Holding Back

What is the truth that must be spoken that you’ve holding back? From who? For how long?

Can you tell who your withholding serves? Are you sure that you’re protecting anyone apart from yourself? And if you’re only protecting yourself, what from?

What healing would speaking bring? What new possibility?

This then is courage: the conversation you offer as a gift to another even when you’re afraid of how it might turn out for you.


Image by Steve F at Wikimedia Commons

What people think

One of the most necessary liberations comes when you discover that what other people think of you is not the same as who you are. When you can stop identifying yourself with the stories and assessments of others, you can also free yourself from the constant inner pressure to appear as you think people want you to.

But once you know this, you have to understand that other people are not the same as your stories or assessments either. That means that whatever you think you know about them can only ever be partial, one angle on a situation way more complex than you’ve allowed for.

It means you’re going to have to learn to be way more imaginative and listen much more deeply, if you’re ever going to understand what’s going on when others are involved.

The way you drink your coffee

It matters, the way you drink your coffee.

Snatched on the way to the train, identical cardboard cup, usual order, sipped absently: anonymous, repetitive, soothing, numbing. Just another prop to get you through the day.

Or, chosen with care and sensitivity to meet this morning’s particular mood. Conversation with the barista. Settled comfortably, in the corner that called to you. The heat of the mug warming your cupped hands. Savouring the smell of the roast, the bitter-nut taste in your mouth. Allowing memories, thoughts, plans and possibilities to stir. Emerging fresh, stirred, enlivened into the morning air.

We become what we do.

Living a life of numb repetition or awake, alive attentiveness are each available to us at each moment, in even the smallest of daily activities. I-It, or I-You.

Which are you up to today?

Photo: Justin from Lincoln Park, NJ, USA (Coffee Cup) via Wikimedia Commons

Life’s inevitable difficulty

It’s tempting to try and live a life without troubles. After all, it’s what we’ve been promised by endless advertising, by fairytales and by the myth of our own omnipotence.

In difficulty? There’s a product that promises to heal your ills, grant you happiness, soothe your pain. Sometimes we think that we’d find it, if only we were more together, more intelligent, richer, had a different job or a different partner, lived in a different country, were born to different parents.

But life isn’t shaped that way. It’s complex, mysterious, chaotic and surprising, whatever your circumstances. And whether you deny it or not you have to live as a biological creature in a physical world in which death cohabits with life, illness with vitality, wounds with healing, loss with love.

So the question is not how to live without trouble, because the only way to do that is to deny life itself (and that itself brings no end of difficulty). Instead, you might ask again and again how to live fully in the world. You might look for ways to live with wisdom, and not make things more complicated than they are already.

It might take giving up fighting the way things are, and instead turning at last towards life that you actually have.

Studying your life

So much of our life is unknown to us.

One way to see that this is so is to write.

Start simply. Choose materials that are inviting to use: a good pen, paper with satisfying weight and colour.

Set aside ten minutes to write every day.

Write, not to be read, but for discovering. Write without stopping, or editing, or changing anything. Keep the pen moving over the paper. Write, write, write. Write everything that comes. Leave nothing out. Change nothing.

Write what’s most surprising or uncomfortable. Write as if, for these short minutes, it is the most important, as if your life depends upon it.

And when ten minutes is up, just stop.

Over time, you’ll discover much about yourself that you never knew. You’ll spot patterns, see how much changes, and find out what’s been right in front of you but which you’d never looked close enough to see.

And in doing so, you might just open up a world of possibilities you didn’t know was there.

Image by Antonio Littero

Meeting the shadow

In Ursula Le Guin‘s stunningly beautiful novel ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, the young wizard Ged unleashes a terrifying shadow into the world by mistake. Stunned by his power, he stands paralysed in shock while the shadow’s claws cut deep lines into his face before disappearing. From then on, he lives a haunted life, forever running from that dark alter-ego that threatens to engulf him.

It is only when Ged understands that running can take him no further, that it leads only to exhaustion and despair, that he has the courage to turn and face what is after all his and his alone. Instead of running from the shadow he becomes its hunter until the two meet face to face far beyond the edge of the known world. And through this he becomes the greatest wizard his people have known.

So it us with us. Born whole and shimmering into the world, we quickly learn that parts of us are not welcome in our families, communities and wider culture. It’s a necessary and painful transition as we push away what cannot be tolerated by others, and are left wounded, but acceptable in the eyes of those around us. What we’ve denied in ourselves becomes shadow, always present but mostly held out of sight – at least to us.

