash

How to be Happy

Here’s Episode 60 of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living.

You can join our members-only facebook group here to watch live and join in the lively comment conversation on this episode. You can also watch previous episodes there, and on our YouTube channel.

This week we talk about how the suffering that comes from comparison (with others, with imagined future selves), and we examine together ways in which it might be possible to live with an alternative orientation of acceptance of our wonderful, messy humanity. Along the way we have a laugh together about this crazy being-a-person we all find ourselves in the middle of, and we consider the role of others in helping each of us find a way to be in life that’s less punishing and more dignified.

Our source this week is from ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet‘ by Matt Haig:

How to be Happy

1. Do not compare yourself to other people.
2. Do not compare yourself to other people.
3. Do not compare yourself to other people.
4. Do not compare yourself to other people.
5. Do not compare yourself to other people.
6. Do not compare yourself to other people.
7. Do not compare yourself to other people.

How to be Happy (2)

DON’T COMPARE YOUR actual self to a hypothetical self.

Don’t drown in a sea of ‘what if’s.

Don’t clutter your mind by imagining other versions of you, in parallel universes, where you made different decisions. The internet age encourages choice and comparison, but don’t do this to yourself. ‘Comparison is the thief of joy,’ said Theodore Roosevelt.

You are you. The past is the past. The only way to make a better life is from inside the present. To focus on regret does nothing but turn that very present into another thing you will wish you did differently.

Accept your own reality.

Be human enough to make mistakes.

Be human enough not to dread the future.

Be human enough to be, well, enough.

Accepting where you are in life makes it so much easier to be happy for other people without feeling terrible about yourself.

from ‘‘Notes on a Nervous Planet‘ by Matt Haig

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash