Not knowing the way

Mostly, we’re so committed to knowing where we’re going, what we’re up to – planning, organising, setting goals, planning again – that we forget the enormous value of losing our way for a while.

It’s in not knowing which direction to turn – and being prepared to admit that, most of the time, we really can’t know where life is leading us – that we can discover a part of ourselves that’s often hidden. The quiet, steady, still centre from which everything arises. The part of us that can never be lost, even in the depths of our confusion. The part that’s trusting of life as it is, however it turns out. The part that actually looks at the world as it presents itself, instead of clinging tightly to how we’d like it to be.

If you’re living a life in which you’re expending enormous effort in an attempt to stay on top of it all, you might be missing all this, especially if you’re denying to yourself and others that you’re ever confused or uncertain. But, sometimes, allowing yourself to lose your way is a blessing, a way of encountering the part of you from which creativity can arise like a fresh, bubbling spring.

What would it take, do you think, to soften your grip on certainty so that any of this might become possible?

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Midrash

In the Jewish tradition, any story is an invitation to interpretation, to imagination, to invention. You read a story not so much for what’s true in it, as for what can be imagined into the spaces. So a straightforward story can become the launching point for wildly differing interpretations, all of which are held alongside one another even if they’re paradoxical, mysterious or downright contradictory.

It’s a tradition known as midrash and it embodies a commitment to see things from many angles, to have many different kinds of explanations for what might initially look obvious and simple. In midrash there’s no such thing as a story with a monopoly on the truth.

Often, it’s helpful to do midrash with your own life, with your work, with your relationships.

You probably already have habitual ways of explaining who you are, who others are, what’s happening, and what’s possible. Perhaps you currently have only one telling available to you, one that’s so familiar, so trusted, you can’t even tell that it’s there.

Making midrash from your own life involves starting to tell a different story from the one you’re currently telling. Maybe you’re not the righteous, wounded hero after all. Perhaps they’re not out to get you, but are trying to help. Maybe you’re not as in control of your life as you think – or perhaps you’re much more in control already than you knew. Maybe it is possible for you to be someone who asks for what you want. Perhaps there’s a contribution you’re making that you can’t see because of your self-critical stories. Maybe life has an invitation for you that’s not going to come from trying harder and harder until you work yourself into the ground.

These are just a few of the stories you might have about yourself and life, and a few of the alternatives you could start to imagine. You could also ask others how they’d tell the story of your situation – great midrash can begin simply from here.

Even if you have only one way of explaining your life, it’s already midrash, already just one interpretation of many that are possible.

So much opens, and so much suffering can be avoided, when you stop believing your own stories as the only truth.

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Mood leadership

If you want to lead others you’ll need to see that leadership is far more than making sure people know what to do or that they get things done.

One place to look is your capacity to discern the mood of those around you, and to cultivate new moods.

Every mood has its own space of possibility.

In resentment, frustration and resignation the space is tiny – oriented only around that which we want to have happen but which eludes us. In despair too – every action burdened, every idea too heavy to lift.

In cynicism nothing can touch us – no idea, no invitation, no possibility brings us in close enough to engage.

In hope, possibilities open up again for us… perhaps there is a way forward. In joy and love we discover what moves us, enlivens us, energises us to take action on what we care about.

In acceptance we find our capacity to stay focussed even through the turns of life in the chaotic, unpredictable world as well as in times of order. In gratitude we notice again and again the privilege of being up to something alongside others.

Ignoring mood is like ignoring the weather – going out in the snow in your summer clothes and claiming you won’t freeze.

And because moods aren’t private it’s helpful to discern what your own moods are. If you’re in a position where others look to you, your moods will be having more of a shaping effect than you can imagine.

But, mostly, your leadership is going to call on you to cultivate new moods in yourself and in others. You can’t force it – demanding a mood won’t work out here. Nor will accepting other people faking their mood.

So start by wondering. What are the places, people, conversations, practices that can cultivate the moods that make possible what you and those around you care about? What are you doing that brings them about? What are you doing that thwarts them?

If you’re paying this no attention, or if you’re actively cultivating resentment, cynicism, frustration or resignation, you’re further away from leading than you think.

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Wonder

This morning, I took my daughter on the bus to school. She’s six. The whole journey was a source of amazement for her. Every detail had something wonderful to consider – how many different buses come to our street, where they go, how the driver knows what route to take, how people decide where to get on and off, how the payment system works, what happens when a bus breaks down, how you can find out which bus you should choose to get where you want to go. On and on our conversation went, leaping from one topic to another.

She was still talking about it at the end of the day.

How glorious to be able to look at the world this way, to see in what most of us consider humdrum and prosaic the sheer extraordinariness of everything.