From then on, most of us flee the shadow, such are the strong feelings it evokes in us, choosing lives, work and identities that keep it far away. Typically we find ourselves cultivating one side of each of life’s opposites while the other side becomes alien and undesirable to us. And for a long time, this may serve us and those around us very well.

But, like Ged, in the end living a full and courageous life always involves facing that which we’ve pushed away, that which we took to be impossible for us, that which we judge, that which stirs up fear or shame.

Those of us who have lived only in calmness need to find out about rage.

Those who have lived to be seen as good must find out how to cause trouble.

Those who control must start to let things emerge.

Those who wait must learn to act, and who launch always into action must learn to wait.

Those who blame themselves must learn to cherish, and those who blame others must learn compassion.

Those who try to keep the whole world safe must risk, and those who risk everything find out about safety and solid ground.

Those who cannot but keep all the options open must find out how to commit.

Those who live only in the intellect must learn about love.

Only when, like Ged, we can embrace both sides of life’s great polarities, can we bring ourselves fully forward, bursting with life and with our greatest contribution yet to come.

Exhausting or enlivening?

Is what you’re asking of others and asking of yourself exhausting or enlivening?

The way you’re working, living, speaking, demanding, offering, contributing: bringing life and possibility, or having it rapidly or gradually slip away?

This is not a trivial question, and over time has enormous consequence, whether you face it or not.

Can you even tell?

And have you considered the consequence of having things just continue as they are?

In it for who?

Once in a while you need to ask yourself who you’re in life for.

One way of being in life is to be only in it for yourself – your security, your status, your comfort, your peace of mind.

Another way is to be in it only for those close to you – your immediate family, perhaps, and your friends.

Of you can be in life for a specific community – perhaps your organisation, or people of the same social background, same income bracket, same religion, same skin colour, same orientation to life as you.

Or perhaps you can be in life for the people who will come after you – all the generations yet to be born.

Or maybe you can even be in life for the sake of the whole of life itself.

Which of these, when you look at it, will produce the most meaningful, principled, generous, flourishing life and work? And which the smallest, most constrained, most petty, most trivial? And which one are you the midst of living right now?


You probably have no idea of the actual scale of your presence in the world.


I’m so small
They’ll never take any notice
I can’t do anything
Who cares what I see and know?
Better not to cause any ripples
Nobody listens, why would they?
Who, little me?


I’m so important
It’s all about me
I’m entitled to whatever I want
Get out of my way
You owe me

It shouldn’t be surprising that you adopt one or both of these positions, such is our desire to hide from or conquer the complexity and confusion of life. But, in the end, both reduce the world to something small and rather petty. They are a way of manipulating life to get what you want, or avoid what you don’t want to have to feel. And each diverts you from the duty of stepping up and contributing what is only yours to give.

When you right-size yourself, you’ll find out that you have both immense power and immense responsibility, because to be human is inescapably to be a creator of worlds.

You always have the power to speak, act, imagine, trust, create, persuade, love, build, challenge, connect, listen, invent and teach. And with it the responsibility that comes from knowing that everything you say and everything you do shapes you and the lives of those around you. And when you right-size yourself, and you see all this, all you’ll want to do is serve.

What are you running from?

Most of the time we’re running, doing whatever we can to avoid experiencing the anxiety and fear that are an inevitable part of living. 

Do you really need to check your emails on the train, at the bus stop, while we’re talking, in the bathroom, as you’re about to begin a new project, instead of calling me, when you get home, while you’re putting the children to bed? Is reading the latest tweet or news headline as important as you make it out to be? Or are you just numbing yourself, falling into the soft reassuring glow of the screen, longing for the message that will soothe you, save you, make everything alright again?

Over time, your habits of disconnection render the world a shadow of itself, dull your relationships, and blunt the sharp sword of your contribution. It might not look like it, but given enough repetition you really do become what you do.

Is your habit of distracting yourself actually supporting you in being the kind of person you want to be?

Turning in

If you want to be up to something beyond fitting in, settling down or taking up the roles others have made for you, you’re going to have to look closely and seriously at your relationship with tension. And ask yourself, when you feel your body tense, which way do you go?

You may not be able to address this question until you spend some time quietly observing yourself. What does tension actually feel like in your body? Where does it show up? What is its quality? How does it move?

