New year

There’s an invitation, and a trap, in the making of new year resolutions.

The invitation – exercising your capacity for imagination. Dreaming up what you might commit yourself to, what you can create, and the many possibilities you might bring into the world.

The trap – having your happiness and fulfillment depend upon realising them. Setting up an ongoing comparison between how life is and how you think it’s meant to be.

The way of imagination can beckon you into life. The way of comparison leads to guilt, resentment, the harshness of inner critic, and defensiveness – surefire ways of disengaging from the possibilities that life has to offer.

Perhaps what 2014 is asking of you, in any case, is unknowable from here, on this transition point we call New Year. And what’s needed most is your presence, your openness to life, and your preparedness to be surprised.

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Living all the way through

Listening this evening to a beautiful radio documentary ‘The Living Mountain‘ (based on an equally beautiful book of the same name) I am introduced to the idea of ‘living all the way through’ – living in such a way that we get to taste, smell, see, hear and touch the world.

In our lives of busyness and distraction, in our striving to get wherever it is we think we have to be in order to be happy, in the midst of the frequent harshness of our inner worlds, how often do we remember to do this? To taste, smell, see, hear and touch any of it deeply enough that it can register?

And in addition to all your plans to achieve, to get ahead, to get things done, how about the coming year being one in which to remember this as a possibility?

So that this year is not a year you miss in your frantic activity, but a year that you actually choose to live?

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It’s common to think that insight is required before you can make a change to your life, to your work, to your relationships.

But it’s equally true to say that insight is what happens as a result of the changes you make.

Seeing further into the world, or understanding more deeply, often requires standing in a different place to the one you’re standing in now. If you’re waiting for insight to strike you first, you might have it exactly the wrong way around.

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Monoculture: New reading for the new year

Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything‘, is F.S. Michaels’ eloquent account of how the economic narrative upon we’ve built our society is quietly, invisibly changing the way we think about many aspects of contemporary life.

Taking on work, creativity, our relationships with one another and with the natural world, education, community and health, she shows us how we’ve redefined value to mean ‘financial value’, and the far-reaching consequences of this for the quality of lives we’re able to lead. And she’s bold enough to suggest strategies and practices by which it might be possible to consciously engage with the wider culture without either absenting ourselves from it or simply being swept up by it.

It’s a powerful, provocative and pragmatic book, with enormous possibilities for changing the reader. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to see through the everyday ‘common sense’ we increasingly take for granted in our institutions, society, and personal lives.

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Regret’s unfulfilled demand

The other problem with regret (see yesterday’s post) is the way in which it keeps you living in the past.

Regret is itself a kind of longing – a longing for it to be possible, somehow, to revisit what’s happened and to make different choices.

And so living in regret for too long places an absurd demand on you – that you could, with sufficient effort and self-criticism, turn out to have been a different person than the one you actually were back then when it happened. A person who can see what you can see now.

Impossible. Because life can only actually be lived in the present. And the day-to-day living of life, in practice, can only be forward.

So allow regret to be your teacher, yes.

But not the horizon within which you live your life.

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Longing and regret

One of the consequences of our inevitable longing (see yesterday’s post) is how readily it turns into regret.

Regret that things didn’t work out the way you hoped they would. Regret at the situation you find yourself in now. Regret at your part in all of this. “If only,” you might say “if only I’d done things differently.”

And while regret, as all moods do, has its own purpose and logic in drawing our attention to what’s missing and what could have been, it does little to orient us towards future possibilities. Regret is a mood that keeps us in the past, always looking back towards what we understand to be the root of our suffering.

I saw the first Lord of the Rings film again this week, and was struck by the straightforward but powerful wisdom in a short exchange between the hobbit Frodo and the wizard Gandalf, at a moment of great difficulty that’s unfolding from Frodo’s earlier choices:

“I wish the ring had never come to me.” says Frodo. “I wish none of this had happened.”

“So do all who live to see such times,” replies Gandalf, “but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

And so for all of us, whether we look back on the past year in satisfaction or in sadness and longing.

There is no changing what is, but there is always the possibility of yet deciding who we will be, and what we’ll do next in response to the life in the middle of which we find ourselves again and again.

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Longing and Gratitude

Longing, it seems to me, is one of the givens of a human life.

What we long for changes – somewhere else to live, a walk in the mountains, fulfilling work, a friend or lover, family, peace, the return of someone or something we lost, a place where we can be home – but longing itself is a constant, born of our capacity to imagine and dream better futures for ourselves and those around us.

It’s a mistake, then, to long for a life in which longing itself is absent. Better, instead, to live fully in the knowledge that longing and life are inseparable.

And although longing, and its tender sadness, is inescapable, it can be softened by gratitude – for the life we’ve been given, for the people around us, for the air we breathe, for the opportunity to think and talk and question and strive, for the possibility of longing itself.

Thank you to the hundreds of you who receive and read this each day, and who sometimes allow what’s being written here to touch you and change you in some way.

I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity you’re giving me to write and create – itself an expression of my own deep longing to contribute in a meaningful and enduring way to the lives of others.

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Work and the consumer

When we think of ourselves primarily as consumers, we perilously narrow our understanding of what work is for.

For the consumer, work is primarily about getting more. Work generates income, which generates buying power, which generates the mark of success for the consumer – being able to have what you want.

And since there’s always more to want, being in work to fulfil the narrative of the consumer can never, truly, fulfill. We become wide-open gaping mouths, always wanting, never satisfied.

And, in this way, we rob work of so many other life-giving possibilities:

  • that it might connect us deeply with people and give us a place to belong
  • that it might be a way in which our particular gifts and talents can be marshalled for the benefit of others
  • that it could be a deep source of meaningful engagement with life

If we want work to open bigger possibilities for ourselves, our organisations, and our society, it’s time for us to give this a lot more serious thought and attention than we’re currently used to.

