He’s so…

When you complain about the way somebody else behaves around you, here’s a thought:

Perhaps the way they’re behaving is one you’ve been inviting through your own way of relating to them.

The downside of discovering this? You’ll no longer be able to get yourself off the hook with your complaints and the certainty of your judgements.

The upside? By starting with yourself you’ll have a chance, at last, of actually changing the situation so what’s important to you can start to happen.

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Just like me

When you’re irritated or annoyed with someone for the way they’re being, you may think “I would never be like that”.

But the intensity of your irritation could be a sign that you’re experiencing a shadow side of yourself – a part of you, seen reflected in them, that you deny and which you do your best to keep out of view.

Pushing the other person away is an attempt to push away the part of yourself you’d rather not see.

And instead of believing all your judgements, you could start to recognise that what you’re seeing in them is, indeed, just like youAnd then you have the possibility of reaching out to them with compassion rather than hostility, learning more about yourself, and healing what’s pushing the two of you apart.

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What would happen if you gave up being in a battle with life all the time?

Instead of being so sure that what’s happening is not meant to be happening, and certainly isn’t meant to be happening to you, can you allow yourself to accept that what’s happening is, actually, exactly what is happening?

Then, instead of responding from resentment or resignation or frustration, you have a chance of finding out what’s really called for, and responding instead with that.

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What’s your understanding of the source of your actions and other people’s actions?

Mostly we’ve been taught to think that it’s something within that produces what we do. We talk about motivation, or goals, or drive, or inspiration. We think of ourselves as separate from the world and that our actions and relationship to everything comes from inside us out into the world. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.

But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

One of the important contributions of the work of Martin Heidegger last century was to show that we’re not as separate from the world as all that. Much of the time what’s happening is that we’re being drawn towards situations, equipment, or possibilities that we meet.

So, when there’s a chair in the room we’re drawn to sit down when we’re tired. Or when it’s time to go out of the room we’re drawn towards the door and reach for the handle, which draws us too.

This is different from the way you might think you relate to doors and chairs.

It’s not so much that before we act there’s a thinking process by which we first decide to find a door and then reach for the handle in a series of discrete steps. In the middle of everyday human life all of this just flows out of us, from the everyday familiarity and skilfulness in being in the world that we’ve embodied over a long time.

Heidegger called such features of the world that draw us out in particular ways affordances.

Being around different kinds of affordance draws us out of ourselves in different ways. Perhaps you’ll see this most clearly if you start to watch for a while what you’re drawn into – what you find yourself automatically doing, before you’ve even thought about it – in particular places.

What do the affordances of the kitchen draw you towards?
The lounge or sitting room with sofas and perhaps a TV?
A meeting room at work with a big boardroom table?
The bus-stop or the inside of a train?
A cathedral?
The waiting room for a doctor’s surgery?

If you watch for a while you’ll see that each place draws from you not just actions but a particular style of engaging with and relating to what’s around you that includes how you relate to others.  It’s all happening long before you’ve even thought about how to respond in this or that place.

This is an important topic because it shows us quickly how much place affects us.

There’ll be more to say about this over the coming days because equipment (whether paintbrushes, books, teacups or smartphones) and people are affordances too. And there are huge practical consequences of this for all of us, that mostly we’re not paying attention to.

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Not machines

Organisations are not machines that can be programmed.

Because people are not machines either.

People are human beings. 

A radical perspective, I know, in a world where we’ve spent the last 150 years doing our best to have people fit in as if they were cogs or crankshafts in a huge mechanism.

Our insistence on seeing ourselves as machines makes organising ourselves look easier, but comes at a huge cost. Either we ignore what’s spontaneous, mysterious and creative about people in order to see only what fits the narrow way we’ve committed ourselves to seeing. Or we corral people into leaving parts of themselves out so they can appear to be the tightly defined machine part we’ve insisted they be.

Wouldn’t understanding ourselves as human, and our organisations as living, bring us a more truthful, challenging, possibility-laden, and creative way to respond to the urgency of organising ourselves so that good work can happen?

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Wounding others

We all have those moments when, perhaps even before we’ve thought about it, we’ve wounded others – with a well-chosen barb, a dose of sarcastic humour, by locking them out or turning away, by yelling or insulting, by shaming.

