Blessings

emmariver

In the Jewish tradition, as in other religious and spiritual traditions, there is a blessing that can be said for pretty much anything. A blessing for waking up, and a blessing for going to sleep. A blessing for sunsets and for lightning. Blessings for food and for rainbows. Blessings for new clothes, for reaching special days, and for anniversaries. Blessings for the bathroom. Blessings for encountering others. Blessings, even, for bad news and for dying.

The simplest way to understand blessings is as an act of thanks. But they’re also a practice in remembering what is so easily forgotten – that even the humdrum and mundane is neither humdrum nor mundane. And they’re a practice in noticing all those phenomena and entities which are often in the background for us but upon which all of life is standing. In this sense blessings require no belief in a deity but simply a commitment to marvel at life’s sheer beauty and complexity. They are a practice in staying awake. They are an invitation to live in a state of what Abraham Joshua Heschel called a state of ‘radical amazement’.

The rabbinic tradition invites people to say at least a hundred blessings a day. What would become possible, I wonder, if just now and again we each started to look at what’s become most ordinary and most unremarkable in our lives, perhaps even that which we’ve come to resent, and turned to wonder at the blessing within?

Photo Credit: by Emma Gregory, herself one of life’s blessings

And this short interview with Alice Herz-Sommer is a striking example of what a life lived through the eyes of blessing can be:

Working with the critic

When you’re apparently under attack from others, a large part of your difficulty might be coming from your own inner critic. So there’s much to be gained by studying all the ways it’s in play.

You could start simply by noticing what the critic has to say: the endless stream of criticism and judgement in your thoughts, and its absolute commitment to your unworthiness.

Write it down, verbatim, and just look at all the exaggeration, wild fantasy, fearfulness, and overblown certainty. Read it back to yourself. Then it back to yourself or someone else again, this time in a comedy voice (which can do a great job of showing you all that is crazy about the claims it’s making).

And then, understand this:

  • this voice is not you, but just a part of you
  • you did nothing wrong (or right) to get it – it’s part of the human heritage
  • nobody who is human, no matter how successful or powerful, escaped having this
  • most of us are very good at hiding it from others
  • it’s not helping you – even though it claims you need it
  • you don’t have to listen

This, the last point, is the one to work on most rigorously. Because when you stop listening to the voice of your inner critic as if it were the truth you’ll discover that you can start to listen to the actual voice of others at last.

And instead of collapsing or raging or tuning out, you’ll have the opportunity to deepen your connection and to learn together about this strange, crazy, necessary and life-giving phenomenon we call human relating.

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Under attack

It is, it seems, an unavoidable part of the human condition to have a super-ego or inner critic, a part of you that is directed towards keeping you within certain bounds of appropriateness at all times.

Long ago, when you were very small, you needed the adults around you to do this for you but now you’ve internalised those voices, or at least a distorted version of them, and they’re quite able to keep you in line even when there’s nobody else around.

And now, that harsh inner voice, the voice that can wound you at the slightest opportunity, is vigilantly on the look-out for the signs of disapproval from others that it takes as evidence of your shortcomings. Before you’ve even thought about it, it has inserted its judgements into your stream of thoughts, scolding you, judging others. That raised eyebrow? It’s because you irritate her, obviously. That offhand comment? You’re clearly an idiot. When she didn’t congratulate you on your work? Because you’re not up to much. He didn’t return your call? Because you’ve let him down.

None of these, I hope you can see, are necessarily the case.

The inner critic can turn even the most innocuous of comments into a perceived attack, and amplify a genuine attack so that it’s much more wounding than the attacker intended. And then, you’ll collapse and deflate, or rise in rage and indignation, and the strength of your reaction will surprise both you and your interlocutor.

And, in many cases, you’ll be reacting not to them at all but to this phenomenon that’s going on inside you.

Being under attack from others is made so much more difficult by the relentless attack you’re under from yourself.

By doing

We’ve been taught to wait, to amass knowledge, and to know for sure what it is we’re doing before we leap in.

We’ve been taught that the only time to do something genuinely skilful, risky and creative – in other words anything that can make a contribution to the state of things – is when we know how to do it already.

It’s ample fuel for the inner critic, the part of us that would have us hold back until everything is just right

And it has us hold others back too.

But, as Aristotle reminds us, when it comes to mastery the paradox is that

“the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing“.

In other words, we have to jump right in, long before we have any skill, make many mistakes, and hang on in the face of our own demons, other people’s criticism, and the many occasions we’ll mess it up.

Does your work, your organisation, your leadership, your life allow any space for this?

Or are you keeping yourself and everyone around you in a tight circle of safe, predictable reliability?

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Frustration

Frustration: a yearning for something that seems always just out of reach. It’s one part desire, and another part despair.

Intense, maddening, and in turns deflating, frustration brings the object of your desire to the centre of your attention. It shapes thoughts, tightens body. It has you thrash and complain. And it narrows your focus so that while it’s in full swing, the rest of life is registered only dimly.

Most surprising about frustration is its capacity to have you destroy the very thing you want so much:

The relationship in which you’re longing for respect and trust, undone by your judgments, accusations and harsh words.

The project you want to bring to the world derailed by your insistence and unreasonableness.

The art you’re creating undone by distraction and procrastination.

… which might not be as illogical as it sounds, at least at the moment of action, when destruction looks preferable to the despair of continual failure.

But, like all moods, frustration is an angle on the world, not the world itself. It conceals much, even as it reveals powerfully what you care about.

If you’re able to tell that you’re in it, you may be able to open yourself to the insight that it brings, and also to its narrowness. And from there, the possibility of seeing things from a wider perspective arises – the perspective that other moods such as gratitude, kindness, simple anger or hope could bring to the self-same situation.

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Conversations are like crossroads

Every conversation you have with others is a crossroad.

Which direction you take matters because, over time, the choices add up to something – a something we often call relationship.

Are you paying attention to the path you’re forging with your colleagues, friends, family?

And are you sure that, if you continue as you are, you’re prepared to live with the consequences?

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On difficulty and understanding

As we encounter each of life’s difficulties, we get to choose:

Consider ourselves cursed or mistreated, as if we are owed freedom from hurt, pain or confusion. As if life owes us happiness. As if we are meant to be in control of everything. This is, essentially, a fight against life as it is.

Or draw on difficulty as part of life’s path, an opportunity to turn more deeply into life rather than away from it.

And while, with each successive difficulty or joy, we find that we understand life’s movement less and less, perhaps this way we learn to live it more and more.

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[after Jules Renard – “As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more”]

The current age

The story you tell about this time in your life isn’t the only story. And the vantage point from which you’re looking is not the only vantage point.

Looking forwards, it might seem clear that you’re on the way to a great success, or an inevitable defeat. Maybe it looks like life is all sorted: you’ve arrived and there is not much more for you to do. Or perhaps, from the depths of your confusion, it appears that you’re lost and can never find your way back.

Life is so much bigger than each of us, and so much more mysterious, that any story you have is at best partial. Looking back, what feels now like inevitable defeat may turn out to be a time of building strength: the strength you’ll need to break out of the constraints that have been holding you back. What feels like being crushed by life could be the birth pangs of a new beginning. Maybe the solidity of your success so far turns out to be everything that will be taken from you.

As Cheryl Strayed writes to her despairing younger self in Tiny Beautiful Things, it can turn out that “the useless days will add up to something”, that “these things are your becoming.”

Everything changes. Nothing is ever just what it seems. And though you may feel sure you’ve understood your life, remember that it’s very difficult to see which are the important parts, and quite why they’re important, while you’re still in them.

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Not acting

Not acting is a kind of action, with its own consequences.

Not choosing is itself a choice, a path followed that closes off other paths.

Not risking has risks all of its own.

It may look like disengagement from the world keeps you safe, but it’s not so.

Disengagement is its own kind of engagement.

Atrophy

It’s one thing to have good intentions about your relationships with others.

You also need good practices to bring them about, repeated actions by which you

listen
pay attention
stay open or defend yourself
share your cares and commitments
choose what to say and what not say
respond to emotions
interpret events as they happen.

When the practices that connect you to one another are neglected, relationships atrophy. At first slowly. And then quickly. Before long nobody can point to the moment when the trouble started nor to what it is that is missing. It’s just that something necessary isn’t there, something that once brought this team, this family, this organisation alive.

And then it becomes easy to judge others and blame them for making things so hard. And to forget that it’s how you’re acting right now that’s keeping things the way they are.

Restoring relationships calls for more than wishful thinking, and certainly for more than blaming others. It requires waking up to the actions that genuinely connect people.

And it requires remembering, a central act of all leadership: recovering the very ways of speaking and listening that once supported you, and bringing them purposefully back into being all over again.