If your background mood is cynicism, you might already find yourself objecting to what I’m saying here. “Yes,” you’ll argue “that’s very nice. But we can’t all drop our adult responsibilities and look at the world as a six-year old might.”

So then, look with wonder through adult eyes. You could start just by noticing what it takes for a bus to arrive at the end of your street.

Somebody had to discover how to extract metals from ore, to melt them and shape them, to harden them against rust. Others had to discover how to spin yarn, weave fabrics, make rubber, plastic, and then make useful objects and forms from them. We had to discover oil, and ways of transforming its latent energy into movement, and all the technology that goes into the internal combustion engine. And for this we needed the disciplines of physics and chemistry, the mathematics and experimental method upon which they stand, and the language required to speak and think and invent anything at all. We needed to invent factories, means of mass production, and the social and political arrangements that would make it possible for people to work in them. We needed means of distribution for the fuel – tankers and pipelines and storage and pumps. The entire interlocking systems of money and economy that liberated us from having to produce our own personal food, and the agricultural technology that could free up vast numbers of us to work in other fields. We needed to invent systems and rules for driving, and ways to teach them to other people, the roads to drive on (and all the technology and materials that make them up), and the social norms that allow us to behave on buses in ways that make them usable.

Everything in the human world depends upon these incomprehensibly vast networks of interlocking materials, tools, language and practices in which everything relies on everything else. That our evolution has made this possible, and that we find ourselves able to recognise and navigate such a complex world, should be an invitation to wonder again and again at the sheer unlikeliness of what we call the ordinary and the everyday. And this is in addition to whatever wonder we might have that life and all that comes with it is possible at all.

To cultivate wonder is to cultivate gratitude: one of the most spacious and life-giving of moods. It’s a necessary alternative to living in a way that cultivates the smaller, more imprisoning and much more destructive moods of resentment and cynicism.

Most of us have forgotten all this.

It must be time to start to remember.

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Resentment

Our moods reveal the world to us, showing us what in other circumstances would remain hidden from view.

But not all moods are equally disclosive. Some moods have the world contract, hiding more from us than they reveal, leaving us with a much smaller space for action, for relationship, for possibility.

Resentment is just such a mood.

It shows you your supposed superiority – all the ways you’re right, all the ways you’ve been wronged, all the ways you’re meant to be getting what you want, all the ways to take revenge.

It distances you from others. And if directed at life, distances you from life. It’s riddled with arguments about why this should be the case – what you’re owed, the unfairness of it all. And its arguments wrap themselves around one another to form a tight knot in your body, in your mind – a knot that can shield you from looking at any of this in a different way.

Just about anything can be a source for resentment, if you’ll let it. It will draw your attention to everything you’re entitled to, and everything you apparently didn’t get. Love, money, status, respect, honour, a promotion, security, recognition, success, your way.

And although resentment can injure anyone, its biggest harm is to you as its sponsor as it twists you, hardens you, separates you from others. It’s like a knife turned back on yourself, like drinking poison with the misguided idea that it will cause someone else to die.

So noticing it’s resentment is vital, because it makes the world so small, so tightly sealed. And it’s doubly important to look, because resentment is wily. It disguises itself to look like anger, like boredom, like resignation, like a righteous principled stand. It’s none of these.

When you catch on to your own resentment, you’ll begin to find out the ways you’re responsible for it, and all the ways you’re cultivating it. And then, perhaps then, you’ll have the courage to let it go and find somewhere to stand that’s more honest about your part in things, kinder to yourself and others, more connecting, and more filled with possibility.

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What moods can show us

window

Your emotions and moods.

A distraction? An interruption to your dispassionate, rational, critical faculties? Out of place in your work? In your family? Best ignored? Even better supressed?

No.

A mood is a place from which you relate to the world.

Moods are disclosive: they actively show the world to you, bringing forward some aspects so that they can be seen, and having others recede into the background.

And it’s important that you pay attention to them because there is no dispassionate, uninvolved place from which to relate to the world. There is no ‘mood-free’ way to be which would show you everything all in one go, at least in everyday life.

A mood of love: the object of your love (a person, an idea, a project) fills the world you experience. You find yourself turning towards it or them again and again in your thoughts and activities. For a while, the world revolves around whatever or whoever it is that you love, and you get to see that which is inspiring, thrilling, life-giving about them.

A mood of frustration: when there’s something that matters to you that you can’t get to happen. Once again, that something figures centrally in the world for as long as you’re frustrated. Everything seems to point towards this something that matters, to contribute to your sense of being thwarted.

A mood of fear: brings forward that which is or seems threatening to us or to that which we care about, and has everything else fade away, so that we can take focussed action.

A mood of boredom: has everything fade into the background. Nothing seems important enough, stirring enough, exciting enough to move you.