Perhaps it happens for you often.

Maybe it’s worth checking what the source of this is.

So often we’re wounding other people because we just got wounded ourselves, sometimes by a thought or a memory rising quietly inside that nobody else can even see. We deal with our own pain by swinging it out onto somebody else.

And sometimes we wound others because, to put it simply, it’s what happened to us repeatedly along the way and now it’s their turn for a share of it.

Whatever the cause, if you’re regularly wounding your colleagues, your team, or the people close to you as a way of handling your own suffering, it might be time to consider an alternative.

You can’t avoid having been wounded. It’s an inescapable part of reaching adulthood. And just as this is true for you, it’s true for everyone around you.

Knowing this, perhaps you can catch on to what you’re really up to each time you lash out. And then, by cultivating ongoing tenderness and kindness – first to yourself – you can work more and more on having your wounds become a gift of understanding to others and not an excuse to act out.

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Over time, we mostly develop a quite strong sense of our own identity. 

We understand ourselves as this or that kind of person, with certain kinds of cares and commitments, certain kinds of likes and dislikes, certain kinds of tastes and values. And we also know ourselves from the way our relationships go, as someone who is loved or not, gets close to people or not, can speak up or stay quiet.

What we don’t often see so strongly is how our daily practices – the repeated way we go about things – are an active force in maintaing the particular identity we’ve got used to. And how they can be an equally active force in changing it.

How you get up, how you get dressed, how you eat, how you speak with people, how you listen, how you move your body, how you care for yourself, how you apportion your time, what you choose to pay attention to, your habitual patterns of thinking, when you shrink or come forward, how you stop (if you stop) – are all shaping you every time you do them.

Our unconscious practices quickly form a self-sealing circle, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, making possible certain experiences and actions, and keeping others far away from us.

So, if you want to shift your sense of yourself, and the way others know you, consider consciously and purposefully finding practices that can take you in a new direction.

The more comfortable and familiar they are, the less possibility they’ll have to change you. The more they take you into new territory (into a new world), the more they stir up, the more they call on you to learn a new way of being that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable, the more powerful they can be.

New practices interrupt the way we’ve gone about constructing ourselves.

An example from my own experience: after a lifetime of knowing myself as thoughtful and considered, as one around whom people feel safe, a bringer of peace in the midst of conflict, I’ve taken up kick-boxing.

And now, I’m starting to know myself also as fierce, super-disciplined, sharp, graceful and expressive. I’m learning how rage can be part of me – integrated – rather than forever denied or kept in the shadows. And I more and more have a body that can do all of this. As a result new conversations, new relationships, and new ways of working with other people are becoming apparent to me.

And all of this is so important any time we find that the identity we’ve taken up holds us back from contributing, or leads to suffering for ourselves or those around us.

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Our longing for reassurance

I’ve written before about my sense that what we’re doing, in our incessant and habitual checking of our devices, is looking for reassurance.

For many of us, it’s a way of settling the restless, anxious, fearful longing that arises from a world that’s always shifting and from the sense that there’s nowhere solid to stand.

Rather than turn towards the longing, to explore it and know it and be changed by it, we numb it by turning away into our devices. Perhaps, we think, we’ll see the message or news item or tweet that will show us everything is alright, that we don’t need to feel so afraid or uncertain any more.

And, of course, such a message can never come. The momentary soothing of our jitteriness is soon over, and we reach impulsively again for a glowing screen that we hope can save us.

I saw this short film for the first time this week. It shows us clearly what we’re doing, and some of the consequences.

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The language of objects

“The language of objects catches only one corner of human life”
Martin Buber

If we want to survive in the world we need to know how to relate to everything around us as an object (an ‘it’) – something that is of use, that can be formed, or shaped, or measured in some way, that can serve our needs. Without this, we would soon die. Or, at the very least, all our intentions to have anything happen in the world would be thwarted.

But just because the past 200 years of science and technology have given us an explosion of new ways to objectify the world so we can shape it, please don’t be misled into thinking that’s all there is to human life.

If we don’t pay attention, pretty soon we can reduce everything – including people – to objects. And then we miss the possibility of encountering anything of substance. All we get is surface.

