Meeting the gatekeeper

In a famous story by Franz Kafka, a man who is searching for truth comes to a door, guarded by a powerful gatekeeper.

The two talk for a while, and the man discovers that what he seeks is within. But when he realises that this is only the first in a series of doors guarded by successively fierce and powerful gatekeepers, he decides to sit for a while and work out how he can obtain permission to enter.

The man sits, and he sits, occasionally striking up conversation with the gatekeeper, and the years pass. The man wonders what it will be like to eventually cross through the door, and why nobody else seems to have come by to gain entry.

And as the man finally reaches the end of his life – still waiting – the gatekeeper reaches out for the door. This door, he tells the man, was only for you, and now it is time for me to close it, for ever.

So much of our lives is exactly this way. Faced with a threshold to cross – as happens to each of us innumerable times – we easily hesitate. Waiting on the known side of the door feels so much better, and so much safer, for who knows what succession of trials and dangers awaits on the other side?

There, we will have to face our anxiety and fear, and an uncertain world in which much that we’ve come to rely on can no longer save us.

And while we know that our chances of living fully are much greater if we’re prepared to step in, we can see only how our lives would be safer staying just where we are, where the reassuring contours of the world as we know it can hold us.

And eventually, each of the doors in our life closes, as we knew they always would, and we find out that the safety of staying small, and quiet, and not bothering anyone – the safety of holding the horizons of the world tight and enclosing – was never any genuine safety at all.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Letting the sadness in

Today, with thanks to the wonderful work of the team at On Being, something short to watch.

I’ve written before about the numbing effect of technology, how we can use it to avoid contact with ourselves and others, and the far-reaching consequences of all this.

Here, Louis CK talks powerfully, and with a glorious lightness, about technology and our dangerous flight from our sadness and loneliness.

What, he asks, if we put down our phones and started letting the sadness in?

Both sides

In the ancient Jewish tradition, people are thought of as having two primary orientations to the world – an inclination towards good (yetzer hatov) and an inclination towards evil (yetzer harah).

The inclination towards good draws us out of ourselves towards what is most compassionate and most principled. And the inclination towards evil draws us towards our most self-centred interests, from which we care only for ourselves and not for others or the world.

Surely, in this way of thinking, the inclination towards good is itself good and should be cultivated, and the inclination towards evil is bad and should be extinguished? No, say the rabbis, they are both good, and both necessary.

How can this be?

With only the inclination to good we risk spending all our time basking in the wonder and awe of life. Many possibilities for action are denied to us, because they cannot be known to have positive outcomes. The inclination to good, on its own, is noble but paralysed, unable to decide what to do when uncertain about consequences, when the world in all its complexity and unknowability becomes apparent.

And so we need the inclination to evil also. Given free rein, it dooms us to a life of self-centredness, of action purely for our own gain. But without it, say the rabbis, nobody would create anything. We would not build houses, bring children into the world, nor do the difficult and creative work of shaping the world around us. The inclination to evil, with its indignation and rage and cunning and huge creativity is what brings us into purposeful action.

Denying either side leads to trouble. It takes both inclinations in a constant dynamic tension to have us act in the most human, and most humane ways.

And this is the foundational task facing each of us if we want to act with integrity in the world: we must find a way of knowing ourselves fully so that we leave nothing of ourselves out. We have to stop denying and pushing away the parts of ourselves that we don’t understand, or don’t like so much. We have to take our fear and confusion as seriously as our hope and our joy. We have to stop pretending to have it all together.

Integrity is exactly that – integrating all of it. When we bring our hope and our fear, our nobility and selfishness, our love and our disdain, our serious adulthood and playful childishness, our light and our darkness, each informs and shapes the other in a constant dance of opposites. And this is what brings us into creative and purposeful and appropriate action in the complexity of the world.

Photo Credit: [ changó ] via Compfight cc

Because we won’t talk about it

We’ve made emotions, the inner critic, and what we feel in our bodies undiscussable in most organisations, perhaps especially for those with the most power and hence the most to lose (see this post for more).

And the effects are far-reaching.

Because without an honest conversation about our fear and vulnerability, and in the midst of the myth of the heroic, independently capable leader, we’ve rendered ourselves mute on one of the most important conversations we could be having: our first-hand account of what makes it so difficult, so often, to tell the truth. And what could help us.