The easiest way to interpret tension is as a problem to be resolved. So you move away from it, dissipate it, release it so that it can’t trouble you. You’ll have your own well practiced ways of doing this, and if you continue to observe yourself for a while you might find out what they are.

But know that if your move is away, always away, you’re acting to keep the world exactly as it is. Because tension is stirred at that exquisite moment when difference or possibility present themselves to you. The possibility of speaking with courage, of standing out, of surprising others and yourself, of being known in a new way, of being fully and radically in contact with others, of standing for something – all profound sources of tension.

So take on a bigger, more generous interpretation of what your body is up to. How about tension as an invitation, a doorway, the opening of a new horizon that you’ve never experienced before? Tension as a profound call to throw yourself wholeheartedly in to the riskiness and creativity of being alive.

If you want to be up to something in the world, sooner or later you’re going to have to step in and learn to stay in the midst of what you’ve turned away from for so long.

A million small choices

At every moment you have a choice.

Will you choose that which magnifies dignity and freedom? Or that which reduces life step by step to a shadow of itself?

The choices are often subtle, and it can sometimes be terribly hard to know which is which. And the familiar responses of a lifetime, turned to habit through endless repetition, have a weight and trajectory of their own which can make it look like you have no choice at all.

But your relationships with others, with your work, and with life itself are born of a million small choices like this.

Do you even know what kind of life you’re in the midst of choosing?

Not really my life

“This is not really my life,” you say. “I’m just getting ready.”
You’ll be ready to live properly, you tell me, in earnest, only when

You get promoted
You find the perfect partner
You make some money
People appreciate you
 have it all worked out
The children leave home
 get discovered
 find happiness
 sell the company
 not so confused
 live in your dream house
You feel peaceful
You become famous
You find out what you’re meant to do

You’ve been taught to live this way by happy-ever-after fairy tales, celebrity fantasies and by believing that there’s some step which will take away your suffering, clear up your uncertainty, allow you to settle at last. So you’ve continually postponed fully inhabiting your life, because every goal reached reveals to you how lost you still are and how much further there is to go.

Living in a suspended state saves you from coming into contact with the fierceness and love and immediacy of living. You learn to settle with life lived at a distance, a perpetual watching and waiting for the answer that will free you.

What if you gave up the idea that anything or anyone can relieve you from your longing and from your confusion? What then? You’d have no choice but to throw yourself headlong, passionately into your life. Or maybe to allow life to sweep you off your feet. And who knows what might come from that?

All made up

What we choose to measure
What gets to be valuable
The roles we take up
What to wear
What a relationship is
What’s in fashion
How to live together
How we travel
What constitutes success
How you talk with your colleagues
What’s worth doing
How to respond to fear, and love
What needs fixing
What’s yours to do

All of them, made up by human beings. Some of them even made up by you.

Of course, knowing we invented all of this doesn’t mean it’s illusionary, nor that any of it can be changed by an act of imagination alone.

But when you find out that so much of what we take to be ‘just the way things are’ is nothing of the sort, how can you help yourself from doing whatever you can to improve things?

Better to fall

The floor of the martial arts dojo where I am a student is covered wall to wall with soft mats. Because if you want to learn to move in a new way, it turns out it’s better to to fall than to try to stay upright. Staying safe, looking good, holding on all work directly against the risks and failures needed to learn anything in a profound, lasting, embodied way.

Many of us have a never fall strategy for getting through life. If you hold on tight enough, tense your muscles and hold your breath then maybe nobody will ever see that you’re incomplete. Perhaps if you make sure you’re always in control, that everything is perfect, you’ll never find yourself flat on your back. Maybe you’ll be able to escape the shame that’s lurking just out of sight, or the harsh inner criticism that threatens to engulf you.

All this does is create a very tight spiral in which to live. And a very small space in which to learn.

What huge vistas would open for you if you gave up keeping it all together and allowed yourself to be human for once, in all your extraordinariness and all your imperfection?

Feels like me


That familiar feeling again. She said “You’ve let me down” and something dropped in your belly, your posture collapsed just a little, and the world seemed to lose its solidity. You know how this goes. You’ll deal with the deflation by apologising and the energy for all your projects and plans will slip away until long after you get home.