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The only calibration that counts

For today, just this from Ted Hughes, shown to me over the weekend:

“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

This is our struggle. Our deep longing. Our fear. Our great hope.

Will we find a way of living life in its fullest form? Can we elevate even the most humble of our endeavours to acts of great heart and boldness?

It’s our responsibility, because bringing genuine heart to our work and life is what makes it most alive, most human, and most generous.

And it’s important to say all of this, because it’s the opposite of what most of us were taught – and what we still teach – in the way we organise our companies, professions, and careers.

Scared of feelings

Quite apart from the indoctrination we’ve had that organisations are like machines (and so the people inside them are like machines too), mostly we’re determined not to talk about feelings at work because they force us to face the truth.

If people are scared, they’re scared. If angry, they’re angry. Bored, they’re bored, and so on. Aside from those times when we confuse ourselves about our feelings, or delude ourselves, there’s no denying that feelings are true for those who are experiencing them.

And so when people say “We can’t talk about feelings here, it’ll open a can of worms” what they really mean is “It’s too dangerous to talk about what’s true, about what’s really going on”. Similarly, claiming that feelings talk is ‘fluffy’ or ‘soft’ is a convenient excuse for turning away from a perhaps difficult, significant, and real conversation.

The simple truth of what you’re feeling, and what those around you are feeling, will tell you much about what’s happening in your team and in your organisation. It will tell you much about what you and others actually care about (because feelings arise from what matters for us). And it can open up the possibility of facing the situation you’re in, and acting upon it, together.

We’ve already had enough trouble in the world of organisations because people wouldn’t look at the truth of what was happening around them. Can you be sure your insistence that feelings are irrelevant doesn’t have you join them?

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Good friends

Good friends – the kind that agree with what you have to say, reinforce your prejudices and judgements, buy into all your stories, and work to keep your world (and hence their world) familiar and predictable?

Or those who’ll listen deeply, tell you when your ideas don’t add up, show you a different way of seeing things when you’re stuck or blaming or in denial, ask you searching questions about your life, and generally cause you a (very good, compassionate kind of) trouble?

All too often we turn away from the latter because in their care for us they invite us to give up our cosy, comfortable way of being in the world.

But only so that something new and expansive and much more alive can grow in its place.

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The great work of a life

If, like Zusya (see yesterday’s post), our great work is becoming ourselves, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

“Just be yourself”, people sometimes say, as if it’s as simple as walking out of the door or choosing a different suit of clothes.

But becoming ourselves involves being able to put down years of habit, of convention, of appropriateness, of fitting in, of pleasing people, of accommodating – and also the wisdom to retain that which was given to us and which we yet can really call our own.

It requires mastery of many skills, each of which can require long practice and study:

the ability to discern what’s ours to do;
the courage to choose it, which always means saying no to something else;
the capacity to stay committed when both inner and outer voices yell in objection;
the ability to tolerate strong emotions, confusion and periods of disorientation;
the emotional sensitivity to what’s life-giving and what’s numbing;
the understanding required to know what’s true;
the attunement to what the world is calling for from us;
the mastery of culture needed to appropriate what’s already been given to us;
the imagination and creativity to form it into something new;
and the presence to be in life, with all its mystery, as it unfolds.

Becoming ourselves is neither a single act, nor a declaration.

It is a life’s work. A homecoming. And, ultimately, a work of art.

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Zusya

In a hadisic tale, Rabbi Zusya, after his death, is summoned before a heavenly court.

He trembles as he prepares to put forward the case for his life, because he fears that he has not lived up to the standards he, and others, laid out for him. “Why were you not Moses?”, he fears being asked. “Why did you not strive to become more like the greatest teacher and leader of your people’s history?”

And so it is for us. We fear we have not lived, because our lives are not like those of fame or fortune or great deeds. We fear that we’ll be shown to be inadequate, because we were not able to seize life and shape it entirely to our will.

But the story does not go as Zusya expects.

“Zusya,” say the court “we do not care whether you were like Moses, or like any other great figure. That would have been an abandonment of yourself. We want instead to know, why you were not Zusya?”

For Zusya, trying to become Moses – however noble – is a journey away from himself, and away from his life. But becoming Zusya, a far more perilous and uncertain path, is a journey back home.