A mood of resentment: has the person or situation you’re resentful about become central, and reveals to you the myriad ways you might take revenge, get your own back, or otherwise cause hurt.

A mood of gratitude: shines a light on the unlikeliness of your presence in the world, how little you had to do to end up surrounded by people, objects, possessions, possibilities. Illuminates the extraordinariness of the everyday.

Rather than being errors in perception, your moods are always a way of attuning to aspects of the world that you might not otherwise pay attention to. You might say each mood functions to reveal the world in particular ways, showing you that which in a different mood would be hidden. And mostly this isn’t apparent, because for the most part moods are in the background, invisible. They’re like the air you breathe, omnipresent, necessary, and transparent.

So being able to tell what mood you’re in is a huge opening. It will show you what possibilities you might be missing, or how it is that there seem no possibilities at all. It will tell you much about what you really care about, because moods always arise from your cares, values and commitments. It will show you how what seems central right now, and what incidental, is only one way to look at things.

And as you learn to cultivate different moods from the ones you’re most used to – for example gratitude where there was resentment – you’ll have revealed to you much that you never really saw before. And you may also discover that the world and other people are never simply this way or that, and perhaps even open up the possibility that they’re something else completely from how you’re used to relating to them. This is a huge and necessary step if you want to bring yourself fully to the world and to open up rich new avenues for relationship, possibility, and action.

Always changing

One of the surest ways you can treat other people as objects is to believe too strongly the stories you have about them.

“He doesn’t care”
“She’s only interested in herself”
“He’s so frustrating”
“She’s so fixed in her ideas, it’s impossible”
“He’s a loser”

and equally

“He’s so caring”
“She knows about everything”
“He’s so strong – nothing gets to him”

It’s not that your stories have no truth to them.

But people are so much more vast and mysterious than you can possibly know, and changing all the time. Any story you have is, in a significant way, partial and instantly out of date.

If you’re committed to treating people as people, you’ll have to start taking all this into account. You’ll have to loosen your hold on your stories. That way you’ll have a chance of encountering the person that’s actually there, rather than the idea of them you’re so determined to hold on to.

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What life wants

Instead of wondering when life will work out for you, or figuring out how to get the life you want, you could try asking what life wants from you.

Perhaps an entirely different orientation to what matters, what’s possible, and what’s called for might emerge. And who knows what courage, kindness, wisdom and work you might discover.

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Not Kindness

Sometimes, a commitment to everyone around you being ok can cause more suffering than you know.

You might think you’re just being kind, principled – a person committed to harmony, peace, and the wellbeing of others.

But it’s not kindness if your habit of saving others from their difficulty:

denies them their dignity or freedom
hurts the people around them
has them become dependent upon you
acts so that you, principally, can feel better about yourself.

It’s not kindness to insist all is well, that everyone look on the bright side, and in doing so ignore others’ difficulty or judge it as moaning or whining.

And it’s not kindness to turn away from important conversations that can liberate people from their suffering, simply because you fear that you or others might get upset.

Kindness like this might still feel like kindness to you. It might feed the story that you’re really there to help. But what you’re doing each time is covering up the difficulty. And in each case there’s some significant suffering that calls for a much bigger contribution from you.

Kindness that makes a genuine difference to others requires enormous courage, because it can never just be about fulfilling your story about yourself, or making you feel better that you did the right thing.

This kindness knows when to wait as well as when to act. It knows that cutting the bonds that hold others in their difficulty can require fierceness and sharpness as well as softness. It has a much bigger perspective than just this moment, just this incident, just what you’re feeling right now.

And this sort of kindness – which looks long into the future to assess the consequences of its actions, and which casts a broad net to include many others in its care – has so much more possibility for bringing about the peace and freedom you really long to bring into the world.

Inputs to Outputs

An extraordinary number of people have effectively become processors, for much of their working lives, of the endless emails served up to them by the internet.

How much the intelligence of the world is turned into this: we become reduced to nodes in the network, transforming email inputs into email outputs, which then go on to be processed in the same way by someone else.

If you weren’t demanding people do this with their time, can you even imagine what might become possible?

Isn’t there a bigger, more courageous contribution they could be making, one that you and we so desparately need?

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On change

We’ve been in the midst of enormous change for some time now.

Has the world ever been different from this?

Perhaps we imagine that we are the first to face such uncertainty, the undoing of so much that had seemed secure and obvious. Whichever way we turn, that which we thought we understood is being called into question. The nature of work, of money, the structure of society. Our ideas of what is of enduring value. Our relationship to technology, other human beings, our place on this planet and our impact on its future.

We wonder where all of the endless shifting and changing will end.

Perhaps whatever anxiety we feel as we consider this can become a reminder to us  that the world has always been this way. What is changing now is unique to our times. But endless change is always part of the fabric of things, no matter how hard we work to deny it.

