Habits that nourish you

Most of us have habits that put us to sleep, that we use to numb and soothe ourselves – and which, in the process, disengage us from life.

If you want to work with this, a productive place to start is to invent new habits that are genuinely nourishing and which you can put to work in replacing the old ones. A few ideas to start with:

begin a conversation with a friend or colleague
write in a journal – in ink, on good paper – whatever comes to mind
breathe – a long in-breath, a longer out-breath, two or three times
go and do some exercise – run, swim, walk
listen to a talk from a podcast
listen to some music that inspires you
take up a simple ten-minute meditation practice
write haiku
read poetry
read a novel, chapter by chapter
play
paint, draw, doodle, invent
post to a blog
study a new subject you’ve never looked at before
take breaks in which you eat, rest, talk
go outside and look at the sky for a few minutes
write a letter of gratitude to someone you love
volunteer some of your time to others, for nothing
allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling…
… and stay with it until it changes into something else

There are thousands of other possibilities of course, some which will suit you and and your circumstances more than others. But in case you can ask yourself – am I feeling more alive, more nourished, more courageous, more open to the world with the habits I’m cultivating, or less?

And if your habits are having you feel less alive, are you sure that’s a price worth paying?

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The habits that diminish you

What are the habits you have that diminish you?

It’s not so difficult to find out what they are. You’ll probably do them automatically, without thinking. They’ll soothe you in some way. And they’ll leave you afterwards with the vaguely queasy feeling of having wasted your time – they’re distracting rather than nourishing, numbing rather than enlivening, they cover up what’s going on rather than have you face it,  and they have you turn away from genuine connection with yourself and with other people.

A few candidates for you to consider:

checking your email in between other activities
checking your email in the middle of other activities
browsing facebook just in case there’s something interesting
scanning and rescanning the news headlines
or the weather report
eating whatever comes to hand
breaking off repeatedly to grab snacks or drinks
clenching your jaw, or tensing your shoulders
booking back to back meetings (because they need me there)
tuning out
editing and re-editing your ‘to do’ list
flicking from website to website
flicking from tv channel to tv channel
checking your email again

Each time you’re turning away from life, because you don’t want to have to feel whatever life is bringing you – perhaps anxiety, or boredom, or fear, or your tiredness, or being seen by others, or maybe even joy – and in turning away you’re profoundly reducing your capacity to engage.

For the moment, you’re soothed. But when you look back at the hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times that you’ve checked out in this way, can you honestly say it adds up to anything you care about?

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Headlong

What if, instead of rushing headlong into everything at such speed, you committed yourself to slowing down, just a little?

Yes, even you, with so many important and urgent projects and responsibilities to take care of that you don’t have a moment even to think.

How would a 5% reduction in pace be for you?

Walk just a little slower from meeting to meeting. Pause, just a little longer, before you speak. Breathe just a couple more breaths before you answer or make that call. Sit, for just a second to two, before you switch from one task to another. Listen, just a little more attentively, and let what the other person is saying sink in, for a moment longer, before you respond.

Open up a tiny space where there was none before.

You might imagine that nothing that’s important will get done if you commit to this, such is your certainty that there’s never enough time in any case.

But you could find that your relationships with others deepen, bit by bit, as they begin to feel your quality of contact with them deepen also; that you can be more genuinely responsive; and that you react in fewer of the predictable, automatic, indiscriminate ways that have become your habit over the years.

And you might discover that slowing down so you can be present to yourself and others actually makes it possible for you to get to more of what you really care about, rather than less.

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Everything you own

It’s easy to relate to the objects which fill our world as if they were just there – a taken for granted, already existing feature of human life.

But the materials in everything you own or use – everything – had to either be grown by somebody or dug out of the ground first. Even the most synthetic and complex of products start out this way. Growing and mining, the source of it all.

That’s quite a thought to consider. Take any object around you, from the smallest bolt to the tallest building, and imagine back through the long and complex chain of people and interlocking processes to the raw materials that came from the earth itself.

Remembering the source of everything, and the commitment and ingenuity that makes it all possible, can be a way of cultivating deep gratitude and wonder that any of it is available to you in the first place.

These must be more possibility-filled moods than the resentment or frustration we can so readily feel at all the products that don’t work as expected, at the chaos of the world, at the sheer everyday humdrum repetitive ordinariness of things. And gratitude, for this aspect of life’s many wonders, can go a long way to awakening the sense of possibility, responsibility and focussed commitment we need in order to do our best work and inspire others.