Why are the court so bothered about this? Because without Zusya being Zusya, something of genuine value is withheld from the world. Some unique, idiosyncratic, vibrant contribution forever denied to those around him, and to himself. A contribution that can never be fully realised as long as he is pursuing someone else’s life. Discovering this is, in the end, Zusya’s great work.

And so it is for us.

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Easy and difficult

Two kinds of problem:

Easy

Those for which you already have language and concepts. The problem itself may be new, but you’re able to say what it reminds you of. And, even if hard to resolve, you have a ready source of metaphors, questions, and practices which you can bring to bear in tackling it.

Difficult

Confuses you. You’re lost for words and comparisons. There are no obvious practices to address what you’re facing. The world, once clear, is thrown into uncertainty. Perhaps things aren’t as you’ve taken them to be.

Easy problems fit the world as you know it already. They make sense in the particular interpretation of life already familiar to you, your colleagues, and your culture.

But that’s only one interpretation of many.

Difficult problems reveal new worlds.

In our rush-to-results culture we’re prone to tackling all our problems as if they’re easy problems. It makes it possible for us to take action. And it helps us feel safe.

But many problems, particularly ones involving those most mysterious of creatures – other human beings – are at heart difficult, because others’ worlds are at once familiar and vastly different from what we know.

Solving such problems requires giving up our certainty in order to see the world afresh: allowing ourselves to be seriously confused; talking, and listening, and then talking and listening again; staying with the questions long enough that new kinds of answers become available; and allowing ourselves to be changed, rather than having the world and others bend immediately, compliantly, to our will. 

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Doing more with less

It’s the mantra of our times, ‘doing more with less’.

And it seems to have produced a frenzy of pace, of panic, of pushing, of blame, of shame, of anxiety. Hours worked go up, the number of emails circulating go up, and we turn ourselves into production machines, compensating in frantic measure for that which has been taken away from us. Everything and everyone feels like they’re on a knife edge.

And yet we’re not looking at the amount of waste this causes. The waste of attention as bodies first tire and then become exhausted. The waste of commitment as contributions are taken for granted. The waste of energy as we go faster doing work that’s not actually needed. The waste of trust as promises are broken. The waste of good will as relationships are allowed to wither and decay.

Doing more with less might, if you’re a machine, mean turning the crankshaft faster. But if you’re human, and working with others, it’s going to involve a certain measure of slowing down rather than speeding up.

You’re going to have to slow down to have conversations for relationship with the people around you. Are you all committed to the same thing? Are you sure? Have you addressed the differences in orientation between you? Have you listened well enough to understand what each of you care about? Have you worked out how you’ll respond to what you’re learning?

Going faster without doing this – and without returning to it regularly – is a way to become a supremely effective machine for producing resentment and resignation rather than the wholehearted commitment you’re going to need to get anything important done.

And you’re going to have to slow down to have conversations for possibility. Do you know what you’re actually aiming towards? Is everyone clear? Does everyone understand? Do you know how you’ll tell when you’re doing it? And how you’ll address the inevitable breakdowns along the way? Without making time for this conversation, you’ll be going faster but in different directions, spinning out further and further from one another as you go.

And you’re also going to have to slow down enough to have conversations for action, in which clear requests are made and clear offers made in return. Without skilfully doing this, you open up huge possibilities for duplication of effort, busy work, and the supreme waste of people working heroically to do something that nobody needs and nobody asked for. Modern organisations are full of this, and it leads to further resentment rather than the thrill of challenging work completed against the odds.

It takes bold, courageous leadership to take a stand against the tide of action and get people talking to one another in this way, because somehow we’ve concluded that talking and doing are in opposition to one another. But unless you make this stand and make it possible for others to do the same, you’ll be joining the growing ranks of depleted, exhausted organisations who tried to do more with less and ended up with a lot less than even they had bargained for.

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Where do you go when you’re in difficulty?

Four directions in which you might go when you experience difficulty:

fret about it all (looping in worry and inner chatter)
lose heart (there’s nothing that can be done)
blame yourself for messing things up
numb or soothe yourself (for example with the soft glow of a screen)

and then, for each, further inner-criticism and self-judgement looms as a possibility:

“I always end up this way. I’m doomed to repeat this pattern again and again”.

This self-judgement keeps you in a very tight spiral of blame and criticism in which there’s little room to move.

What if, instead, you accept that your way of responding to difficulty is just how you are? Then, instead of fighting with yourself every time, you can smile at yourself a little for being human, and for being imperfect.