The nature of life itself is change.

And the opportunity here – if we can seize it with courage and resoluteness – comes from our human capacity to change ourselves. It isn’t at all easy, and it requires the action of many people simultaneously. But if you doubt it’s possible, just look at how much we and the worlds we create have changed in the last generation, in the last century.

Are you working on becoming someone who can stay in the anxiety of change so that you can contribute to our collective response?

Or are you living your life in a way that obscures all this and allows you to hide from it?

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Three conversations

Three different kinds of conversations to be in:

1. Conversations for Relationship

The foundation for everything.

Doing what it takes to build lasting foundations for possibility and for action together. Discovering what you share.

Shared interests make it possible to continue talking, and it’s where most people start. The ubiquitous ‘What do you do?’ when we meet people is an attempt to begin this.

Shared concerns deepen the relationship. When we find out that what matters to others matters to us also, all kinds of possibilities start to emerge. And a longer conversation becomes interesting.

Shared commitments deepen still further. If you and I are up to something active in the world that we both really care about, the possibility of collaborating over extended periods of time comes into view.

2. Conversations for Possibility

Where we wonder together what we might get up to. This is what’s being addressed when people get into brainstorming sessions or just start musing about what could happen.

Conversations for possibility sound easy and obvious, but if you approach them from a cynical position (‘nothing can ever work out’) or pretend to be interested when you’re not, you’ll find that very little that matters comes from them.

3. Conversations for Action

Where we decide what to do, and commit to one another in a way that makes action obvious and possible. It’s the moment of commitment where everything happens – where the future we’re embarked upon changes for all of us involved.

Much of the difficulty that arises in working with other people comes from our not paying attention to the differences between these three conversations and our failure to recognise that each requires the other.

To discover meaningful possibilities, you have to have genuine relationship in which you and others are dedicated to the same interests, concerns or commitments.

To design effective, worthwhile action you have to have chosen which of the many possibilities you are committing to follow.

No end of trouble is caused because people fake this.

We say of our colleagues at work “we’re a team” and then wonder why we’re having such a hard time getting in to projects that feel worthwhile. Did we spend any time in an effective conversation for relationship? Do we even have a relationship in which we care about the same things?

We throw ourselves into action plans but don’t stop first to have a conversation for possibilities. “I’m too busy”, we say. “Can’t you see how much I have to do?”. We make it look like we know what we’re up to, but what we’re doing is pointed in the wrong direction, or maybe we’re all pointing in different directions. We never took the time to stop, to admit our confusion, to ask together where are going or find out together what we might get up to.

Faking these conversations is understandable. We’re taught to fake when we’re very young (faking our interest in subjects at school, doing just what we’re asked by adults without questioning or pushing back). And then mostly we’re taught this again when we join the world of work (saying yes to what we’re asked, unquestioningly taking on the targets and goals we’re given in order to get ahead).

But the more we fake, and the more we fail to attend to the basic conversations that make everything worthwhile and possible, the more difficulty and suffering we’re creating for ourselves and others.

So the first step is to get real.

Which conversation have you not had, yet? Name it. Invite, enroll, cajole, demand that the people around you stop, long enough, to do the talking together that was missing.

Talk and listen long enough to build a relationship that can be the foundation for the possibilities you’re pursuing and the action you want to take. It’s never too late to do this, even if you completely skipped it the first time around.

Own up to your confusion and your deflation as well as the times when you’re excited and bursting with energy. If you’re confused about where you’re going, other people probably are too. It’s a conversation for possibility you might need to have here.

By paying attention to all of this and talking about it with others, you’ll begin to address your stuckness, your overwhelming busyness, and the endless waste of people doing things that didn’t need doing or that didn’t matter.

And that has to be worth doing.

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World A and World B

World A: A world of mass market, mass industry, mass conformity, in which everyone only brings what the system tells us is required, and we can only contribute what the mass gives us space to contribute.

World B: A world in which people take seriously their responsibility to discover what is  theirs to bring into the world, and dedicate themselves to bringing it; in which we can at last benefit from the immense human capacity for imagination, relationship, truth, ingenuity, creativity, compassion and fierce love of life.

Which world are you in the midst of creating?

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Ending

Everything you’re involved in, everything you’re committed to, everything you know – all of it will come to an end.

When you understand this, can you really continue in your detached, distracted way? Or keep holding back because of your fear? Or mute your voice and your contribution until you are sure that others will like it, and like you?

Surely, when you know that everything will come to an end the only response is to throw yourself deeply into what you care for, with both fiery commitment and a fierce, unshakeable compassion towards yourself and everyone around you.

What else could life and work possibly be for?