Or you’re five minutes late for the meeting. Pulse racing. Tightness in your chest. You’re holding your breath, mind whirling, all the excuses and ways you’ll save face working out as you dash down the hall. You arrive hot, out of breath, mutter an excuse that blames the trains or the email system or someone else for holding you up, and then stay disengaged from the conversation, wrapped up in your shame and self-judgement.

Or maybe he sent you an email telling you he wouldn’t be seeing you as you’d arranged. Fury and resentment knot your stomach. Your jaws clench, your shoulders tighten. “It’s always this way,” you tell yourself, “he’s so self-centred”. And already your fingers are tapping out a reply: cold, distancing, laced with judgements and sarcasm.

Those feelings that are so familiar, that ‘feel like you’, are where your freedom can begin. Because every emotion conjours up a world, in which certain people loom close and others become far away, in which some actions become obvious – necessary even – and others seem impossible. And from the world that’s revealed to you by your moods you act: the combination of the familiar feeling and well-rehearsed action giving you a sense of who you are. In a way, over time, your way of responding indeed becomes who you take yourself to be.

You can see that this is the case by observing yourself for a while. What kind of possibilities become available to you in love, hate, resentment, joy, boredom, anger, frustration, sincerity, cynicism, fear, panic, anxiety, gratitude? And what familiar actions do you tend to take? What results do they bring?

The first steps towards your freedom are taken when you find out that there is no right ‘thing to do’ to respond to what you’re feeling. What seems so self-evident might just be the result of years of practice that’s conditioned you to react in a particular way. Don’t confuse its familiarity with appropriateness.

Next time you find yourself propelled into action like this see what happens if you make a change – and just a small one – in your response.

What happens if you do the opposite of that which your body seems to compel you to do? You may just find that new possibilities begin to open for you and those around you… that the world starts to open up in ways you’d never imagined.

Image courtesy Malene Thyssen


It’s tempting to treat yourself as an inexhaustible resource.

“It’s only for a while”, you say. “Right now there’s just so much for me to do”.

Though when you look back at the nights with insufficient sleep, the days on which you didn’t stop even for a moment, the weeks without exercise or eating healthily or the gifts of true friendship or time to reflect or a massage or listening or being heard or reading for pleasure or giving gifts or receiving them or looking at the sky… when you look back you discover it’s been so much longer than you could have imagined.

And if you observe more closely, with more honesty, you’ll begin to see the price you pay. How your generosity, imagination, vitality, courage, clarity and love are all diminished by your resolute commitment to finishing everything else before you can at last turn your attention to your own self-care.

How will this turn out, do you think, if you keep on abandoning yourself so completely?

Why listening is so hard

It’s extraordinarily hard to listen to other people so that they’re actually heard.

For most of us, the difficulty begins early on. We’re so caught up in our own concerns, twisted and knotted with our fear or inner-criticism or self-interest, that we rarely extend ourselves with the kind of patience and openness that will make listening possible.

Then, if we’re able to find the part of us which does want to listen, we find that our interior world is filled with chatter: endless, whirling, disjointed. To listen to another calls upon a rare inner stillness that will give what is said a place to land, soft ground in which to take root.

And then, perhaps most difficult of all, is that other people’s worlds are so startlingly different from our own. Even those who are closest to us, those into whose eyes we gaze with longing and love – even they inhabit vast worlds whose degree of overlap with ours is tiny in comparison with their dissimilarity. The web of meanings, associations, stories and interpretations of another are, in the end, never fully knowable. And it is out of this web that people speak.

It’s miraculous that we can ever understand one another at all.

If you will listen to another, you’ll need to work with each of these. And in the end you’ll need to release yourself into the speaker’s vastness and know that you can never fully know what it is to be the person who said what you heard. Only from this suspension of knowing can real listening emerge. Only from here can you listen to the other as a real ‘you’ rather than as an ‘it’ that you figured out already.

Anywhere but here

How often are you really here, fully in the midst of what you’re up to? And how often somewhere else, caught up in the details, demands, worries, reminders and anticipation of

tasks still incomplete
emails to respond to
repairs to make
bills to pay
trips to plan
hurts or slights visited on you by others
inner criticism
conversations to have
old wounds stirred
dreams to dream?

Our unique imaginative capacity gives us endless ways to be anywhere but here, even in those moments when being here is critical. When you’re listening to another, for example, or maybe in the simple acts of eating, walking, appreciating a sunset.

And if you’re not here, how can you lead, listen, or really love?