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Thresholds

mezuzah

In Judaism, it’s traditional practice to attach a small ornamented fixture to each doorframe, a mezuzah, inside of which is a scroll handwritten by a scribe who’s dedicated themselves to their craft.

One reason for this, among others, is to mark out transition places, the thresholds between one space and another, with a call to remember. You can see people touching them as they walk past, honouring this and reminding themselves – remembering – their deepest commitments.

Mostly we don’t give thresholds the attention they’re due. How often we sleepwalk from activity to activity, meeting to meeting, work to home, taking what hooked us or preoccupied us from one place to to the next, reacting to each situation from the frustrations of the last. It’s as if, for many of us, we’re never quite here in what we do and neither fully in contact with the people we encounter. And we miss the opportunity to use the liminal spaces – the transitions between one place and another – to return to ourselves and to what we most care about.

Thesholds – in space and in time – are sacred places in the way that they invite us to pause on the brink, before moving on. They call on us remember ourselves, to drop our preconceptions, judgements and our self-absorption so we can fully meet the situation that awaits. They call on us to be open and impressionable, ready to encounter something new.

Approached in this manner, thresholds are an opportunity to wake up to this situation, to these people, to stop rushing all the time so we can be in it all afresh, present and responsive to whatever’s coming.

When you walk into your house at the end of a long day, can you pause in this way to mark the magnitude of the transition from one world to another that you are about to make? Then you can meet the people waiting there for you with your own genuine face, and with your love for them, and they in turn can meet you with theirs.

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Nothing to be done

“There’s nothing that can be done. It’s just the way it is”

The moment you say this about the situation you’re in, particularly if you’re in a position to lead or influence people, you close the door to many possibilities. Mostly, you’re inviting a mood of resignation, and you’re turning away from sincere inquiry into all the different angles and interpretations that you haven’t yet seen.

What brought about this situation?
How important is it to us?
What’s my part in it? Our part? Our culture’s part?
What don’t we understand yet?
What are we afraid of?
What are we trying to protect? deny?
Where did our story that there’s nothing to be done come from?
Is it true? How did we get to take it up?
What’s at stake here?
What do we really want to happen?
What’s missing?
What’s possible now?

Of course, there are genuine situations in which nothing can be done and in which it is just the way it is. But much less often than you might think.

And when that’s the case, your insistence that things are unchangeable is really just a way of getting yourself off the hook. Because if it’s just the way it is, there’s nothing you’ll have to do, and you won’t have to face your fear.

Or maybe it’s just your way of keeping things the way you want them while you rob others of their power to act.

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More more more

We’ve built our culture on the premise that more is always better. That there’s no such thing as enough.

We think we’d be better off we had more time, more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, the latest fashion, the newest smartphone, a bigger job, more market share, more efficiency. We construct our lives around this premise and we construct our organisations, institutions, and politics around it too. It’s endemic.

We’ve even gone as far as to relabel ourselves in this fashion. We’re no longer people but consumers. Without acknowledging how demeaning it is to be understood as yawning open mouths sated only by the arrival of more stuff, companies and politicians refer to us in this way – and we take it. Once upon a time we used to be citizens, but you’ll have to listen hard to hear that in our public discourse these days.

All of this ‘more’ seems so obvious, and so unquestionable, we can’t see what it’s doing to us. We can’t see the way it has us relate to the whole of life as if there were not enough. Not enough time, not enough space, not enough shiny things, not enough holidays, not enough growth, not enough experiences. We can’t see how it has us hoard our possessions such that many of us have way more than we require, while others cannot meet their basic needs. We can’t see how it has us work like machines, ignoring our families, our loved ones, our friends, our relationship with nature, with art, with stillness, with beauty. We can’t see how our obsession with more fuels the degradation of the environment in which we live, and of the bodies that support us. We can’t see how our sense of lack, even when all our basic needs are more than fulfilled, eats away at our lives and our experience of living.

If you look closely at life, you’ll find that once you’ve satisfied your basic, most essential needs, acquiring more on its own rarely – if ever – produces the fulfilment and feeling of safety you’ve been longing for. Or if it does, it doesn’t last for very long, replaced as it is by a gnawing anxiety that what you now have still isn’t enough.