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Nodes in a network

In the past two to three centuries we have been swept up in some powerful cultural narratives that have served, among other things, to obscure the nature of our changing world and our inevitable part in it. The revolution in thought that ushered in both modern science and the enlightenment drew our attention to the apparently ordered nature of the universe and then opened up huge possibilities for shaping it through reason and technology. We began to conceive of ourselves as almost endlessly powerful, freed up from the constraints of nature through our ability to stand apart from it and intervene in it.

As this unfolded into the industrial revolution we also shifted our understanding of ourselves. Human progress would come increasingly from industrial processes that could be applied reliably at vast scale and over global distance. What would make this possible was the suppression of human difference (including our passions, that which we most strongly feel and which we most deeply care about) in favour of the idea of the mass – mass production, mass standardisation, mass culture.

And as science and technology have progressed we’ve understood ourselves more and more as part of them rather than as the creators of them (science, as a discipline, is a human creation as much as any other). Today we are increasingly likely to understand ourselves as the product of neural pathways in our brains (drawing on physics) or to treat ourselves as disembodied nodes in a vast computer network.

The technology we have created gives us unparalleled opportunities to make everyone the same, to obscure our uniqueness. But it also gives us huge possibility to free up our creativity for the good of everyone, to support people in reaching out to one another thoughtfully and intentionally.

So this is where we might work out together how to respond to the swirling uncertainty of today. It will take us understanding ourselves in new ways, paying much closer and more rigorous attention to what we truly care about, to what the totality of our experience including our emotions and bodies have to tell us, and to what it is to be a human being.

And it will take us understanding that we, and others, are neither nodes in a network nor neural machines nor simply animated lumps of matter, but deeply connected actors in a huge world of meaning and possibility. As well as our science – greatly needed at this time – it’s going to take each of us bringing forward our passion, our art, our love, and our lives.

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On Rage

We’ve lost touch with the life-giving possibilities of rage.

For the most part we understand rage only for its destructive possibilities, as a hateful force directed against others, as what shows up when we’re angry, or vengeful, or when we’ve concluded we’re superior to other people such that they deserve our scorn or our hatred. And of course rage can be all of these. The history of the 20th and early 21st centuries are filled with indescribable acts of violence that were stirred in this way.

But what we’ve forgotten is a more generous account of rage that’s been around since the time of the ancient Greece, that was once the central understanding but is now peripheral. This is rage as a vital, life-giving force that has us break out of the boundaries that hold us, rage as in raging torrent, rage that sweeps us into action that’s bigger than our own individual concerns. It’s a mood that attunes us to what needs to be done on behalf of everyone and everything, and which can lead us down paths that might be quite different to what we’ve been up to so far. What I am describing here is rage-for-life, and that’s quite different from the me-centred or my-group-centred rage-against-others that we know so well in our culture and work so hard to suppress in pursuit of civilised society.

In suppressing rage-for-life along with all other forms of rage we’ve blunted our ability to break out of constraints that could benefit from being broken, and to imagine together life-giving futures that could have us flourish. Instead, we’ve oriented our society around desire – a more socially acceptable mood that makes getting what we want our most pressing concern. And this is turn has given rise to an economy and to organisations in which being generous is often difficult and in which committing to something bigger than our own interests or those of our shareholders has for a long time been considered weak or peripheral. In a desire-led society acting on behalf of life itself is judged as a distraction from the hard-nosed business of the bottom-line, and we evaluate ourselves and others not so much on how we have lived but on how much we managed to accumulate.

But in a world in the midst of economic turmoil, in which we’re experiencing the cumulative effects of our pollution and wastefulness, and in which we still fail to feed everybody, we are starting to see the limits of our desire. Our deference to power and wealth and status, our understanding of ourselves as consumers rather than contributors, our willingness to stay quiet and keep our heads down and hope it all will pass: all these lead us into a small and self-protective stance. We could do with working urgently and seriously on all of them, and on cultivating more rage on behalf of the life that makes it possible for us to be here in the first place.

It’s time we allowed ourselves to feel the generous, rage-on-behalf-of-it-all that’s waiting to emerge from behind the protective facade of our conventional lives. Imagine what we could do if we could harness and express its fierce, energetic commitment to life and possibility for everyone and everything.

[I’m grateful to Norman Fischer for his work with me in preparing our shared workshop on ‘Rage and Imagination’ at the recent New Ventures West UnConference, and also to Peter Slojterdijk and his book Rage and Time which provoked much of my developing thinking on this topic]

Image: Wolfgangbeyer at the German language Wikipedia

Befriending yourself

It’s quite unusual, it seems, to meet anyone who’s genuinely made friends with themselves.

For good reason, the people who love us as we grow up teach us all kinds of ways in which we can keep the socially unacceptable parts of ourselves out of view. And while that’s a necessary part of becoming an adult, it leaves us with at the very least an aversion to fully being with ourselves. What we might discover, we think, will be too much to deal with – frightening, unpredictable, incomprehensible.