We become united in our silence.

The consequences go far beyond momentary inconvenience, or the conversation you’re avoiding about a colleague’s performance. Because when we’re unable to tell truth, and tolerate doing so however it feels, we turn away from each other and from our capacity to act.

In the spaces left by our silence, the seeds of great difficulty can grow, unrestrained – the seeds of organisational malpractice, self-interest, and denial. And soon, they grow in our society too, even though many of us have forgotten that our work and society are not separate from one another.

How many more economic, ethical, and environmental crises are we willing to have our organisations be part of? How long before we discover our urgent need to turn to one another about all this, and speak up about what we see in ourselves that has us hold back?

Photo Credit: nickpix2012 via Compfight cc

Up close

The image you carry around with you of each person you know is not that person.

And the image you carry around with you of yourself is not you.

So often, when you relate to others, you’re relating only to the image – a story, a narrative thread woven from glimpses, half-truths, and your own habitual way of accounting for things. You can hardly call it them. If anything, what you’re relating to is more properly part of you.

How huge the distance there is still to cross to have any real sense of the other.

And yet… this capacity to relax your certainty about other people so you can reach them and be reached is one of the great human qualities, if you’re prepared to allow for it. And if you’re ready to find out that, up close, other people are quite different from what you were sure they would be.

Photo Credit: James Marvin Phelps via Compfight cc

What we’re scared of

I was talking with a group of people in very senior positions in a multinational organisation about fear: their fear of having genuine conversations with one another, their fear of telling the truth.

This, an organisation in which decisions made affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

“They won’t like what I have to say.”
“They won’t like me.”
“I won’t be in control of what happens.”
“It will damage our relationship.”
“I won’t know what to say.”
“It will open a can of worms.”

Each of their fears, when held up to scrutiny, turned out to be quite slight compared to the importance of the conversation – a conversation, not had, that affected them, their colleagues, and the many people who depended upon them.

How could it be, then, that they were so paralysed?

When we try to account for ourselves and what holds us back, we’re often looking in the wrong place.

Because we’re often not so scared of what will happen in the world through speaking up. We’re terrified of our feelings about it. We’re scared of our shame. We’re scared of our guilt. We’re scared of the gripping, swirling bodily feeling of being uncertain. We’re fearful of feeling fear. We imagine we won’t be able to tolerate it. And, of course, we’re scared that we’ll feel all of this if we start to talk about feelings or what goes on in our bodies.

And so it becomes self-sealing. We’ll do whatever it takes, including making up unsound explanations, to avoid encountering what we’re scared to feel.

And the more we avoid the conversation about all of this – about what we’re really scared of – the more we trap ourselves in an endless cycle of inaction, denial and turning away.

Photo Credit: aluedt via Compfight cc

The four of you

fourpeople

When you’re talking with another person, remember that there are always more than two of you present.

At the very least there’s you, and them, and your inner-critic and their inner-critic.

Whatever the two of you are visibly up to, there’s an often hidden dynamic between the two inner-critics (who work hard to keep themselves invisible) as they jostle to keep you in line, watch out for attacks or supposed attacks from the other, spur you into defending yourself (often times when no defence is called for), have you be insistent or rigid or judging or withdrawn.

And each critic spurs the other on, inventing slights and hurts, and anticipating what’s it imagines is yet to come.

All of this is one reason why you can sometimes look back on a conversation with bemusement and confusion. ‘What on earth happened there?’ you ask yourself. ‘I thought we were only talking about this morning’s meeting, but now I feel hurt and uncertain, and so does she’.

One way to help yourself and others is to spot all of this and give name to it, at first to yourself. Learn the ways it shows up and what it gets up to when your attention is elsewhere.

And then, over time, bring the existence of the critic and all its manifestations into conversation. This takes courage and openness. But bringing the inner critic out of its hiding place allows it to be seen and talked about, and responded to, and lessens its power to manipulate behind the scenes.

Your inner world is always making itself known in the outer world, whether you like it or not, and it’s true for everyone else too. The more you can give name to, and the more you can bring it forward from its otherwise invisible background, the more chance you’ll have of working with it in service of you and everyone around you.