So, by all means, do the necessary work to measure what people around you are up to. Assign scores, gradings, personality types, psychometrics. Rate people by their performance, their ROI, their bonus, their job title. Do all this in whichever way helps you to have what matters to you actually happen.

But, please, don’t mislead yourself that what you’ve created is all there is about them, or that you’ve ‘got them nailed’ in some essential way.

Because behind your measures – indeed all around them – people are worlds of immense complexity and depth. And, however efficient we’re getting, we need to remember this if we’re going to go beyond surviving and do work in which people can actually thrive.

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Talk not mail

Do you think it’s possible that your daily commitment to respond to all your emails simply invites other people to send more to you?

And that what you’re doing is adding to the email madness that many people’s lives have become?

What would happen if you put some of this down and became a stand for talking to people instead?

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Eaten up

You won’t address the vicious cycle of busyness that you’re in simply by getting more efficient, or going faster, or keeping going for longer.

It looks like that’s the way to salvation, but in fact you’re just digging yourself in deeper.

Because it’s likely that there’s an endless list of things for you to do. Going faster completes more of them, more quickly. But it also reveals to you just how much more there is that still needs your attention.

No, efficiency and speed and longer hours on their own simply feed the cycle. And while you may feel heroic, or important, or that your endless effort is unquestionably needed by everyone, you’re on a path which becomes ever more vicious in its capacity to consume you.

It’s time to step out of the more and faster story. Give up wearing your busyness as a badge of honour, so that you can discover a new way of doing what matters.

Here’s a risky, brave and life-changing alternative, one that’s going to call on you to know yourself in a whole new way:

a) Decide what’s genuinely important and what’s not.

Saying no is the single biggest liberation here.

b) Give up on the story that it’s all down to you.

Asking for help from others and being prepared to tolerate the uncertainty and risk this involves is the key (which means giving up your insistence on control, because you cannot control when and how another will take up what you’re asking of them).

c) Start to take caring for yourself very seriously indeed

Because your capacity to do (a) and (b) is directly proportional to your energy, clarity and courage, none of which are helped by being exhausted, frazzled and overwrought.

Radical? It may seem so from in the midst of the stress or excitement of being always on the go.

But it is, perhaps, at last a chance to rescue yourself and your life from being eaten up whole.

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Any day now


Last Monday, Sir John Tavener was on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week‘, talking about illness, mortality, and the power of music and poetry to touch us, to awaken us to life’s beauty, and to remind us to live fully. Because death is always around the corner.

Life, he said, is a creeping tragedy, and for this reason there was no better orientation to it than learning to be cheerful, and nothing more important to attend to than love.

He died the very next day.

It’s easy to forget that sudden illness and sudden leaving is an ever present possibility for all of us, and in our forgetfulness to live as if the hassles and hurdles we face each day are somehow separate from life, a burden we have to overcome before we can really start living at last.

But of course, if you’re reading this that’s what you’re already doing – really living. How could it be any other way?

Perhaps it’s time you put down your story about how things are meant to be so that you can wake up to life and live it, just for a while, as it is.


One of the sources of profound difficulty in human relationships: trying to colonise other people’s worlds.

… by being blind to their difference from you:

Assuming they see (or ought to see) and understand in the same way you do.
Expecting them to respond as you do: be excited about the same things, irritated by the same things, upset by the same things, and committed to the same things.

.. or by attempting to knock them into (your) shape:

Consciously or unconsciously applying pressure to have them fit the shape of your own world. Using shame, promises, withdrawal, forcefulness, sulking, rejection, or reward to corral them.

This kind of colonising is an everyday oppression of others that we so easily get into, without even knowing it’s what we are doing.

Can you see it in your attempts to have the people you work with all be the same (same values, same behaviour, same personality, same opinions)?

Or in the way you parent your children to have them turn out like you?

Or in what you demand from friends or lovers?

Perhaps it’s time to give up colonising and start to be an explorer instead. What other people’s worlds have to teach you, if you’ll let go of your grip enough to allow it, might just change everything.

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The New World

Terence Malick is one of my favourite film-makers – an accomplished director and story-teller with a deep understanding of philosophy. Underneath the narrative current of his movies are explorations of profound questions about human life and living.

In 2005 he released The New World, which centres on the founding of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s.