For perhaps the majority of us, it’s not so much an aversion to fully being with ourselves as a downright loathing or terror. In some fundamental way, we feel ashamed at all that roils and turns within us. And so we turn away from ourselves, into busyness, or distraction. Into activities that occupy us without really stirring us. Into the numbness of our devices and our habits.

And if we can’t befriend ourselves, we can hardly befriend others. When we’re so busy avoiding ourselves, we don’t have the openness and receptivity to be fully with anyone else. Even though it’s contact with others – the experience of seeing and being seen – that we long for.

So, for all these reasons, the task of befriending ourselves is not luxury but responsibility, so that from there we can reach out and touch the lives of the people around us.

And we have to start by understanding that this – all of it – is an inevitable part of being human. The joy, exhilaration, rage, anger, resentment, gratitude, longing, love, doubt, fear, anguish, fury, desire. The loathing and shame. We have to begin to experience it not so much as our deficiency, but as part of our fullness and part of our heritage.

When we befriend ourselves, we befriend being human, and we open the possibility for the first time of befriending life itself.

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Always choosing

You’re always choosing.

You’re choosing how to live, what to care about, who to speak to, how to speak, what to listen to, what to dedicate yourself to, what to notice, what to ignore.

Even your choice not to choose is a choice. As is your choice to carry that which has been given to you by others – your culture, your organisation, your family, your history, your friends.

When you see this, maybe you’ll rediscover your responsibility to choose wisely, with care. And, even if you continue choosing everything in exactly the same way as you are already, you’ll at last start becoming the author of a life you can call your own.

Becoming It

I-It: when we treat human beings 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.

It’s not so much that you choose consciously whether you’re going to be a fully human ‘I’ in the world or live as ‘it’. It’s rather that you’ll find you’re becoming one or the other through the way you’re already living. In other words, the way you get to be in the world is shaped over time by your actions: your habits and practices.

Our culture provides many more ways to be ‘it’ than ‘I’:

driving yourself relentlessly, always on, never stopping

not taking care of sleep sufficiently to stay well and energised

omitting nurture from your life: receiving love, touch, being in beauty, encountering art

equating your value with what you possess: how much money, what kind of house, what job title, what status

worrying, feeling deflated if you’re not always producing results

distancing yourself from supportive human relationships: leaving out the cultivation of family, neighbours, community

distracting yourself endlessly from encountering your own feelings of uncertainty and anxiety: numbing yourself with TV, internet, social media

You open up the possibility of being ‘I’ or ‘it’ not so much by how you think but by how you actually live, and by how you work, speak, and relate.

Once you see this, you’ll see that you have an enormous opportunity to influence who you turn out to be. And with this opportunity comes an enormous responsibility too, because if you’re actively working on being an ‘it’ in the world we all lose out on your courage, ingenuity, and contribution.

Heroes

You probably learned that you were meant to be a solitary hero at school, where you were first told that collaboration, partnership, and learning from peers are a form of cheating.

As a result, many organisations are populated by adults who feel desperately alone: the only one with this much to carry, the only one with so much to do, the only one who can shoulder the huge responsibility. And because you’re alone, and because you’re meant to be a solitary hero, the only direction is to turn away from each other: to pretend you’re ok, to look good, to never let the difficulty you’re in show.

Of course, the way we’ve set up our organisations so that so many people feel insecure about their roles and their future doesn’t help with any of this.

When you take the courageous step of turning towards one another and asking for help, you’ll find how many others are having a similar experience to you, and how much support there is available right in front of you if only you’d ask for it.

And then, instead of burning yourself out proving just how strong and independent you are you might start to make the contribution that you really came to make.

Image: Roger Kidd at Wikimedia Commons

Pernicious

Conversations frequently left out of the discourse of professional life:

What you’re feeling – a potential source of enormous insight and connection to others

What you care about – especially if different from those around you

Your history – the story of everything and everyone that brought you to this moment, the discoveries and losses and experiences that have shaped you

Your weirdness – the unique artfulness and way of seeing that comes from you being you

Your imagination – your capacity to invent beyond the bounds of convention, the energy for life which stirs you to break out of the ways you’re held in

Your longing – the life and world you’re in the midst of bringing forth

We shut them out with excuses. They’re ‘soft’ subjects, while business is ‘hard’. They’ll open a pandora’s box or a can of worms. This is a work-place, not a therapy session.

We lose so much when we continue to exclude the passions and possibility of the human heart from so many of our endeavours. And it damages us too, because before long we reduce ourselves and others to shadows of ourselves, inoculated by our cynicism against demonstrating care for much that is of genuinely enduring value to human life. Is this really the way you and your colleagues began your journey into the life of work? Can you even remember?