The quiet darkness of the night

Sometimes, it’s only in the quiet darkness of the night that we get to see what kind of life we’re living.

In the brightness of the waking day with its activities and conversations, its commitments and frustrations, we often can’t see our lives at all. We’re like children with our faces pressed to a glass window, or fish in the bright blue ocean – so close to what we’re in or up against that it’s transparent to us.

But when the house is quiet and the lights have dimmed, we can sometimes glimpse what’s been right in front of us: what we have and what we’ve lost, what’s become hidden and is crying out for attention. In the dark of the night we can get a sense of the more secret world of love and longing that we’ve carried with us for so long.

It can be tempting to discount the way we get stirred up by all of this as a trick of the darkness – to ignore the vivid dreams or the wakeful imaginings as so much late night illusion. But it could serve us greatly to treat it as an indication of those ever present parts of ourselves that have not been addressed adequately in our day to day lives. Those parts that are crying out for air, for the space to be expressed in life.

What bigger, more vibrantly alive possibilities are calling out to you from the still of night’s quietest hours?


Image: Yvan leduc (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Taking the quest for wisdom seriously

The ancient philosophers dedicated their lives to discovering what kind of person one could become as a result of taking the quest for wisdom seriously. For many of us in contemporary times the possibility of inquiring this way never arises, so absorbed are we in the busyness and business of our lives.

So wonder, for a moment, what it would take to dedicate yourself seriously to cultivating wisdom, alongside the other commitments of your everyday life.

What would you read?
Who would you spend your time with?
Who would you have conversations with? About what?
How would you make choices about your time?
What practices, activities would you take up?
Which of your many distractions and diversions would you put down?

And if you were to dedicate yourself to the pursuit and expression of wisdom, in word and deed, what new, life changing possibilities would emerge for you and those around you?

If you’re not cultivating wisdom through the way you’re living your life, what are you cultivating? It’s bound to be something. Is it what you intend?

Image: By böhringer friedrich (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Doing it for what purpose?

Watch yourself at work, in your life, for a while.

Can you tell – of all the activities, rules, procedures, measures, frameworks that seem so important, so necessary – which are there because they bring something of actual value to the world? And which are there essentially so you can feel better?

So much that we cling tightly to, that seems essentially un-negotiable, particularly at work, is really there to save us from the yawning experience of anxiety: the mood which shows us how unpredictable and how complex the whole human situation is.

What would become possible for you and those around you if you started to pay attention to this more often?

Misunderstanding kindness

We misunderstand kindness by taking it to be soft, or a push-over. Genuine kindness arises from a heated engagement with the world and with life. It’s borne of our efforts and our sadness, our gratitude, frustration and loss, our hard-won experience and our encounters with life’s finitude.

Kindness calls on us to:

face our difficulties
speak truth rather than cover it over with self-justification or evasion
point out what needs changing
draw attention to situations lacking integrity or good judgement
witness others’ distress and disorientation and share our own
say yes and no clearly, without excuses
take a stand for what matters
speak out
magnify dignity and possibility for everyone
bring forward both our tenderness and our fierce courage

When we think that kindness is a push-over we’re mostly thinking of kindness without discernment or wisdomkindness that stands back from difficulty, kindness that robs others of dignity by denying their distress, kindness that strips people of their capacity to act for themselves, kindness that serves to make us feel better but does nothing to make the world better, kindness that’s simply cotton wool to life’s hard edges.

In the end, that’s no kindness at all.

[Here is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that expresses all of this beautifully]

No end of trouble

I-It relationships: when we treat another human being as an object, or as a means to an end.

I-You relationships: being in relationship with others that allows them to show up as human beings – undefinable, vast, essentially unknowable.

We need I-It relationships in order to get up to anything in the practical world. If I want something done, there’s a sense in which I have to think of you for at least part of the time as a vehicle for my intentions. That’s a particularly ‘I-it’ way to relate to you. I have to ask you or maybe convince you to act, and then express my delight in the result or show you my irritation at your delay or your standards. Often I’ll want to measure what you’re up to: how you’re using your time, whether this is value for money, the results your efforts are producing. If you’re here to fix the network and I’m busy making plans, I might most usefully choose to engage with you as the IT person rather than allow myself to encounter you as a living, breathing human being with a past and future, with hopes and dreams and plans and feelings. Often, I’ll have to relate to myself as an ‘it’ in just this way too.