Only when you start to see the hollowness of the ‘more’ narrative we’re all living in can you also begin to see what’s genuinely satisfying. Deep, truthful, courageous relationships. Community. Seeing and being seen. Serving others wholeheartedly, and accepting the gifts of others’ service. Finding your voice, your unique contribution, and bringing it. Curiosity and wonder. Being part of a commitment bigger than yourself. Slowing down enough to be present in life rather than ever absent from it.

The best question to ask yourself when you are caught up in the spiral of more is ‘for the sake of what?’. If your only answer is ‘so I can have more’ or ‘because I want it’ you’d better ask again. Perhaps you’ll find a genuine, honest answer why more is necessary. But if you can’t find one perhaps it’s time to turn away from what you’re so sure you must have, and into life itself.

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Finding your voice

Right now, we urgently need you to find your voice, to find a way of saying what perhaps only you can say, to show us what you can see.

Mostly we’ve been taught not to do this, in the name of appropriateness, or fitting in, or taking up the place that others have made for us.

But, as it turns out, sometimes you’re carrying the missing pieces that perfectly fit other people’s unsolved jigsaw puzzles. Or, put another way: if you leave unsaid that which could have been spoken with integrity and generosity, you’re withholding from each of us  that which we might not discover on our own.

Or, another way: sometimes what you have to say – that might seem obvious to you – can change the course of a life, or lives.

My friend and colleague James Flaherty has written eloquently about this on his blog this week. Please read it.

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Spontaneity

We’re all inevitably shaped by our practices, the actions we take again and again as we navigate our way through our life, work and culture.

It is, as Aristotle said, that we become what we repeatedly do.

For good reason, most of us have endless practices that cultivate appropriateness. We practice what to say when, how to censor ourselves, how to appear acceptable to others and avoid embarrassment or shame or ridicule. And we rely on all of these to have our world be navigable and intelligible, to give us a sense of where we stand and what to expect when we’re with people.

But appropriateness and spontaneity are antagonistic to one another.

Appropriateness says “Not that, not now”. It’s an ally of the inner critic.
Spontaneity “I wonder what will happen if I do this?”
Appropriateness: “I’ll only speak when it’s safe.”
Spontaneity: “I’ll say what needs saying”.

Without spontaneity – the capacity to respond creatively to what’s needed right now, rather than what’s expected or has been done in the past – it’s harder to make your contribution, address the tough problems of your organisation, respond to difficulty, be courageous or support others fully. Without spontaneity how can you expect the extraordinary creativity and ingenuity available to you and those around you to find its place in the world?

And if you agree that you need it, what are you practicing to make it possible?

[if you’re interested in developing spontaneity, and don’t know where to start, you could join a comedy improv class, take up a martial art in which you spar with others, try freefall writing, take up an artistic practice, or become an explorer of the world around you]

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Clinging

Have you noticed that the harder you cling to things not being a particular way, the more you tend to encounter exactly what it is you’re trying to avoid?

If you cling hard to staying safe, you get to see mostly how dangerous everything is.

If you cling hard to avoiding shame or embarrassment, every interaction becomes a possibility for being exposed.

If you cling hard to being loved by everyone, all the ways people are uncomfortable, disapproving, or withholding of affection show up for you.

The harder you cling to your resentment, the more the selfishness and hurtfulness of the person you’re resenting becomes apparent in your world.

The more closely you micromanage your team, in an attempt to have everything work out just so, the less the responsibility and creativity people can muster.

The more you insist that your colleagues, or your lover, or your children, are flawless, the more all the ways they fall short show up for you.

It’s as Tim Minchin sings in this beautiful song,

the weirdest thing is that our house
has locks to keep the baddies out
that are mostly used to lock ourselves in

Sometimes you have to let go of your insistence that the world meet you on your terms, and take life on as it actually is. And then, paradoxically, you make it possible for things to show up sometimes, amidst everything, exactly as you hoped they would.

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Stockholm

In Stockholm Syndrome, people taken captive start to feel connected to their captors. Sometimes this even takes the form of love, a deep affection, a sense of dependence.

So it is with the stories out of which we live, the identities we take on. In one way, our storied account of ourselves frees us to take on all kinds of actions and relationships. But in another way, we can become so close to our stories that we come to treasure also the way that they bind us and restrict us. In keeping us captive, the stories we have about ourselves give us the feeling of being safe.

And so we start to depend upon our stories, to the extent that we can no longer tolerate the possibility that we could be anything else.

“This is what I can do, and this is what I cannot”, we say,  sometimes quietly just to ourselves “because can’t you see I’m…

an executive
a mother
so competitive
a failure
disorganised
a dutiful son
very busy
proud
highly competitive
an upstanding member of my community
guilty
trying to make things right
the breadwinner”

But you are not simply the stories you have about yourself. You never were.