That work should be this way was sold to us by the early industrialists who needed scores of people in their factories to button down, fit themselves in, and stay in line. They appropriated the language of rationalism and science to fashion people into tools, cogs, and components so they could build their great money making machines. And we bought it.

And when you tell us how much of our humanity you will not allow a place in your work, you become their mouthpiece, continuing a pernicious myth that shallows our relationships and possibility.

The world faces many difficulties right now, and addressing them is going to take all the generosity, wisdom and heartfelt commitment we can muster. Do you really intend to be one of the people who work to shut that out from the world?

Behind

You’re standing in the midst of your life.

Just behind you, one to each shoulder, stand your two biological parents. Behind their shoulders stand their parents, your four grandparents. Behind them now, shoulder to shoulder, their parents – your eight great-grandparents. Sixteen in the row behind, then thirty-two just five generations back. Over a thousand in the tenth generation behind you. And on, and on, row after row after row of ancestors. The rows stretch back, beyond the beginnings of recorded human history, back through our primate ancestors, back and back and back in an unbroken chain.

Everything you are, you owe to them. Your biological heritage – brain, limbs, heart, circulation, senses, breath. Your linguistic heritage – the capacity to speak and listen, the words you use to move and describe the world, your capacity to observe and make use of your observations to create and shape. The practices that help you navigate and make sense of the world, clothing, social structures, houses, technology. Narratives that give you an identity, a place to take up in the midst of the world’s complexity. Even your capacity to reinvent yourself, to reconfigure the world in ways they would never recognise – all bequeathed to you by them.

Can you allow yourself to experience for a moment the scale of that which stretches behind you? Its beauty and its extraordinary unlikeliness?

This great chain of life lies behind every moment of ordinary, everyday human life, our hopes and our struggles, our striving for progress. It is, always, what brought us to this moment. And when we allow ourselves to live with wonder at this long, long past that brings us life, when we have eyes to see behind us as well as in front of us, who might we become? What sense of support could this give us in a bewildering, mysterious and sometimes frightening world? And could cultivating behind-ness be part of our addressing the suffering and struggles of our own lives as well as the social, economic, and environmental difficulties that we’re living in at the moment? Might it help us to live more fully in life as it is, rather than rushing away from it to the future all the time?

Photograph by Angela Marie

Ahead

The idea of progress is so deeply built into our culture that most of us are conditioned always, and only, to look ahead. Our difficulties will be resolved, we tell ourselves, if only we work harder, or get clearer about what we want, if we can accumulate more, manage our time better, finish this project, get that job, win that customer. It seems so obvious, this idea that everything that human life and work is about is more, better, faster, and that we will only really live when we arrive in the future that it will bring.

The difference between what we imagine is supposed to happen and what often does can leave us feeling lifeless, depleted, shallow, resentful. And so we push harder, go faster, blame ourselves and others for our situation, because we believe we ought to be able to get just what we want. We become people with only an ahead, and we forget what is behind us. We become beings with no history to speak of, always judging life on where we have yet to get to, and excluding where we have been.

But it’s only one way of telling the story of a single life, or of a society, and it leaves so much out. For one thing, the world often doesn’t respond straightforwardly to our efforts in the way the story would have us believe should happen. How many countless hours of your effort leave the world just as it was before you started? For another, the story does not account for the events that were already in motion before we each arrived on the planet, out of which we were born and into which our lives are always unfolding, which are much bigger than each of us alone is able to see, let alone control.

Can you see the progress story acting in your own life, and what it brings? Can you imagine taking on a different story in which behind you and around you are as significant as ahead? A story in which you are an expression of, and always part of, something much bigger than you are that began long before you? And could you find a way of being fully, vibrantly present in your life even if it turned out that today – whatever it is like – is as good as it gets?

Why we need poetry

In the gardens of the hotel where I was running a leadership event earlier this week, I was lucky enough to come across the artist and poet Robert Montgomery setting up one of his evocative fire poems as part of an exhibition.

Good poetry does something vitally important that’s often unappreciated, expressing in language that which is otherwise very difficult to say in words. It can give us language for our longing, for new possibilities that we haven’t yet seen, and ways of connecting with and remembering our humanity when we’ve forgotten it ourselves.

We’ve all but excluded the poetic from our work lives – and from much of wider life – another consequence of our seeming commitment to reduce everything an everyone to an ‘it’ that can be measured and manipulated.

Robert’s work offers us a hauntingly beautiful alternative.