Photo Credit: *m22 via Compfight cc

What we’ll do not to feel it

A story about the trouble caused when we can’t talk about shame and anxiety in organisational life:

A global retailer struggling to meet the expectations of the markets, brings in a new measurement system for its stores, with more than sixty targets to meet.

A daily ratings table of stores is published internally, naming those meeting the targets and those falling short. It’s described as a logical move to increase performance in difficult times. And at the same time, it allows the board to deny the anxiety they’re feeling: “we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve responded in a clear and rational manner to market conditions”.

Meanwhile, the ratings system has very effectively pushed the anxiety onto the store managers, where even respected, skilful, long-serving managers are reduced to a daily jostle for the top few spots. Unable or unwilling to challenge the system itself (after all, it’s apparently a rational response to the current difficulty), they start to put pressure on their department heads for the daily delivery of the targets. And, unable to start a conversation about how all of this feels to everybody, the department heads – fearful of being shamed – look for whatever they can do to hit their targets.

This is where the real trouble begins.

Because in the face of unnamable anxiety and the unbearable threat of shame, even respected, diligent department heads start to look for ways to game the system.

Numbers are fiddled. Statistics reinterpreted. Orders are left piling up in the warehouse because nobody can keep up with the new standards for shelf layout. Items in the store are relabelled so that products look like they’re available when the mystery shopper team comes around. Staff members are taken off other important duties to work on the tills when queue-length is measured, but the queues are allowed to reach enormous and frustrating lengths at other times.

The target numbers are, frequently, met – aside from for those few unfortunate store managers who aren’t wily enough to play the system – but standards drop relentlessly across the group and customers start to take their business elsewhere.

Public shame, skilfully dealt with. Skilful gaming of the system, denied. The organisation becomes a system for avoiding anxiety rather than serving customers. Nobody talking about it – “it’ll open a can of worms”.

You can see this same drama played out in hospitals, whole health systems, schools, retailers, service industries, transport, government, with huge and debilitating effect.

And in most places nobody’s talking about what’s really going on, because we’ve made mood undiscussable.

If we’re going to deal with all of this – and we must – we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that organisations are always made up of people, and people are always caught up in moods that shape what can be seen and what’s possible. Our insistence on understanding people as detached, strictly rational parts of a well-oiled machine is not doing anything to address these difficulties.

And without the courage to do this, we’re going to condemn ourselves to a future of looking good while we undo our best and most important efforts.

Photo Credit: 1D110 via Compfight cc

What endures

Time and again, we human beings have had to find out that what we took to be most secure and most solid, was nothing of the sort.

We put down roots, build houses of bricks and mortar, make plans for ourselves. And then, perhaps, we find them swept away in a storm or flood, in a war or earthquake, in political or economic upheaval, in illness or accident, in the ever surprising turns of life.

And sometimes we realise this is how things are for long enough that we remember to turn towards the people around us, our travelling companions on this most audacious and risky of journeys, and appreciate their beauty and magnificence, their sadness and their love, and are able to just be with them for a while.

Photo Credit: Lauren Manning via Compfight cc

Loneliness

Once, perhaps not so long ago, we had a sense that there were activities worth doing for their own sake.

But perhaps without realising it, we’ve more and more taken on an understanding that the only value worth serious attention is economic performance.

It doesn’t take too much looking to see how much of human life is of an importance far beyond any number we can put on it. People try, but can a figure placed on the value of friendship, a walk in the park, a forest, or time spent in the presence of great art or beauty ever hope to express its true value in our lives?

And when the nurturing and sustaining of human relationships with friends, family and community has little measurable economic value, but long hours of office work apparently do, is it any wonder so many people, without realising how they got there, now find themselves so painfully, terrifyingly lonely, even in a crowd?

Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc

Not part of it

There’s a myth in many places of work that emotions aren’t part of it.

“We’re professional,” you might say, “no place for feelings here”.

And in saying that, you’ve bought wholly into an enormously unhelpful misunderstanding: mood as an essentially corrupting, messy, distracting element of human life – better left alone than faced, better ignored than talked about, better suppressed than felt.

But moods didn’t go away just because you’re pretending they don’t have a place, and they didn’t stop shaping the world of possibility available to you just because you don’t want to look at them.