And you’ll open up a little breathing space between your difficulty and your reaction, from within which it’s possible to learn to respond with wisdom rather than with resignation.

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Contraction

The way you hold your body shapes the world for you.

To test this out, just try walking, speaking, thinking for a few minutes with your jaw tightly clenched, or your stomach muscles held rigid. Or raise your shoulders by half an inch. Or hold your breath – not completely, but just enough so your breath is high in your chest and you’re neither inhaling nor exhaling fully. Or tilt your head back just a little – five degrees or so more than you’re used to so that you’re looking down your nose. Or collapse, just a bit, in the middle – round your shoulders, bend forward just a touch, slouch.

You’ll find the world, and the world of possibilities for relating and acting, are subtly but palpably different in each.

So there’s much to be gained by paying attention to your body during the day, especially if you’re working with or leading others.

You could start, today, by paying attention to all the ways in which you contract throughout the day. You might be someone who starts the day quite contracted and clenched already. Even if you are, start to notice all the times you contract a little more.

When someone at home hadn’t put the bin out. When the train was a delayed a few minutes. When you got caught in a traffic jam. When you saw how many emails had arrived overnight. When you got called to an unexpected meeting. When someone didn’t like what you said. When a conversation didn’t go your way. When you didn’t get out to the gym. When your client didn’t buy. When it rained.

As your body contracts, step by step, watch how your irritability or your reactiveness change. What happens to your relationships, your openness, your capacity to think, your creativity? Is this the way you want to be in each of them?

And if, as a result of this, you’re noticing a correlation between your bodily contraction and your possibility in life, there are many things you can do to make a difference.

The simplest step might be just to remember to breathe – a full, long breath out and a full long breath in. It’s amazing how many people live their lives in a perpetual three-quarter held breath. Or relax your shoulders and your jaw for a moment. Or lie down for a while and let your back soften into the floor. Go for a massage. Swim. Run. Take up a yoga practice.

You don’t have to turn, day by day, into a contracted bundle of irritability. Unless of course, you want to.

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Perfectionism

Are you sure that your perfectionism isn’t just an attempt at protecting you from life, with all its chaos, messiness, decay, change and unpredictability?

Or, if not perfectionism, your striving always to be in control, so that nothing can get to you?

Or your insistence on harmony? Your demand to be right, or to know it all? Your clamour to rescue people every time from their difficulties? Your infatuation with being the best at everything? Your preoccupation with keeping all your options open?

And what would happen if, for a while, you found out that you’re way bigger than any of your obsessions and started to let life in for once?

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What’s hard about kindness

George Saunders has written beautifully about the importance of kindness – a topic I’ve taken up here a number of times before. His article is recommended reading.

One of the reasons kindness is so hard for many people, I think, is the harshness of our own inner lives. There’s a vast world we choose not to show others, and it’s often woven through with self-criticism, anxiety, unmet longing, fear, comparison, judgement, and a feeling of alienation from the world – of not yet being ‘at home’.

Because encountering ourselves can be so painful and difficult we learn to wait and hope and stay apart from one another, fearing what will happen if people see how we really are inside. And since kindness necessarily brings us into close contact with others, and with ourselves, it opens us and makes us feel vulnerable. And so we hold back.

It’s from here that our cynicism about kindness arises too. We confuse kindness with ‘niceness’, and rightly understand that niceness will never be sufficient to ease our suffering, or that of others, and so had best be avoided. But where niceness is inconstant, soft, and all about earning approval from others, genuine kindness is sharp and powerful and requires sincerity and courage. It comes from no longer making ourselves the centre of the universe, and it’s far more significant and necessary than anything niceness can muster.

In our holding back we imagine kindness will become possible only when our inner difficulty eases. But this is to misunderstand kindness and how it grows. The path to the inner kindness we need is paved with outer kindness to others: we have to get over ourselves, and our own self-pity, in order to extend ourselves genuinely to other human beings. And that’s exactly what supports the transformation of the inner world too.

And of course, by extending kindness to others we quickly find out that pretty much everyone is suffering as we are. And then we discover most viscerally how vital our kindness is, and that all our years of holding back were in vain.

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What we leave behind

My grandfather died nearly twenty years ago.

For most of his adult life he owned and ran a very small, very modest clothing shop in suburban North London, like many second-generation Jewish immigrants of his time. And as he grew older, his clientele grew older with him. No flashy refits or rebrandings to reach a wider audience. Just years of dedicated service to the people he’d served for so long already.