As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s a film about worlds.

Not world simply as in ‘place’, but world as in the whole style of relating to everything that we’re each in from moment to moment, but which we often can’t see. World as in the invisible way our language and practices shape what we can see, what we can imagine, and what we can do. World meant as when we say ‘the art world’, or ‘the world of science’, or ‘Anna’s world’.

Early on in the film, the European settlers, newly arrived in America, run into terrible difficulty. They’re unable to understand that the world with which they’re familiar and the new world in which they’re living are not the same. They can see and act only in the habitual ways handed to them by their European heritage. And they’re blind to their own blindness.

When winter comes, they freeze, starve and get sick behind the high wooden walls of their compound, unable to work the land to produce what they need. They have neither the experience, nor the appetite, to genuinely open their eyes or shift their practices to account for what’s around them. They don’t have the distinctions in language allow them to discern what’s needed. And they treat the local Algonquian people – the very people who could teach them how to survive by inviting them into a new world of understanding – with disdain, violence and suspicion. The Algonquian become resources to be utilised rather than people who could show them how to see.

The film’s heart explores the relationship between John Smith, a settler, and Pocahontas, a princess of the Algonquian people. Both are, uniquely to their people, travellers between worlds. They alone appreciate the mystery and beauty of the otherness of the other, the possibilities that the other’s world and language and way of seeing can bring. And both are chastised, judged, and cast out for stepping outside the horizons of their own communities.

The whole film is a reminder of the choices we make whenever we find ourselves in a situation, or with people, that we cannot at first understand. The decision to colonise, forcing our world and understanding onto theirs, or to be a traveller between worlds, opening in curiosity and wonder to the other, lead to very different places.

And the choice is not just for grand historical situations such as settlers arriving in a new land. It’s there for us in the most ordinary and everyday of situations as we navigate the simultaneously familiar but always strange and unknowable worlds of our co-workers, our families, and our communities.

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There are seasons in all of our lives.

It’s easy to imagine that the circumstances you’re in, or the experience you’re having, will continue just this way always.

But the limbo summer, in which nothing felt stable, or the autumn full of rushing self-confidence, or the winter of quiet sadness, each turn out to be a way-station, a transition time between this and that.

Sometimes our transitions unfold slowly enough that we cannot detect them from within, until we turn back and see just how far we have come.

And then we realise that however certain we were that we were stuck, or that we had it made, everything is really changing all the time – neither blessing nor curse, but just life’s way of doing what life does.

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Among the most healing of all human possibilities.

Today, can you start by forgiving yourself?

.. for your forgetfulness, your anger, your irritability, your desire to please, your frustration, your resentment, your boredom, your rushing, your waiting, your confusion?

Can you forgive yourself, please, for everything you judge so harshly about yourself? And for everything that makes you, simply, human?

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Three rings

Downstream: the ‘hard’ measures through which you track what you’re up to.

Upstream: what makes it all possible – the intentions, commitments and relationships from which everything flows.

If you commit to changing a downstream measure without doing the upstream work that supports it, you could easily end up having a very different effect to that which you’re intending.

An example. You commit to answer the phone every time within three rings (a downstream measure). And then you discover that everyone feels so much pressure to perform that they’re abruptly cutting off conversations with customers, frantically interrupting them as they speak, and failing to listen deeply to their concerns.

If the downstream change is going to have a chance of meaning something, you’re going to have to attend to the upstream source that gives it a home in which it can flourish. In this case that’s the genuineness of your intention to serve your customers, and everyone’s capacity to stay receptive, grounded and in relationship to others as they learn new ways to act.

Without this attention the shiny little fish you’re throwing in the downstream waters will survive only for a short while. And when people see them wither once again, you’ll be adding to their cynicism and resignation rather than doing something that could have your intentions flourish.

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Next time you’re super-irritated by someone else, consider this: perhaps it’s something in yourself that you can’t stand, rather than them.

The inner critic can play games like this, disguising self-judgement and turning it into judgement of others.

And then what you’re really doing is projecting a part of you onto them, where it’s more comfortable and where you can pretend it’s nothing to do with you.

Your irritation won’t resolve by insisting they change. But it might when you start to welcome all the shadow parts of you that, in the end, make you human.