Beyond all stories, beyond all accounts, you’re something much more enduring, much more mysterious, and much more alive.

When your stories start to reveal themselves as a cage, for the first time you open yourself up to the possibility of freeing yourself – always into another story, but perhaps a bigger, more generous, more compassionate and possibility filled account of what it is to be you.

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Rushing

Why is it that you’re rushing all the time?

When was it that you took on the idea that time is scarce in this way? Surely, that’s not the way it was when you first arrived in the world.

Can you see the consequences of doing all your work and living your life as if there’s never enough time available for you? For your colleagues? Your family? How long can this go on before it causes you and others harm? What harm is it doing already?

What would happen if you cultivated an understanding of how long things really take, and then acted on it, rather than trying to squeeze everything in?

You might have to slow down.

You might have to breathe.

You might even have to stop occasionally.

Maybe then you could give up the constant stream of inner criticism (you weren’t efficient enough, diligent enough, capable enough), and your matching judgement of others when they don’t meet your punishing standards. Maybe you could give your body the rest and nurture that’s needed to do anything well. Maybe you’ll find that the quality of your work, your art, your contribution improves beyond your imagining. Your relationships too.

Maybe this would also make it possible for you to lead others in a way that’s not only sustainable but life-giving.

We’ve built a world based on the idea that faster is always better, and that however fast we go is never fast enough. And we’ve bought it. But while this account promises us more of what we think we want, it robs us of being in contact with ourselves, with others, and with life.

And given that life is the source of all your endeavours, isn’t it time you looked again at the way you’re going about things?

Perhaps you’ll find that there’s just time enough for everything that really matters to happen.

[Here’s a beautiful poem by Robert Bly, ‘Things to Think’, that points in to what I’m saying]

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Nobody listening

If you’re frustrated that what you’re asking others to do isn’t happening, you might start by finding out whether anyone is listening.

You won’t have listeners if you make requests of people when they’re overwhelmed by other priorities.

You won’t have listeners if you ask people by sending out emails and hoping they get read. Whole organisations are run this way, but we all have more than enough emails already, so it’s no wonder you’re finding it difficult to make things happen.

You won’t have a listener if you make a request that makes sense to you but doesn’t address concerns that are important in my world.

In each case you’re asking, but you haven’t taken responsibility for having a listener who’s able to hear you. And it is your responsibility.

Perhaps you’re doing this on purpose: after all if you can’t be heard or understood you can blame others for their inattentiveness and unreliability. And you won’t have to face the perhaps difficult consequences of what you’ve asked for actually happening. None of this will get you any closer to what matters to you.

If you really want people to take seriously what you’re asking, you’re going to have to work to enrol them. And that means understanding them deeply enough to know what’s important to them, and speaking in a way that can be heard and understood. This is what it takes to have a listener who both wants and is able to hear you. And only then will you start to see your requests produce the results you deserve.

Photo: by Aussiegall at flickr.com

Alternative rules – a manifesto

A manifesto for those of us who think the rules of the industrial age economy stifle the ingenuity, courage and creativity we need. A set of alternative rules to live and work by:

Be courageous. Be genuine.
Step out from behind the mask. Stand out.
Speak truth. Listen deeply. Cultivate wisdom and compassion.
Get committed to something bigger than you, your family, your tribe.
Bring your humanity. Build trust. Connect people.
Turn towards life. Wonder.
Ask questions. Learn to see. Teach.
Commit yourself to courageous integrity rather than approval.
Lead. Create art.
Encourage others to do the same.

Not for everyone, perhaps, and certainly not easy to take up on your own, but orienting this way can make a huge difference to what’s possible for you and for those around you.

In the shaking-up, always-connected economy we’re in, the beginnings of a whole new orientation to work and business and commerce, we need people to be their most creative, most human, most generous and most artful.

Do the rules you’re living by make this possible?

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What they told us

Here’s what they told us:

Be clever. Be good. Get ahead.
Fit in. Follow the rules we make for you.
Be safe rather than sorry.
Look busy.
Care about what we tell you to care about. Value what we value.
Leave your real passions out of it.
Stand out, but only in a way that increases productivity.
Don’t cause trouble.
Hide what most makes you you.
Say yes, when asked by someone further up the ladder.
Find ways to get others to do what you want.
Judge yourself and others relentlessly by their performance.
Expect others to do the same.