When he died, and we gathered around the graveside, I looked back to see a long line of mourners stretching back from the grave to the prayer hall. Many spoke of his care for them, of his commitment, and also of his friendship.

I realised then that he was leaving behind him something that many of us never achieve, but which is worth more than status, high office, the construction of big buildings, and the making of millions (each of which, certainly, have their worth). He left behind him scores of lives touched, for the better, by the kindness and constancy of his presence in the world.

And, I wonder, what would become possible if you worked on this alongside all the other important and ambitious projects you’ve dedicated yourself to already?

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No time to be present

“No, I don’t have a moment to talk with you. No, not even to check we understand what we’re doing or where we’re going. Everything will come apart if I stop. And be present in what I’m doing? I don’t understand what you’re talking about. We’ll never get there if we do that.”

Does your work often feel this way to you? Do you have your own version of these objections? Do you ever take your foot off the throttle enough to be here in what you’re doing and be with the people you’re doing it with? Does even suggesting it sound crazy?

How would you feel if the pilot of the plane you’re travelling in said this?

Or the surgeon in whose hands you’re placing your life?

Or the people who handle your money?

Can you imagine trusting them to do their work well if they were rushing or as disconnected from their colleagues as you’re prepared to be?

And is your work really so trivial, so unimportant, that you can continue to make these excuses and ignore the consequences?

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Just fine

Which is more courageous?

Pretending you’re fine all the time, and that nothing can touch you.

Or showing people that you’re human – that you feel shame, anxiety, grief, boredom, rage and sadness as well as joy, hope, excitement and confidence?

And which is more likely to bring out the vibrant, compassionate, creative humanity in the people around you?

Pretending you’re fine denies you the opportunity to reach out for help, and denies others the opportunity of giving it to you. And because you’re revealing so little of yourself, it also denies the people around the opportunity to see that everything they’re experiencing is is not so unusual, not so personal as it seems, because you’re experiencing it too.

And, mostly, it denies you the possibility of connecting with the people around you, surely among the most important work if you’re a leader, a partner, a parent or a friend.

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What you do with shame

Shame is among the most hidden of emotions because being ashamed is, itself, considered so shameful. So we develop strategies to hide it and to project it, particularly in organisational life.

Projection:

Shaming others because of your own shame. Even better if they’re more ashamed than you are.

Blaming them for the very actions that shamed you. Blaming them for something else entirely. Yelling at them. Judging them (so that you can convince yourself you’re better than they are). Telling them how unreasonable, how inattentive, how self-centred they’re being.

Saying: “I’m doing this to you because it’s company policy”; “I’m doing this for your own good”; “We’ve decided to measure things in this new way (that will spare me shame and transfer it to you)”

Managing them out (of the room, the meeting, the company).

It’s no wonder we do this, given how often parents and teachers used shame to keep us in line (or project their own shame) when we were small. And it’s no wonder we work so hard to hide it.

But the extent to which you do this in your family, in your team, and in your organisation is the extent to which you’re actively increasing the shame in those around you.

Once you know this, you have a choice. Are you prepared to own up to your own shame and work with it courageously when it occurs?

Or are you going to continue constraining everyone’s capacity to create, to imagine, to stand out, to step forward, and to take responsibility, simply so you can feel better?

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Business and personal

Many business difficulties are, at root, personal difficulties…

… conversations we’re not bold enough to have, motives we hide and dress up as reason, emotions we don’t know how to deal with, resentments we fuel, imagination constrained by blame and the fear of shame, judgements of people who are different from us, fear and anxiety we won’t name, scapegoating, saving face, projections of what’s in our shadow, self-pity, self-aggrandisement.

But we’ve convinced ourselves (since the start of the industrial age) that businesses are machines rather than collections of people. It conveniently leads us to try to engineer our way out of difficulty – a detached move that saves us from having to own up to our own part in what’s going on.

And so when faced with what seems unsolvable, we turn to

restructures (a recurring favourite)
competency frameworks
mergers and acquisitions
leadership frameworks
the latest update to company policy
changing what’s measured
charts of acceptable behaviours
training programmes

rather than do the apparently more difficult, more unpredictable, more messy work of turning to one another with sincerity and curiosity, and being truthful about what’s going on.

So many difficulties can be solved by talking about what’s happening, both within us and between us. But mostly we allow ourselves to take up the convenient story that this is irrelevant to business, out of place at work.