Somehow, we’re going to have to start talking to each other, in even the most ‘rational’ of organisations, about personal and organisational mood, and about the way gratitude, resentment, anxiety, resignation, love, shame and cynicism shape what’s possible for us and those around us.

And that’s going to entail widening our understanding of what human beings are, and what it is to engage in work together.

Photo Credit: Eric Bégin via Compfight cc

Appeasement

One thing to know about the inner critic is that it cannot be appeased.

So:

It doesn’t help to reason. Whatever the facts you produce, however tight your reasoning, the critic can always come back with a question, or a doubt, an objection, or a demand for more evidence.

It doesn’t help to collapse, imagining the inner-critic will settle down once it sees you’re beaten. Because the moment you rouse yourself from your fall, it will be back, baying for more.

It doesn’t help to join in the fight, trading blows, getting into battle. The critic has more energy and more persistence than you know – it’s been around as part of humanity for much longer than you have.

Two ways to go that might support you:

The first is to understand that having an inner-critic is human, and that it’s being stirred is a sign that you’re up to something stirring. All art, all creativity, all speaking wholehearted truth, all genuine self-expression, all standing out, all taking the risk of saying what needs to be said, all stirs the critic into its defensive action. Reinterpret the critic – not as a sign of your failure and your brokenness, but of your aliveness. The very aliveness it wants to have you keep in check.

The second is to give it lots of space. Yes, let it rage, let it complain, let it hurl accusations at you. But, instead of having your face pressed up against the bars of your cage while it takes chunks out of you… instead if you can feel your enormity, your spaciousness, it’s less like being trapped in a small space with a tiger and more like being the whole zoo, or the whole city. How much can it hurt you when you’ve that room within you? How much can it eat you, or throttle you, or force your collapse?

And, each time it gets to you, please remember to be kind to yourself. Being caught in an attack by the critic is not proof that you deserve the attack – just that, this time, you didn’t find a way to separate yourself from it.

There will be a next time, and a time after, and a time after that. And over time, in no rush, perhaps a tiny bit more space will open, and a bit more, and a bit more – with many steps back along the way.

And each step, forward or back, is part of the necessary and life-giving work of becoming free to speak, act, lead and contribute with your whole heart.

Photo Credit: photovolt via Compfight cc

Owning up

If you want to take action on the almost-invisible ways in which shame shapes your workplace, you could start with looking at how you project your own shame on others so you don’t have to feel it yourself.

Do you blame other people when some share of the responsibility is really yours? Do you cool towards them, or withdraw? Do you explode with rage when your expectations aren’t met and you fear being shown up? Do you make sure they feel the shame that you don’t want as your own?

Shame and the fear of it ride quietly under the visible surface of even calm, polite, ‘civilised’ organisations which claim to treat people with respect and dignity. And it can take quite some courage to look at all of this, because when you start to see your part in it, you might well feel some of the shame yourself.

If you’re going to lead in a way that allows other people around you to bring their aliveness into their work, you’re going to be called upon to look at the shadow side of your policies, your relationships, and the way you speak: to see what you’re denying and to discover what effect it’s having.

And you need the people around you to be alive rather than sleepwalking if you’re going to have any chance of doing work that actually matters.

Photo Credit: .FuturePresent. via Compfight cc

Measurable things

In so many organisational settings we seek to turn human beings into measurable things, assessed for productivity, efficiency, and for ability to match a prescribed list of behaviours. 

Yes, I understand, we have to measure in organisations. The era we’re living in, in which economics is the narrative by which we account for the worth of just about everything, demands this of us. And there are solid reasons to track, with rigour, how things are going.

But most of what’s most important about human beings can’t be reduced to an objective measure, a behaviour chart, or a figure to put on your balance sheet.

If you treat people as resources, you call on them to act as if they are resources.

Resources don’t exhibit wholeheartedness, care for the people around them, or a capacity to discern and dedicate themselves to a noble pursuit that genuinely matters. And the resource narrative does much to reduce us to individualistic, self-serving shadows of ourselves, pursuing the measure rather than doing what’s of enduring value.

We’re going to have to do better than this if we want to create organisations that have people – and society – flourish. And we’re going to have to face up to our fear of all the things that could happen if the people around us were freed up to be fully, fiercely, and uncompromisingly alive.