These are the rules brought to the world by the industrialists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They invented large organisations, mass production and  management. And these in turn have brought enormous progress in living standards, healthcare, and the widespread availability of products.

We believed that if we followed these rules, everything would work out ok for us. And, for a while perhaps, there was some truth in the claim. A job for life, and all that. A ladder that could be climbed through diligence and obedience.

But are these rules working out for you, today?

Mostly, the rules served the creators of the industrial machine. They had us take up the places they’d made for us, and in the process leave so much of ourselves out, so we could fit into what they’d designed.

The rules have had us stifle our courage and be cautious about our connections with people. They’ve encouraged us to be predictable and safe. They’ve turned us into managers, making sure everything happens reliably, rather than leaders, making it possible to enter new territory together. And, crucially, it’s made it hard to bring our most generous, wholehearted contribution.

Can you honestly say the rules you’re following bring out the creativity and ingenuity we need from you? The fullest, most courageous contribution in the people who work with you? And do they actually give you the safety and security you long for?

And if not, why are you still following them and expecting others to do the same?

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In touch with life

I know, you’re busy. You have so very much that’s important to do. And never enough time to do it all.

But when, in the midst of all of this, do you remind yourself that you’re alive? That you’re not just a machine for hitting targets, for production, for getting things done?

When do you:

look up at the sky, to take in the beauty of the clouds and sun?
gaze at the stars, allowing yourself to be swept away by their mystery?
hold your loved ones close, just for the sake of holding?
walk among trees and fields, reminding yourself of your place in the world?
allow your heart to be stirred by music, poetry, literature, film?
sit up at night doing the simple jobs of home life?
listen to your colleagues to hear the life that’s behind their work?
take in, with wide soft eyes, the magnificent complexity of your organisation?
sit quietly, nothing to do?
feel your body move, stretch, breathe?
allow yourself to be touched by life?

All of this is important, because your leadership, your creativity, and your contribution to others will be strengthened immensely by a life that allows you to live. And when you’re doing without pause, it’s so easy to forget that it’s life that’s always the source of everything you’re up to.

Lazy, incompetent, distracted

When what you want so much to happen isn’t getting done, it’s all too easy to judge others.

They’re lazy, incompetent, distracted. They don’t listen.

The biggest problem with each of these responses is that they leave you with so few options for improving things. Your judgements of others get you off the hook by taking all the responsibility away from you.

Perhaps what you want to happen isn’t getting done because you’re not making skilful enough requests. So try giving up your judgements in favour of working on how effectively you ask for what you want, and how skilfully you’re able to tell what your requests are meaning to other people.

If you do this, you might just find more of what’s important to you happening. And, even better, as you drop your judgements you’ll be building deeper, stronger relationships with the people around you too.

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Life’s invitation

How would it be if, instead of your enchantment with all that can distract you:

gadgets
email
the latest fashion
the results for the next quarter
YouTube
your company’s share price
this week’s celebrity gossip
the house your friends have

you instead allowed yourself to be enchanted by people and by life?

Surely there’s enough in those two possibilities to fascinate and draw you in for more than a lifetime?

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Life looking back at life

How extraordinary that the fundamental constituents of everything – quarks, neutrinos, bosons, electrons – made a universe in which it was possible for human beings to arise.

We, beings with the intelligence, creativity and ingenuity from early on to build tools, and make art.

We, inventing devices to look back to the dawn of time and into the structure of matter so that, at last, the particles that gave rise to all of it can be seen.

Surely we are life’s own way of looking out at the universe, and back again at life.

And how often we forget the wonder of it all in the thrum and thrall of everyday existence.

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Biological

You might like to deny it, but there’s no way of escaping that you’re a biological being.

This means you’re subject to all of the realities of biological life. You were born, and one day you’ll die. You’ll get ill. You will age. You must eat, sleep, exercise and rest sufficiently. All this to maintain your capacity to move in the world, to allow your body to repair itself. And if you don’t, your strength and vitality will diminish more quickly than otherwise, atrophying over time. You’ll become prone to the diseases and ailments that your body was once able to defend itself against.

And because you’re also a mammal you will need nurturing relationships and connection with others – the foundation stone of what distinguishes mammals from all other creatures.

Because you’re human you need art, inspiration, music, beauty, meaning, community, and society.

You are not a machine, nor a brain simply carried around from meeting to meeting by your body. If you treat yourself as such, as seems to be called on by so many organisations, you’ll eventually and inescapably suffer the consequences.