We even call it ‘soft’.

Addressing the personal, emotional, relational part of our business difficulties is anything but soft. It’s the hardest, most important, most rewarding and most practical problem solving arena of all.

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Not angry

“I don’t get angry” she said.

But if you’re human (and I think you must be), it’s likely that all human emotions are within you. It’s just that – perhaps for good reason – you’ve pushed some parts of yourself away, suppressed them so that you can’t see them any more.

Perhaps anger wasn’t allowed in your family, or in your culture. Or maybe you had an overwhelming experience with anger when you were too small to protect yourself from it. So you did everything you could to say “not this”, distancing yourself so you could stay alive wherever in the world you found yourself.

And now, it’s in your shadow. You recoil from it. You deny it’s in you. And you project it in myriad distorted ways on others around you – you see it in your colleagues and family when there is none, you run from it, you shut it down in others, you judge those who display it and those who are not ashamed by it. You fear what it will do to you if you get too close.

When you come to see anger as your shadow, you’ll find out how it has everything to do with you, how you carry it with you always, how you’re holding it so close you cannot see it. Quite in contrast to what you said, it may turn out that you’re full of it.

And you’ll see how you’re split off from a huge part of yourself – probably just the part you need in order to thrive, and the part we need from you too. And it’s only by turning to face the darkness of the shadow, and welcoming it in, that you can lead most powerfully, and fully take up your place in the world.

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For its own sake

In the end, nothing works out permanently.

Even the biggest, most robust organisations pass and fade away over time. Life as we know it keeps on changing, despite our best efforts to stop that happening. And eventually, all of us die, leaving everything we’d accumulated and created behind us. Before long, all of that disappears too.

So whatever you’re working on now, whatever glorious future plans and hopes you’re working towards, it would be worth checking that what you’re doing is also worth it for its own sake, regardless of how it turns out.

Because in the end, that it mattered at the time might be all that’s left.

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Good to…

Mostly we’re striving, hoping, longing for the time we can say with some certainty, “Life has been good to me”. Until then, while we’re waiting, life can only be provisional, until the moment we can say at last “I made it”.

But instead, how about taking up the question from the other side?

Would it not be more fulfilling, more within your reach, and an even greater gift to find out that instead, you’ve discovered already how to be good to life?

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Cats

Sitting on my front step in the early August sunshine this morning, I looked up to see my neighbour’s cat peering round the front gate. She stared at me with amber eyes and I stared back, and for a while we were locked in a mutual exchange with no words and no content. We just gazed, quietly, intently.

I felt myself settle and calm, the inner whirl of thoughts, expectations, hopes, judgements and plans falling away for a while. For a few moments, an inner silence, a simple graceful accepting being here. Belonging.

And then she moved on.

Part of what made this possible, I think, is that she wasn’t – and couldn’t be – caught up in all the stories I had about myself this morning, and all the habitual ways I have of getting myself seen in just the way I want to be seen.

We mostly have no idea how much this is what we’re up to when other people are around. The way we speak, the way we move, the eye contact we make or don’t make, our facial expressions and gestures, what we’ll listen to or not, what we choose to say and withhold, the moods we end up in, the way we beckon – sometimes ever so subtly – for just the response we’d like to get from others.

‘See me’, we’re saying, ‘notice me. Show me I’m ok. Show me you see me the way I want so much for you to see me (as kind, powerful, ruthless, worthless, helpful, troublesome, loveable, intelligent, creative, skilful…). Answer my longing. Show me I’m not on my own out here.’

And, of course, pretty much everyone else around us is up to this too, so that we’re engaged – in addition to what we think we’re doing – in an endless dance of manipulation, manoeuvring and seeking to have the world be just so for us.

It’s happening at work and at home, with your clients and with your friends, and however much formal power or status – or none – you have at your disposal. It’s part of the dance of being human, of being in relationship with others.

And the cats don’t buy it, which is why, for a moment in their presence, we get to put down all our striving and efforting and just be, in touch for a while with the silent part of us that’s always there and that doesn’t get caught up in our games and our posturing.

I think this is why people with pets – particularly mammals, with their deep capacity to be in relationship with us – often find them so soothing. By not playing our games or being enmeshed in our stories, they open up a space in which every part of us can be welcomed, in which we can be still for a while, in which we can quiet the neediness we hide even from ourselves.

And whether we have cats or not, well all need some of this in our life… a place and a way to belong, just as we are.

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