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Not of service

It’s not being of service to say ‘yes’ to everything you’re asked by the people you consider to be your customers. Especially if you have any discernment, expertise or wisdom to offer them.

‘Yes’ to everything turns you into an automaton, with no capacity to choose.

Soon you’ll be overwhelmed with requests that you can’t fulfil without running yourself into the ground.

And you’ll be left with no capacity to bring what only you can see, that they could never have asked you for.

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Where the stories are

We can’t help but live in stories.

But you may not find the story you’re living (the one that opens or closes possibilities for you) in your thoughts. In fact, the narrative you’ve taken up in your life may hardly be visible to you by looking there at all.

Mostly, the stories we’re inhabiting that shape us so much are in the background. Or, put another way, they’re often so close to us we can’t see them. See this previous post, this one, and this one, for an idea of what I mean.

So, where to look?

You could start off by watching your actions closely for a while: who you speak to and who you avoid, and what you actually say; how you get your needs met; how you ask for things; the kinds of places you go; what you do impulsively or repeatedly; what you pay attention to and what not. So often what we’re doing is not what we think we’re doing, and our familiar explanations of ourselves miss so much.

And you could watch what happens in your body: when you tighten up, and when you relax; the situations in which you hold your breath more than usual; when you collapse – even just a little – and when you are able to support yourself with more strength; when you armour yourself so you won’t have to feel something; when strong emotions – love, disgust, rage, hope, resentment, gratitude, fear – arise.

What kind of story accounts for what you find?

Sometimes a compassionate, skilled observer who’s willing to share their impressions can help: a friend, a family member, a colleague, or a coach. They may be able to find words to express what’s harder for you to see about the narrative from which you’re living, leading, and acting.

Seeing our stories for the first time can be enormously liberating. Because then you can find out that you are not the story itself. You’re way bigger than that. And you can allow yourself to have your story rather than being had by it.

And this, at last, opens up the possibility that there are other stories you could live – stories with much more space in them, and way more possibility.

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Dry and lifeless

Here’s the difficulty.

What’s downstream is more often what looks measurable, or at least easiest to talk about. Behaviour, output, hours worked, jobs done, calls answered, sales made, targets reached.

What’s upstream – from which what’s downstream flows – often seems harder to talk about and harder to address:

The background culture and narratives of your organisation. The kind of person you are. How alive you and the people around you are willing to be. The conversations that are being had, and aren’t being had. People’s inner worlds of meaning, hope, doubt and longing. The quality of openness, courage, truthfulness people embody. The pervasive and often hidden effect of the inner critic. The background mood – fear, commitment, sincerity, cynicism, resentment.

What happens upstream profoundly shapes what happens downstream, but there’s no simple, predictable relationship between one and the other.

We’ve become terrified of working with what’s upstream because it’s not measurable and because we can’t establish a straightforward cause and effect connection with what emerges downstream.

Working with what’s upstream calls on us to face ourselves and others, to turn away from what we’re denying, to change ourselves rather than expecting everything else to change around us, to admit that we don’t know.

But more and more we want to control everything, to predict everything, to never be surprised or disturbed. And so we treat only what’s downstream as ‘real’ and dismiss what’s upstream as irrelevant.

And rather than face our fear and uncertainty, it leaves us failing to work in the place that could most address our concerns, and adopting dry, lifeless initiatives, change programmes, and measures instead.

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For granted

Ordinary life can seem so – ordinary – that it’s natural to slip into taking it for granted, as if it were obvious and straightforward that we’re here, and as if it will go on this way for ever.

Many traditions have practices to remind us that it’s anything but ordinary to be able to move, breathe, think, make breakfast, travel, work, love, argue, sleep, produce, write, speak. And that it’s anything but ordinary to have a body that can do all this again and again, which can heal itself so often without us having to do anything. And that none of it lasts nearly as long as we might hope.

Here’s a morning blessing from Judaism, said by some as they use the bathroom for the first time in the day, that I think is particularly brilliant for its combination of straightforwardness about life and death, piercing insight, and gentle humour.

Blessed are you, Eternal One, Creator of everything, who formed human beings in wisdom, creating within us openings and vessels. It is revealed and known before you that if any one of them is opened or closed it would be impossible to remain alive and stand before You. Blessed are you, Eternal One, who heals all flesh and performs such wonders.