 Photo Credit: _ambrown via Compfight cc

To blame just for having one

One of the sneakiest ways your inner-critic might keep itself in play is to mount an attack on you for having an inner-critic in the first place.

‘You must really have messed up if you’ve got me‘ it says. ‘Now, buckle down and get yourself in line, because you certainly deserve to be stuck with me now’.

But the critic – the internalised and often distorted voice of all those who cared for you when you were young and needed to teach you how to stay in line – is common to all human beings. It is most certainly did not come from anything you did wrong. It is not proof of your brokenness.

As you find out that you are not your inner-critic, and it is not you, it will mount more and more wily and desperate schemes to keep you listening.

This is where great kindness to yourself is called for, as you weather what are, after all, attacks on your self-hood, attacks on your wholeheartedness, attacks on your growing capacity to express what is true.

Kindness, and persistence, and faith, and love.

Hang on in there. We’re all rooting for you.

Photo Credit: Alexandre Duarte via Compfight cc

Millions of ways

Human beings – endlessly creative, filled with stories, explanations, hopes, dreams, fears, our minds able leap into an imagined future or remembered past and time-travel effortlessly between them.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that we have so many millions of ways of being anywhere but here, and in anytime but the now of our lives.

Photograph by Emma Gregory

Wide open eyes

We live in stories. We breathe them. They’re an inescapable part of being human.

Our stories tell us who people are, what life is and what’s possible for us to do.

Our capacity to delude ourselves with stories that cover up what’s true is most on my mind today.

We tell ourselves stories that bolster our self-esteem and blind us to the consequences of our choices. We tell ourselves stories that ignore our own actions or interpret them away. We tell ourselves stories that make the world about us alone, and stories that explain things as we like to explain them, because we feel better that way.

And while every story opens up a world of possibilities, it closes down another, so the stories we tell ourselves matter.

So often, we’d rather believe our familiar stories than look at the world and what we’re up to in it with wide open eyes.

Photo Credit: arbyreed via Compfight cc

Almost invisible

Take a look at the many ways the threat of shame is used as an almost-invisible shaping hand in your own organisation. Or in your family.

Can you see its unspoken possibility embodied in the way you do appraisals, award bonuses, promote people, speak to your colleagues, give feedback?

How do your organisation’s values, frameworks, and stated mission work to keep people in line because they’ll feel shame if they stand out?

What about all the ways you keep people feeling insecure about their positions – working harder and harder, but not necessarily more creatively or effectively, to avoid the shame of redundancy or losing their job?

And how about the ways you quietly support people working crazy hours, giving up on their family life, and being seen to do the ‘right thing’ even if it’s not, actually, right for them or for the situation?

Or do you support a culture in which people are instead very nice to one another, and so are unable to bring up what they see that might be troubling, upsetting, or challenging to the cosy picture you’re promoting?

Shame must be almost invisible, but not quite, for it to have its powerful effect. Its invisibility means many of us simply get on quietly – not standing out too much, taking it as a given part of the background of working life.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful act of leadership to start to point out the hidden threat of shame everywhere you see it, and to begin to undo it so that the people around you can at last begin to flourish?

Photo Credit: johnno_oz via Compfight cc

Giving up the frantic climb

So many of us live life as if it is a mountain to be climbed: a struggle to reach the place where everything will be settled, where happiness, fulfilment and meaning are at last enduring and secure.

“No time to stop”, we cry, “I’m too busy climbing”. It’s the narrative of many organisations as well as individual lives. And in the frantic ascent we rarely get to feel the rock beneath our fingers, breathe the air, or notice our travelling companions in their struggles beside us. We suspend our lives.

If you live this way, particularly if you have some influence over other people, you’ll draw them into the story with you. Before long, everyone’s joining the scramble to the top in the hope that life’s questions will at last be resolved. And being bound to the mountain becomes its own form of slavery with its own profound suffering.

Because there is no place where everything comes good as in a fairytale or as promised in ‘The Secret’. At what we took to be the top of the mountain, even if the view is breathtaking, are the same human questions of belonging, meaning, and contribution, and the same fears of isolation, death, freedom and meaninglessness. Life at the ‘top’ continues to be life, in which everything is provisional and changing, full of joys and sorrows, pain and healing, delights and sadnesses, light and shadow.