And if you treat others as such, you’ll surely rob them of the greatest contribution they have to bring your organisation – the vibrancy and creativity of their life itself.

Disclosive Space

Have you noticed that there are people around whom things get said that matter?

It’s as if their way of being in the world is a huge invitation to speak, to say what’s true. People like this offer us safe ground on which to stand, and space into which to articulate what’s important, without fear of judgement or rejection.

They make it possible for us to say what we didn’t know even needed saying, and in the process to discover much about who we are and what we’re up to.

You could say that people like this are a disclosive space for others.

It is possible to cultivate this way of being over time, if you wish. It takes attending to the discipline of listening, of course. And beyond that it takes working on:

presence – the capacity to be here, in this moment, and nowhere else, even in the midst of strong emotions

compassion – the commitment understand and respond to others’ worlds, even if radically different from your own

attunement – the ability to discern what other people are feeling, and how they’re orienting to the world, which may be very different to what they’re saying

Of course, there are also people who, simply by their way of being with others, close down the possibility of speaking. Their defendedness, their judgement, or their distraction speaks volumes to us about what’s possible in their presence. Around such people the truth of what’s happening gets covered over, hidden away.

So being a disclosive space for others is foundational for leadership. It makes it possible for people to make their most important, most creative and truest contribution. And it’s foundational for being in relationship, for parenting, for teaching, for coaching.

Are you even working on this yet?

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Irritating

Your team weren’t nearly as excited as you wanted them to be about your proposal.

Your colleagues didn’t deliver the report you were relying on.

The company changed its plans and now some of the work you did isn’t needed.

There were 300 mails in your inbox this morning.

The shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall.

You’re leaving the house in a hurry and you can’t find your keys.

The train was three minutes late.

An accident ahead of you held you up on the way to work.

You got ill and had to stop everything for a while.

Isn’t the world supremely irritating at times? Sometimes it’s downright exasperating. And there are times – perhaps often – when you just know that everybody and everything is out to get you.

A huge move, that will free up so much, is to begin to distinguish between what’s observable in the world, and what’s your assessment of it. What’s observable is what you could bank on others being able to see too, even those with very different personality or preferences to you. And your assessment is the interpretation that you bring to bear on it.

You can start to see just what a powerful role your assessments have by considering how other people would be in the same situation.

Stuck in the car, in traffic, you might rage at the frustration, the unfairness, the sheer wilfulness of others to get in your way. All of which does much to stir you up and little to address the situation. Or perhaps you’ll take the jam to be part of a much bigger picture that’s far beyond your control, and figure out how to use the time for something that’s genuinely of value.

When your team didn’t go for your proposal, you could blame them, judge them for their incompetence and laziness, and let them have the full force of your disapproval – all of which is likely to stir up judgement, blame and resentment in them too. Or you can get curious. Find out what your part is in it all (perhaps you didn’t make your original request skilfully) and what’s going on for them that had them take up something else they felt was important.

When the shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall, you can strop and strut and despair that nobody in your family seems to care about the home you live in, or start to look for the myriad other ways they’re already expressing their love and commitment to family life.

In every case, start to see that it’s not the world that is irritating, but that it’s you who is irritated. The arrangement of the world (observable). Your irritation (an assessment).

When you can own your assessments as yours, you can find out that there are assessments that bind you up tight and others that free you to act. And when you have your assessments rather than being had by them, you’ll find you’re way more flexible and powerful in moving the world than you’ve realised so far.

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Learn with me

Two posts today. This first, an opportunity to tell you about some ways you could come and learn with me in London in the coming months.

From September 9-11 I’ll be running, with my friend and colleague Clare Chandler, a three-day introduction to integral development coaching: a way of supporting others in their development that’s profound, rigorous and pragmatic. The programme’s suitable for anyone who’s interested in the development of the people around them: including organisational leaders, coaches, people who’d like to be coaches, HR professionals, doctors, teachers etc. You can find the details here.

And we’ll have a slightly trimmed down two-day version of the same programme on November 4-5.

Then in late November, we’ll be joined by James Flaherty for the start of our year-long Professional Coaching Course, also suitable for anyone who cares about the development of others and of themselves. It’s an absolutely extraordinary programme that produces people who can skilfully make a huge difference to others, and it changes lives. There’s a description and details of the programme here.

I’m looking forward to meeting some of you there.