Finding daily practices to remind us of our bodies’ unlikeliness and wonder – even in the most ordinary of circumstances – does not require religious belief of any kind of course (and in Judaism, by the way, belief is secondary to practice, the actions that shape the world of possibility and relationship again and again).

All it requires is opening to life. And reminding ourselves that we are each here on account of nothing that we did.

And that by one of the most unlikely miracles imaginable we each find ourselves for a brief time, embodied, in a world ready and waiting for our participation.

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Getting soaked

If you want things to change in your relationship with others, it’s no good just wishing for it.

You’re going to have to change: first changing your story about the situation (everything you think you’re sure about, especially who’s to blame and why you’re so stuck), and then you’re going to have to change your practices: the actions you’re taking that are keeping you just the way you are, so that others stay as they are.

Wishing that other people will change without you doing this is like going out in the rain without an umbrella and hoping against hope that you won’t get wet.

If you want others to join you, you’re going to have to commit to being someone who can be joined rather than one who puts up barriers and obstacles along the way. And you’re going to have to give up being someone who waits to be found, but reaches out actively to find others and draw them close.

Like I said, if you want to change your relationship with others, it’s no good just wishing for it. Because if you do, you’re going to carry on getting soaked.

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Downstream: ‘Behaviours’

Upstream: The kind of person you are.

What’s downstream flows from what’s upstream.

All too often, at least in the organisational world, we try to work with what’s downstream without paying any attention to what’s upstream.

We invent behaviour frameworks, cajole people, and tell them what to do without giving any consideration to what it takes to be the kind of person who has new ways of acting available to them.

We’re looking at what we so urgently want to be present without looking at its becoming.

It’s like tipping fish into a dry river and expecting them to survive without doing the difficult and important work of attending to the spring. And just because it’s quick and obvious doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, or that it will go any way to addressing the difficulties you’re experiencing.

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Soft clay

If you’re always taking action, producing, making, shaping the world…

… do you leave open any space for the world to shape you?

What happens if as well as being the potter…

… you allow yourself to soften enough that you can also be the clay?

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The way we’re working isn’t working

I know. You take getting things done seriously. In fact, it’s pretty much all you think about – how much you’ve done, how much is yet undone, and all the consequences if you don’t stay on top of everything all the time.

But how seriously do you take your capacity to get things done?

So many of us are running continuously on empty, or near to empty, because we’ve forgotten about this. We think that if we just keep on pushing ourselves, perhaps eventually we’ll have the opportunity to rest. But we know, really where that ends. In exhaustion, in collapse, in burn-out, in illness. And, more immediately, it seriously erodes our capacity to do anything important, to do anything well.

So instead of looking all the time at how much you’re getting done, how about shifting your attention to how much energy you have? You’ll reap huge dividends by attending seriously to sleep, to rest, to exercise, to eating well, to cultivating a wider range of interests that touch you, to building and maintaining supportive and nurturing relationships with others.

if you’re struggling and suffering, it may be because you haven’t looked here yet. Or you’ve looked but haven’t take action.

If you’d like some support in this – rigorous research, and many practical suggestions – you could read ‘Be Excellent at Anything’ by Tony Schwartz. (I thought the book’s original title ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working’ pointed even more crisply into the difficulties so many people experience.) He’s done a wonderful job of bringing together understanding from many different disciplines to show us what’s possible, and what it takes, to live a life in which we’re able do what’s important to us because of the way we’re taking care of ourselves.


Mostly we experience ourselves as separate from one another.

We experience the way our bodies are separated from one another in space, the way our personal life history is distinct from that of others, and the apparent hiddenness of our inner world. And we conclude that in some fundamental sense the distance between us and others is unbridgeable, that we are alone.

And it’s no wonder, because as well as what we see, the public discourse of the past 300 years or so has encouraged us to relate to life in this way. Rene Descartes‘ move to portray us as isolated individual minds, separated from everything else, plays a big part in this. And our increasingly individualistic political and economic narratives have split from one another still further.

But when we look this way we’re looking only at the results of something, not the something itself that underlies it all. We take our separate and individual bodies as proof of our separateness, but we are looking too far ‘downstream’ as it were.