Giving up the struggle to the top that was never there is difficult. But perhaps it can free you, at last, to be up to something bigger than securing for yourself the fairytale promise of our times. And, crucially, it frees the people around you to join you in doing the same.

Photo Credit: Zach Dischner via Compfight cc

Climbing the mountain

We’ve believed that somewhere, at the top of the mountain we feel like we’re climbing, everything will be alright at last. We’ll be fulfilled, at peace, happy.

And so everybody’s climbing the mountain, and everybody else seems to be trying to sell us something that will get us there more quickly. ‘Buy this product’, the advertisements scream, ‘and at last you’ll be ok. At last you’ll be able to rest’.

So we climb, faster and faster, harder and harder, exhausting ourselves along the way. We’re sure the answer is at the top. We tell ourselves, ‘When I have that job, that house, a beautiful lover, children, money, fame, the right car, or body shape, or clothes, an advanced degree, my name on a book, when I retire, I’ll be there’.

And the climb becomes more frantic, more determined, because it seems that other people have reached the top of the mountain already. Film stars, celebrities, billionaires, models, TV presenters, novelist, the people in the next street with the nicer houses, your friends – many of them look like they have it together, that they at last have reached life’s destination.

There are books, and courses, and coaches and products that promise you all of this – that there’s some secret to the climb that’s right in front of you if only you’ll buy it, some magical way to accelerate you to the top.

And all the while, you’re hardly in life at all. Always postponing, always deferring, and piling suffering upon suffering as you compare yourself with others who seem to be further ahead, living the life you should be having.

But the mountain has no top.

Each crest simply hides another, and the genuine, heartfelt relief that comes from reaching it is soon replaced by the understanding that you didn’t arrive yet, that you have further to go. Gradually you realise that staking your life on reaching a peak that never existed isn’t what you’d bargained for.

Or – alternatively – you discover that you’re already at the top of the mountain. And that you always have been.

Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via Compfight cc

Waiting to be saved

It seems more and more to me, as I watch myself and others, that the source of our endless checking of email, Facebook, twitter and all is that we’re secretly hoping to be saved.

Seeing this first requires admitting how lost many of us feel so much of the time. There really is very little solidity to stand on in the world. Everything changes so fast. We have to navigate through boundless complexity, of which we understand only a fragment. And everything we know and care for can be taken away in an instant.

So there’s a part of us that is longing for the moment when someone bigger and more solid than us will show up to show us the way, to tell us that everything is going to be ok, to soften and soothe our racing thoughts and secretly pounding, anguished hearts. And wishing for this is not so surprising or unusual: anyone who had caring adults around them when they were small will have visceral memories of just this happening when the world got too big for them.

Perhaps that’s the secret promise we’re holding out for in our email and social media – that in among all the updates will be the message from beyond which will at last, conclusively, set the world straight again, and release us from our fear.

So we check, soothed momentarily by our hopefulness. But the message we longed for is not there. We check again, and again. Each time, for a few seconds, the anxiety abates. And we get addicted to this fragmentary feeling of safety.

Weaning us off our addiction requires each of us to let go of the saviour myth and, ultimately, let go of needing to feel safe all the time.

Then we can face the weird and incomprehensible world in its fullness, and feel it all without the need for a glowing prop to see us through.

Photo Credit: cobalt123 via Compfight cc

A hidden currency

Shame is a powerful, primal human emotion, stirring up for us as it does the overwhelming sense that ‘I shouldn’t be here… I cannot be here…’. It has us contract, freeze, mute ourselves, and make ourselves acceptable at the price of our aliveness and creativity.

It is the perfect mood for forcing us to fit in, to withhold anything that might cause others trouble, to keep us in line. Which is why it’s used so powerfully and effectively in the life of organisations.

And because owning up to shame is, for most of us, itself shameful, we hide it from others and deny it to ourselves, living quietly with the suffering and wounding that it brings. We pretend we are not feeling shame even as we experience it most acutely.

And we pretend not to see how our leadership and organisational structures actively promote it – how shame is often the unspoken currency of organisational life.