But so much is left out, in our workplaces and in our wider lives, if we only ever relate to the world in an I-It way. We miss the possibility of encountering the extraordinariness of being human. We lose the chance to connect, and to bring forward our courage and compassion and wisdom. And we cannot discover the deep veins of meaning that underpin all of our efforts in the world of plans, actions and things.

A solely I-It world is pragmatic, utilitarian, productive and flat. A world with only I-You relating is vast, mysterious, surprising, meaning-laden and extraordinarily impractical. Each is the shadow of the other, and both are necessary for lives well lived and good work well done.

Yet we’ve built most of our work places and much of our lives as if I-It is the only possibility.

It’s got us into no end of trouble.

Organisations – a defence against anxiety

By Speed1c.png: Rohloff AG derivative work: Keanu4 (Speed1c.png) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia CommonsWe easily forget that the way we run modern organisations was invented by people to deal with the challenges of the manufacturing age. ‘How,’ the inventors asked, ‘can we arrange for large numbers of people to perform routine and repetitive tasks efficiently, effectively, and with minimal risk of error?’

Their responses:

Organisation charts. Layers of management. Design and control the work carried out by the people below you.

Systems and procedures to make sure everyone fits the shape required by the task. Behaviour frameworks. Policies to address every eventuality. Whatever it takes to produce what’s needed with maximum predictability and minimum surprise.

All of these make perfect sense if you’re organising thousands of workers to perform routine tasks repetitively, accurately, and without variance. They might just work as long as you’re trying to have people be completely predictable.

But we have forgotten that this is only one of many choices available to us. And when we forget that the machine metaphor for work is not a given, we blind ourselves to its limits.

What was a massive and very effective project to manufacture products on an enormous scale has become, in many workplaces, an equally effective project to eliminate anxiety. The anxiety we experience when we encounter human freedom.

For one example of how this is the case, just look at how often we insist on dry, detached business language that leaves out everything that’s personal and most of what’s meaningful. Or see how often we try to manipulate people with rewards or threats, generating the insecurity that will keep them in line rather than supporting them in acting with integrity, exercising good judgement, or cultivating their wholeheartedness about the work they do. 

In order to eliminate the anxiety that we’d feel if people could take up even a small measure of their true creativity and freedom, we’ve had to treat ourselves and others as if we were objects. We’ve had to make ourselves part of the machine.

You might say that in uncertain times what we need is more control, not less. More predictability, less humanness. But can you say that the way most organisations are run is working out well for the people who work in them or for the world in which we live?

If we were to face our anxiety and allow for more human creativity and dignity, integrity and freedom, who knows what possibilities we might bring to the world?

[For an example of a contemporary attempt to address these questions, see HubSpot’s Culture Code here]

Kind and gentle and wise

“I don’t have time to be kind and gentle and wise. Can’t you see how much pressure I’m under? Don’t you understand anything about how much there is to do?”

What if, contrary to everything you’ve understood, kindness, gentleness and wisdom are the source from which everything that matters can spring?

What then?

How would this call on you to be with your colleagues, your family, with your own life? And what would be granted to you that you have denied yourself and others for the longest time?

A harsh truth

In the end, all of us die.

We’ll lose all our relationships and all our possessions. As will everyone else we know.

What to do with all of this?

You could slip into a denial of life itself, as many people do. If it’s all going to end, and if you can’t have immortality for yourself, your ideas or your projects, you could lose yourself in a sea of triviality: toys, distractions, status symbols, diversions. You could numb yourself, turning away from life so you can avoid the anxiety of facing its finiteness. If you’ve never really lived, perhaps life’s end will exact less of a price.

Our you could try frantically to build, to make a mark so you’ll be remembered. At least this way it looks like you’ll have a way of cheating death. Inflate your ego, shout the loudest, build the tallest, be the richest, out-fame the famous. Make a name for yourself, whether for good or for ill. But, apart from for the tiny handful of people whose fame is enduring, within a couple of generations your name, all your achievements, what we take to be your legacy will be gone: all faded into the vast, anonymous, shifting background of human life.

The problem with both of these responses is that they put you at the centre of the world. They’re an attempt to force life to treat you on your terms alone, to give you what you want because you won’t take life as it is.

Instead, and more meaningfully, you could turn into the fierce heat of life itself. Understand that the point of life is life, and that you cannot be separated from it. Discover all the ways in which you are an expression of a process that is immeasurably bigger than you are and is at the same time undeniably part of you.