If we were to look further upstream we’d see not just our separateness but an endless process of becoming that produces it all.

We’d see the whole of human life renewing itself through the biological processes of conception and birth, each new generation of human beings emerging from the bodies of those of us already here. And we’d see human life becoming itself through language, culture, conversations and ideas, through the grand stories and narratives that shape us even as we shape them.

Looking downstream we see our physical separateness. Looking upstream we see that we are expressions of a unified and ceaseless process of becoming that happens through us and because of us, and that produces all of human life.

Sometimes we gaze at others and realise this. We see them not as separate, but as an expression of the selfsame life that we are. We realise that ‘they’ are really another aspect of that which makes us ‘ourselves’.

And this, I think, is what we call love.

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Embracing the storm

Your attempts to control life can take you only so far.

You can try to eliminate all risk. The cost? Less and less room to move. A smaller space in which to live. Because life is inherently risky. And the only way to avoid it is to avoid life itself (a strategy with risks all of its own).

Or you can try to never feel fear. Or shame, embarrassment, uncertainty, confusion. But to do this you’ll also have to shrink your life down to tiny, rigid proportions. You’ll have to live a life in which you do nothing and in which nothing can touch you. And even then, you’ll still feel them.

Better to give up the idea altogether that you can shape life to meet you. That you can win.

Time instead to embrace the possibility of defeat. Give up endlessly fighting off what’s difficult in life, and allow it to fight with you for a while instead. Let life in, in all of its fury and strength. Learn, as in the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, that whoever allows themselves to be defeated often comes away:

“proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.”

from Rainer Maria Rilke ‘The Man Watching

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Mostly the stories we’re living are invisible to us. They’re like the air we breathe, or the water we swim in.

If you’re someone who never rests, who keeps going even when you’re exhausted – as so many of us do – do any of these stories shed light on the way you’re living?

Are you taking yourself to be

An orphan? Carrying a huge burden given to you by others that cannot be put down. There’s nowhere to rest. Nobody who can really be relied on. Nowhere that’s safe. All you can do is to keep on carrying, carrying, carrying, knowing that life is ultimately exhausting and nobody can help you.

frantic hare? Always running to get to the finish line. The point of life is to hurry, hurry, hurry so that you can be there first. If you stop, even for a moment, you’ll lose the race. Because everyone else is apparently running too.

The emperor in new clothesTrying to look good or at least acceptable, but fearing that everyone else can secretly see that it’s all a façade. So you have to work hard all the time to keep up an image, and not let any cracks show, in case you get found out.

Atlas? Holding up the world for everyone with unceasing, superhuman effort. If you don’t do it, nobody else will, and then the sky will fall in and everything will come apart.

And if not one of these stories, is there another one you can find that will explain why you’re so sure you can never stop, never take care of yourself?

Where did you get your story from? From your family? From the wider culture into which you were born?

And what happens if you let go of your story, just a little, and find out that it can’t be completely true? Perhaps then you’ll find out that you’ll still be alive, and people will still be around, even if you lie down for a while.

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Stories you could live

To be human is to be storied.

We’re always living out a story of one kind or another. And we mostly have no idea the extent to which we inherited the stories we’re living from our culture and from our family.

Our stories tell us who we are, and what’s possible for us.

Sometimes – often – the stories we’re living are way out of date, or way too small for us. They fail to account for our lives. They hide possibilities to step forward and contribute. They mislead us. They’re the stories others handed us, rather than those we could tell about ourselves.

And here’s the thing: whatever story you’re used to living, there are almost certainly hundreds of other stories that could account for who you are and what you’re up to more accurately and expansively. Stories that bring you to life. Stories that evoke courage and presence, kindness and discipline, compassion and wisdom.

Can you tell what story you’re living, and what size world it produces? Does it increase or reduce your suffering? The suffering of others? Does it have you hold back, or come forward with your most whole-hearted contribution?

And are you willing to be a story-hunter, finding other ways of accounting for your life that would address these questions?

For a wonderful, precise and illuminating account of the storied world of human beings, you could read The World Is Made of Stories by David Loy. It’s filled with examples, powerful quotes and language sharp enough to show us the mostly invisible world of stories we’re all swimming in.

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