Photo Credit: Antelope Canyon, Arizona
by schlissm via Compfight cc

Stepping in

For all of us who find ourselves pausing on the brink of stepping in…

For those of us who, finding that we’re called to take on a responsibility that we’re not ready for, hold back…

For each of us who, sensing that there’s something important we must do, imagine we’ll never be ready…

… a reminder from Katagiri Roshi, a great teacher in the Soto Zen tradition:

The time will never come that you will reach your idea of maturity.

It is an endless process.

So, whether you feel qualified or not, all you have to do is accept what’s in front of you and do your best with whole-heartedness.

Make every possible effort to meet the position with modesty and humility.

The position is of a bigger scale than the person you take yourself to be. So set yourself out in the big scale of the world. Before you are conscious of it, your life is deepened by the position.

And in that way you will develop, very naturally.

Set yourself out in the big scale of the world. Find yourself deepened by the possibility you’re stepping into. Know that this is the way you’ll develop, and that it will be the most natural thing in the world.

As natural as, and very different to, all the ways you’re waiting.

Photo Credit: seyed mostafa zamani via Compfight cc

Brighter than the sun

Sometimes, in the midst of all our striving, longing, and reaching, our building of towers and the making of names for ourselves, it’s important to remember that one day we will, with certainty, lose it all.

Some of this will happen piece by piece. We’ll gradually say goodbye to people as they leave life. We’ll realise, perhaps suddenly, that their presence in the world touched our hearts and lit up our eyes. We’ll find out that their worth is beyond words.

And for all of us, the loss will also come entirely at once – maybe at a time when we least expect it, before we can even know it’s happening – when it is ‘I’ who is leaving and it is others who have to say goodbye.

Some of us take a long time to find all this out, holding our inner gifts back from the world until we’re sure the time is just right – a time that may never come.

But others seem to live with this understanding so fully in their hearts it’s as if nothing is withheld. They’ve discovered that the point of life is life itself, and that each of us is simply another expression of life’s beauty and wonder. And from this understanding flows their kindness, their generosity and their wisdom, so that they shine brighter than the sun.

For Christy

Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via Compfight cc

Whose mood?

What if, just in the way that rainstorms, traffic jams and computer crashes are not personal, moods were not as personal as they seem either?

We get a glimpse of this at a football match, at a concert, at the movies, when we most obviously get swept up in moods that are shared. But even when you’re not in a crowd, each mood you experience is only available to you because of the human condition, the biology and physiology you have in common with the billions of other people who have ever lived.

And so, in some fundamental way, all moods belong to everyone, and they’re not nearly as private, or as personal, as they feel.

This means you can let go of the idea that they’re yours alone. You don’t have to be ashamed of them. You don’t have to hide them all the time. You can open up opportunities talk about them, ask for help with them, share insights into them, welcome them, celebrate them, offer support to others with them.

Perhaps you can learn to be with them, without self-pity (how can this be happening to me?) and without self-aggrandisement (I must really be something to be feeling this good). And you can start to develop genuine compassion: the deep understanding that we’re all in this experience of being human together.

When your fear can be understood as a manifestation of the fear that’s all of ours, your sadness an aspect of the sadness, your love an aspect of the love, then the tight drawn-in-close boundary that seems so clearly to separate you from others – particularly in your most difficult moments – can dissolve a little and you can start to discover the enormous possibility for living that comes from being part of the family of things.

Photo Credit: Grant MacDonald via Compfight cc

Why I write

September marks five months since the beginning of this project: daily writing on the often hidden possibilities of living and working, arising directly from my work supporting people in their development.

It seems an appropriate moment to say something about why I’ve made a commitment to this, the largest body of work I’ve produced to date and the one that has so far been among the most satisfying and exciting to write.

There’s a certain urgency to it. Because I hope it will do something.

It starts with my sense that we’ve constructed much of the working world in a way that sends us to sleep to ourselves, to others, and to what’s possible for us. We’re often fearful. We’re afraid to be fully seen. We hide behind words, procedures, frameworks, policies, perfectionism. We avoid the risky and important work of understanding one another.

We use shame to get what we want at the expense of people’s dignity. We take the burdens of the world on ourselves without reaching out for help, and expect others to do the same. We make sure we look fine. And we feel alone.

All this stifles our creativity, and has us hold back our most essential contribution from one another.