From here, the response to your own life’s finiteness is no longer cheating death but finding a way to contribute to life’s unfolding.

This calls on us to connect deeply with others, to contribute generously without knowing what will come from it, to find the courage that comes from openness and vulnerability, to speak out, to lessen suffering, to cultivate dignity, to seek wisdom, to create, to teach, to innovate, to serve. And to do all this as an expression of whatever work we’ve taken up in the world: running a business, founding corporations, mastering a profession, raising a family, inventing technology, leading a team, educating people, designing a product, investing in markets, delivering the numbers.

All of this is what makes possible living life not as a way of getting what you want, but as a contribution. And perhaps it’s also a way of living life as a work of art.

Stop now.

Please stop whatever you’re doing right now.

Put everything down. Yes, everything, right now as you read this. Really.

Take a seat. A deep breath. Allow it out with a long, slow exhale.

Let your shoulders drop, as far as they’ll go. Allow them to feel the weight of gravity. Your lower jaw too. Feel the way the floor supports your feet. Now the way the chair supports your body.

Don’t rush. Stay with this long enough to experience what’s happening.

Are you starting to remember that you have a body? That you’re not just a head filled with thoughts and plans to rush from one engagement to the next?

Take a moment to notice the sensations that are there. The grip or looseness of your fingers, the warmth or coolness of your hands, the feel of your arms. Your toes, feet, ankles, legs. Your abdomen, chest, shoulders, neck. Your face.

Stay a moment longer, please. Turn to the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. The coolness of the inhale and the warmth of the exhale. The gentle way your ribs move to allow for all of this. Listen quietly for a moment for the beating of your heart. Allow yourself to marvel for a moment that any of this is possible.

When was the last time you stopped like this?

When did you last allow yourself to remember, beyond all your tasks, your commitments and your endless busyness, that you’re a living, breathing human being? When did you last stop long enough to experience the feeling of being alive?

And if it’s been a long time, at what cost?

Start with yourself

Your relationship to everything in life starts with your relationship to yourself. Mostly we don’t even know that we have a relationship with ourselves. I’m just ‘I’, aren’t I?

Being human means being in relationship to everything. And it’s not the way the world is that shapes our lives, but how we relate to what is. Relationship is the prism through which all of life is experienced. You could say that the way we relate is what constitutes the world.

So, let’s start with your relationship with you.

In the 1500 years since Saint Augustine introduced the idea of original sin to the western world, we’ve mostly learned to understand the being of being human as essentially flawed, and profoundly broken. Check if this is true for you. What’s the nature of your secret inner conversation about yourself? How much judgement is there? How much “I messed up” or “they’ll find out I’m a fraud”? And how much puffed-up pride that covers a basic sense of not being enough?

And what about all the labels you have for yourself? Idiot? Good-for-nothing? Imposter? How much hidden shame? How does all of this feel?

You might have to observe for a while and be scrupulously honest with yourself to catch on to the harshness of your inner world. Sometimes you’ve lived with it for so long, it’s become invisible. But, in as much as it’s the way you relate to yourself, it’s also a foundation for your relationship with others. The constant, gnawing sense of not being alright fuels our harsh judgements of our colleagues, friends, families, children. It leads to our bouncing between grandiosity and deflation. It has us engage in repeated strategies to feel at ease again: helping so that we can feel that people need us more than from our genuine concern; self-aggrandising; pushing others aside so we can show how important we are; being defensive; distracting ourselves with the soft screen-glow of our devices; busying ourselves with tasks that contribute little but make us feel of significance. It interrupts our generosity, care, and gratitude.

The first step in freeing yourself from the grip of this to relate to yourself with great kindness. Recognise that the part of you that is harsh in this way is not the whole of you. Give it a name: inner critic, the resistance, the super-ego. Naming it can allow you some breathing room, some space from this phenomenon, the possibility of releasing yourself from being swept up by it quite so much.

And understand you did not do anything wrong to have this, though the inner critic will insist that’s the case. It’s just part of our human inheritance.

Finding out that inner critic is there, seeing the shadow it casts, and giving up identifying yourself with it is the first step. It’s a move that can start to liberate you to fully make the contribution you’re here to make.

Because when when you learn to relate to yourself with kindness, you can at last relate to others with kindness too.