Here’s the poem I saw in the June twilight:

TO WAKE UP AND BE LIKE THE
WEATHER. TO BE NO LONGER THE
BROKEN HEARTED SERVANTS
OF MAD KINGS

Images courtesy of Robert Montgomery

Fighting with life

You might have more of a fight going on inside than you think, particularly if you’re set on never feeling certain kinds of feelings. Check it out – are you knotted up inside, like a clenched fist, determined to not let anything get to you?

If you’re always pushing away, how present to your life can you really be?

No, you didn’t choose the experience you’re having, and perhaps you’d prefer something different. But when you allow yourself to feel what’s actually happening in this moment you’ll bring yourself bracingly back in touch with your own life and with that of those around you. And in the end, that’s all that any of us ever really have.

Shining Eyes

When people are talking about a shared commitment that they genuinely care about, you can see it. Their eyes shine.

So it’s amazing what a high tolerance we’ve developed for dull, glazed-over stares in our meetings and activities at work. It’s as if we’re treating ourselves and others as machines… and that caring doesn’t come into it. Perhaps that’s exactly what we are doing.

Human beings are so full of life. It’s a tragedy that we settle so easily for working in a way that’s such a dull facsimile of it.

Seeing them again

People leave life without warning more often than we care to consider.

If you really understood each time you say goodbye to your friends, your loved ones, your colleagues that you might not see them again, what space in your heart could you allow for:

resentment
bitterness
cynicism
grudges?

Would it not be more fitting to fill with gratitude for their presence in your life? To be amazed that the tiny chance that you would coexist actually came to pass? To treat them with kindness?

And if not now, when?

Characters

Are other people really people to you?

Or are they just characters in a drama that has you in the central role?

If you’ll have them be people you’ll need to give up using them or trying to force them to suit the story you think you’re living out. You’re going to have to allow them the space to surprise you – again and again – and you’ll need to learn to listen for all the ways they’re not how you expected them to be, even if you’ve known them intimately for years. You’ll need to accord them the dignity of at least some of the time being a ‘you’ to your ‘I’, rather than an ‘it’.

If you do all of this, you can give up all the effort and vigilance it takes to have the story turn out always how you’re expecting it. And maybe you’ll also let people relax their attempts to have you fit in to their story too.

So much to do

When you’re overwhelmed it’s easy to blame how much you have to do on others. Yes, your boss, your colleagues, your customers and the state of the world all probably have something to do with it.

But maybe it’s time you started to look at your own part in your situation.

The first question to ask is whether you’re paying attention to what’s important or are trying to do everything. Developing your capacity to discriminate, to determine what actually makes a difference and what’s peripheral is foundational here. And it’s often not so easy to tell. So you may have to observe the effect of your actions over time and talk to people who are affected by the fruits of your work as you learn the discernment you need.

But, please, don’t stop there. Because the way you take on every possibility that comes your way is born of the story you have of what it is to be a person, and what it is to work. You might be working at being:

a noble hero: able to take on all difficulties, courageously keeping everything under control, ensuring everybody sees your unassailable strength, never letting on the difficulty you’re experiencing

the saviour: the only one who can do this. “I couldn’t possibly put anything down… they need me”

a martyr: trying to hold the burdens of the world, keeping everyone from harm, sacrificing yourself by scooping up all that needs to be done

Each of these identities will be doing something for you that you value. They can play a powerful role in generating self esteem, giving you a place in an uncertain world, and defending you from shame and embarrassment. It may well be the case that your colleagues are playing similar roles too, or playing their part by working to have you to stay in yours.

But each of them makes the space for discrimination very small indeed, and the possibility of putting anything down smaller still, because they call on you to push harder, go faster, and for longer in the face of difficulty.

Each adds to your suffering by promising that resolution will come soon: that if you’re strong enough, persistent enough, fast enough, sacrifice enough then eventually the world will stop making demands of you.

Usually, it’s the opposite that’s the case. The world will not stop with its demands, and pushing on relentlessly until it does leads eventually to exhaustion and resentment.

It’s time you started catching on to the way the identity you have taken up is part of the very difficulty that’s breaking you. If you weren’t a hero or martyr or saviour, who else could you be?

Somnolence

How awake to your life are you, really?

Can you tell what you’re up to, again and again? What’s actually happening in the world around you as a result?

Who you’re becoming?

And what about your responses to life, to others? What do you know about what triggers you, and from where your habitual reactions arise?

What do you know about your own courage? What supports and what diminishes it? And your love? Your despair, excitement, commitment, longing, rage, resentment and generosity?

Do you know what brings you close to others, and what pushes you further away? What opens you to the world and what hardens your defences? What cultivates truth, and what denial? And what vitalises you, brings you fully and vibrantly to life?

Without studying yourself, and studying life, you can easily sleepwalk through, awaking only when something big enough arrives to shake you out of your somnolence.

And by then, many days of life’s blazing brilliance might already have come and gone without you even noticing.