The condition you’re in

Do you know what condition you’re in?

If you’re one of the many people who never stops – at work, at home, at play – it might not be apparent to you.

You could try this simple experiment: sit down for 10 full minutes, quietly, with nothing to do. Allow yourself to feel what’s going on in your body as you do this.

Does even being invited into this appall you? Does your body tense up at the prospect of being still for a while?

Sit. Now does your tiredness rise like the tide? Can you feel it? Or the sadness that has been there for so long? The resignation, resentment, frustration? The joy, gratitude, hope? Which?

Which?

Your addiction to busyness, endemic in our culture and in our organisations, is supremely effective in turning you away from how you really feel, a numbing of yourself under the guise of productivity. And if you look, really closely, you might find it’s not quite the productivity you’ve taken it to be.

We’ve lost sight of this so much that busyness has, for many people, become unquestionable. We don’t have a clue that there might be any other way to be.

Does it seem that way to you?

This is a question of utmost importance. The squandering of our time – and the huge pull on the resources of the world in running around in this frantic way – add up to a tragic missed opportunity to actually live. Which, in the end, is the biggest and most important opportunity any of us have.

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Speaking

When you’re speaking you might think that mostly what’s going on is the transfer of information, from your head into the head of another.

But understanding speaking in this way misses what’s most important about us.

We’re not computers – or anything like them – filled with information or data that can be transferred seamlessly, with unimpaired fidelity, from brain to brain. We’re people, each with our own world: a rich, complex web of meaning, understanding, practices and relationships that is inescapably part of each of us.

When you speak to another you’re not downloading information. You’re speaking from your world into their world, a world which might share much with yours but is also unknowable, vast, and more different from yours than you can imagine. And each time your speaking evokes the meaning, possibility and understanding that arises in their world, rather than yours.

When you begin to see this, you’ll appreciate just how different from you others can be. Then you can give up repeating yourself again and again, or blaming others for not understanding you.

Instead, you’ll work on developing your listening, so that the world of others becomes more available to you, and your creativity, so you can find ever new forms of expression that can reach across worlds and have the possibilities you long for come to pass.

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Tide

There’s a story widely told about King Canute, the ruler of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden in the early 11th century.

Perhaps you know it already. Canute takes his throne, courtiers and officials to the ocean shore and, setting himself at the boundary of the rising tide, commands the sea to turn back. Before long, all of them are knee deep in water and, in the popular telling, Canute’s arrogance is revealed to all, leading eventually to his downfall.

But the popular myth is only one telling. In another account, Canute uses the event to show his followers that there’s a limit even to the power of kings – that there are forces in our lives which, despite our most strenuous efforts, cannot be overcome.

More often than not, we’re like the Canute of the first story. We push against life, demanding that it meet us on our terms, insisting that it unfold at our pace, commanding that it give us what we want – and damning it, raging against it when it doesn’t comply. We misunderstand our enormous power to take charge of our lives as the power to take charge of life itself.

But just like the tide, life has a way of happening regardless of our actions, regardless of our wishing that it were not the case, regardless of whether we like it. Our fighting is the root of enormous suffering and wastes so much of the precious contribution the world needs from each of us.

Canute the second calls on us to see this, and to turn into life rather than push against it – to marshal its enormous power to propel us more deeply into the world. When we give up our shrill cry of “how dare this happen to me?“, abandon the fight, and turn instead with our deepest acceptance, compassion and courage back into the stream of life as it happens, whatever that brings: this is when we’re able to harness life’s forces as our own, and when we’ve first stepped into the true power that is everyone’s heritage.

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Remembering

In an ancient Jewish myth, before we’re born a light is held behind our head so we can see the whole world, from end to end.

And then an angel touches us on the lips, and everything is forgotten.

Isn’t that how life is for us? Born into the world as shining beings, with our own unique form, our own character and gifts, we quickly learn to cover ourselves up in order to fit in. Because the family we’re born into already has its own culture, norms, language, and its own ways of celebrating and suppressing what we have to bring. So does the wider culture. And before we know it we’re thrown into all of this, finding out which parts of us we can safely bring forward and which are too much for others to take.

From the moment we arrive, we’re forgetting ourselves, taking on what ‘one does’ in our society to get along, leaving much out, in order to make our way.

And the task of adulthood, that allows us to bring our truest and most authentic gifts to the service of others, is to work always to remember what has been forgotten, that which was really right in front of us all along.

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Enchanted

Does the way you use technology send you to sleep or awaken you to life?