We design roles marked by how much of people’s uniqueness must be left out, rather than included. And we frequently treat people as if they were machines – particularly troublesome ones who won’t fit into the frameworks and designs we have for them.

Much of this happens even in many of the most sophisticated, principled of organisations.

While we’re doing this to others, we’re also doing it to ourselves. And most of the time we don’t even know that this is what we’re up to.

The writing here aims to help each of us undo all of this, bit by bit.

My hope is to support you if you recognise even a shred of what I’m saying here in yourself or in others; if you lead, whether ‘leadership’ is stated in your job title or not; and if you want to take your development seriously, so you can bring yourself with integrity, courage, generosity, wisdom, and fierce humanity to the world.

At heart, this project is about cultivating both inner and outer human freedom, so that we can release ourselves and others to make the contribution we’re really here to make.

And it’s about a scary thought – that it’s possible to bring about genuine, powerful change that matters.

To the over 200 people who receive this every day, and the many more who join in occasionally – thank you. There’s much more to come.

Photo by Justin Wise

Fiery and fierce

When was the last time you felt fiery and fierce about what you’re up to? Whole-heartedly and bodily swept up in work that matters deeply to you? Left feeling alive by your efforts?

When did you last find that your work diminished you? Left you feeling less than whole, and less than fully human?

And what, if anything, are you doing about what you’re concluding?

Photo Credit: peasap via Compfight cc

Not personal

I wrote yesterday about the pitfalls inherent in taking the impersonal events of the world as personal – living as if they are out to get you.

Now, let’s come close in, to the actions of the people around you.

What about when

your children don’t tidy up their rooms,
your partner leaves the washing in the sink,
your friends don’t call on your expected schedule,
your colleagues are absorbed in a task that’s unimportant to you,
your client turns down an offer,
your boss decides priorities are different to yours,
someone cancelled your project,
someone you were relying on didn’t meet your standards or expectations?

It’s hard not to experience ourselves as the centre of our known world. Was there ever a time when you were not the person closest at hand in your life? Because of this, your tendency may be to take much more personally than is ever the case. And each time you do, the possibilities for responding intelligently, rather than reacting impulsively, close down dramatically.

Mostly, it’s not personal. Not when the train is late and not when people didn’t do what you expected. Do these affect you, often deeply? Yes. Do you have an interest in what happens next? Yes. Is this proof that everyone and everything has it in for you? Unlikely.

When you drop your insistence that it’s all about you, you’ll be able to drop your resentment, your indignation, and your need to get even. And you’ll open up a huge space for responding – creatively, powerfully, compassionately, imaginatively – a much bigger space than the one you might be thrashing about in right now.

Photo Credit: Kuzeytac @Vacation via Compfight cc

Raining

When it’s raining, it can sometimes feel like the rain has chosen to fall on you specifically – to mess up a plan, to ruin a day you were hoping for. But you know, even though it doesn’t feel that way, that it’s not raining on you in particularThat is to say, rain really isn’t personal.

So the same goes when there’s a traffic jam, when the cupboard door comes off its hinges, when your computer crashes before you’ve saved your work, when the train is delayed, when there’s a power cut, when the price of shares you own goes down. None of these are happening just to you.

Taking each of those events as personal does nothing to help you respond intelligently to them. In fact, it may lead you down some manifestly unhelpful paths such as raging at nearby drivers, or hitting your computer, or resenting the people around you who have no influence on the situation, or freezing in fear and paralysis. It does much to increase your suffering and to limit the courses of helpful action available to you.

The more you imagine the world is out to get you, the more you’ll rob yourself of many productive ways of responding: you’ll feel more alone, you’ll need to find someone or something to blame.

And you’ll make it harder to reach out for help from, and offer support to, all the others of us who are thrown again and again into difficulty alongside you.

Photo Credit: .craig via Compfight cc

Doubting doubt

Perhaps you’re sure that many things you care about are not possible for you.

Perhaps you’re sure that others are not up to much.

Perhaps you’re sure that there’s not a great deal of hope of anything changing.

“I doubt” is the familiar way that many of us orientate to the world.

What if, today, instead of taking all your doubts as the incontrovertible truth, you began the project of doubting your own doubt?

Photo Credit: garrellmillhouse via Compfight cc