It’s not a trivial question. Despite the extraordinary life-giving capacity of the devices that surround us to liberate us, to educate us, to connect us to one another, many of us use them to numb ourselves, to soothe ourselves, to prevent us from the risky and rewarding act of being in contact with ourselves, in contact with our fears, and in contact with others.

We’ve become enchanted. It’s not so different from the enchantments in the old fairy stories, in which a prince or princess would fall asleep to life until awakened by a kiss.

When you look back at the hours scrolling through facebook posts and cruising YouTube clips, your incessant checking of your email, the evenings carried away by whatever happened to be on TV, what will it amount to?

More importantly, does what you’re doing actually address the concerns you’re numbing yourself to by being enchanted in this way?

And what will it take for you to feel the awakening kiss that life is already and always in the midst of giving you?

Uniform off

We wear uniforms to signal that we expect to be treated – or to treat others – in a particular way. See how:

someone in street-cleaners’ uniform melts into the background, getting on with their work perhaps without interacting with other people at all;

a police officer in uniform can stop your car, arrest you, or provide certain kinds of assistance;

a business suit marks out someone who’s there to talk about the concerns arising from their work, rather than the everyday;

in a hospital the whites of the doctors distinguish them from the gowns of the patients in a way that shapes a hierarchy of care – who gets to help and prescribe and who gets to receive;

In each case the uniform provides a short-cut to a particular style of interaction while actively shaping you – your attitudes, moods, possibilities, identity – at least for as long as the uniform is on, and often for long afterwards.

Of course, you don’t have to be wearing a physical uniform at all for any of this to happen. Your office, your desk, your job title, your qualifications, the organisation you work in – all these can function as uniform.

And while the role of all these uniforms can be to point us towards certain ways of relating and talking, to open up possibilities for conversation and service to one another, very frequently the uniform becomes an invitation to treat others as something other than a full human being, to stop us from seeing one another.

Hence:

executives who treat their company’s clients or customers as statistics, as commodities, as ‘consumers’ rather than as people to be served;

physicians who come to treat their patients as particular organs, or bodies to be fixed, rather than human beings who might be scared, lonely, confused, suffering;

leaders who treat the people who work with them as ‘resources’ or ‘capital’ as if they were substances or objects;

and then:

politicians who treat the people who elected them as a means to generate money, prestige or personal power;

and further:

military designers who spend their days inventing land-mines or, more recently, autonomous killing robots as if these were just interesting design projects or a way to earn a living and not targeted, in the end, at real living human beings.

Each of these requires an I-It relationship with the world: a wilful forgetting of what people are, a turning away rather than addressing whole human beings with histories, cares, hopes, dignity and relationships shaped by meaning and possibility. And each requires a forgetting of ourselves in order to orient to others in this detached way, a forgetting that can lead us to cause all kinds of suffering.

And then, at the end of the day, perhaps you get to take the uniform off and greet your loved ones – your partner, your children – as people. As full, complex, dignified, precious, cherished human beings.

And here, perhaps, is the source of some hope that we can foster a different way of relating to customers, clients, patients, colleagues, electorate, world. It takes us remembering in our uniformed state that the people we’re diminishing are people, just as our loved ones are people.

By consciously cultivating a ‘uniform off’ way of relating to others in the midst of our work, one that calls us back into our humanity, fiercely, courageously, and compassionately – and by demanding that others do the same – we’ll have a better chance of creating institutions that serve the world’s needs instead of the narrow desires and self-interest of their creators.

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Faking it

See how often you fake your responses to others so that you can feel better.

How about when you say yes

to silence your inner critic

to quiet someone’s anger or strident insistence

to keep up the image you have of yourself as a hero or rescuer

to keep up the image you think others have of you

to avoid the anxiety you feel when you’re not busy

to give yourself the momentary gratification of being a helpful person?

Each one of these is a yes that serves to spare you from experiences you don’t like, rather than a sincere, heartfelt generous response to another or to a possibility that’s presenting itself. And each one ties you in to a commitment, a promise, that you didn’t fully mean to make.

Imagine the waste when life, or your work, or the work of a whole organisation is built on commitments like this: commitments that weren’t sincere.

And if you give yourself up repeatedly in this way, what kind of life are you living? What kind of work are you doing? Most probably the life and work of someone who’s holding back a large part of their most genuine, courageous and most needed contribution to the world, so that that they can instead do the work of saving themselves from feelings they’d prefer not to have.