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Nine ways we grasp for safety

Nine ways we try to make ourselves safe:

If I can make myself and everything around me perfect

If I can make other people love me and depend upon me…

If I can look successful in the eyes of others…

If I can be uniquely, expressively myself…

If I can understand the complexity of the world, from end to end…

If I can stay alert to all the dangers of the world and prepare for them…

If I can distract myself with pleasure…

If I can control and dominate others…

If I can not get angry and make sure nobody else ever gets angry with me…

… then I’ll feel safe.

Which of these do you recognise in yourself?

And do any of them, really, work out?

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A will to wonder

“As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines.

Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind.

Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.

The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.

What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder”.

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Stand for a while, in a field, on the banks of a slow-moving river, beside the silent pulse of a huge tree. Allow yourself to feel, for a moment, the life that is all around you.

Worms and insects are working their magic in the soft soil beneath your feet. Birds, making their way home as dusk falls. Everything alive, breathing, just as you are.

The swifts crossing the horizon share their biology with you: DNA, cells, blood, hearts, eyes, brain. That dry stone wall, a common inheritance: molecules, atoms. Sustaining it all, the sun, even now dropping below the horizon.

No matter how busy you are, how important, how much you enchant yourself with demands and expectations. Even if you spend your days under the hum of electric lights, your nights hidden away in the darkness. No matter how weary, world-worn, distracted, lost. Nothing you’re seeing is as separate from you as you’ve come to believe.

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Approval School

We spend most of the first part of our lives in approval training.

For good reason, the people around us – perhaps especially those who care for us most – do their best to ensure we fit in to the particular family or culture into which we’re born. It can be an act of love to do this, because without the capacity to get along with others in socially acceptable ways we’d quickly find ourselves friendless, and perhaps unable to support ourselves in the world.

But the consequence of this necessary kind of care is that we quickly find ourselves in a kind of approval school. Some parts of us are welcomed, applauded and cherished by others. Other parts of us are not seen, unappreciated, or actively and forcibly denied to us. We learn that seeking approval of one kind or another from other people is one of life’s central tasks if we are to survive and thrive.

And then we take our approval training into adulthood, long after it’s stopped supporting us.

How much we hold back from the world because of it. How much art, creativity, insight and mischief is denied because of our ongoing attempts to look good in the eyes of others.

And then how much we build our organisations and institutions to perpetuate, reward and encourage approval rather than the genuine, brave, unsettling, surprising, life-giving contribution all human beings are capable of making to one another when we give up faking.

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Work is

“Work is love made visible.”
Kahlil Gibran

Can you say this about your own work?

If not, is that because you’ve abandoned yourself? That it’s time to look for something new?

Or could it be, if you looked at it from a new angle, if you allowed it to arise from a different place within you, that the very work to which you’ve already committed yourself could yet turn out to be a work of true love made real?

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Three basic human needs, none of which can be met by accumulating more stuff, more status, or more prestige:

  • Meaning
  • Belonging
  • Contribution

If you’re yearning for something, it might help you to consider which of these is your particular wish – that which would bring you most alive.

And perhaps it would be worth considering whether what you’ve dedicated so much effort to chasing instead  – money, more possessions, getting ahead of others – can ever hope to address what you’re really longing for.

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I’ve been arguing here for a while that human beings are deeply affected by what we’re around, including by other people. We are far from the separate, solitary, unitary individuals that our contemporary understanding (or at least the understanding of the past 200-300 years) would have us be.

This has far-reaching consequences for much of the ‘common sense’ by which we think about ourselves.

In the world of organisations in particular, it’s considered good practice by many to give people enduring labels such as ‘high performer’, ‘low performer’, ‘star’ or ‘troublemaker’. Whole performance management systems are based upon the premise that this is a reasonable thing to do.

What such labelling always leaves out is any understanding that we have any affect upon one another.

Someone who you are sure is a troublemaker may, indeed, be a gift of possibility when around others. A ‘low performer’ can easily be someone who contributes enormously when they’re in different company.

Being so sure about others’ enduring qualities without looking at your own role in how they show up means you’re missing a huge opportunity to effect change in whatever organisation or system you’re involved.

How people ‘perform’ around you, will – in the end – have as much to do with you, as it ever did with them.

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Scrunchy face

What do you do with your body – probably habitually – to prevent yourself from feeling what you don’t want to feel?

Perhaps you hold your breath (very common), clench your jaw, tighten your belly, slump, slouch, tilt your head back, or knot your arms across your chest.

Or maybe you use habitual movements, ticks or gestures as a way of avoiding feeling something you’d rather not.

In each case it’s a way of tuning out of connection with yourself, with others, and with what’s actually happening. It’s a way of moving away from here in order to feel safe.

I’m learning to see how I do this with my face – a half-smile and scrunching of my eyes and the upper part of my cheeks. It’s rigid and tense, and does its numbing job quite well.

I think the smiling – which of course I can’t see – is how I say to other people “I’m ok, so please don’t bother me”. And the move as a whole is a way of protecting myself from the emotion I most automatically try to avoid: shame.

In every case, when I catch myself doing this, I also find out that It doesn’t feel at all alive. It’s frozen. Dead.

Being alive requires feeling all of it, whatever may come. And relaxing the tight scrunch so I can be fully in the world again.

If you watch yourself for a while, can you tell how you might be using your body to hold yourself away from experiencing life?

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Not Broken

We’d better catch on to the harshness of our inner worlds – the suffering at the hands of our own inner critic in particular.

If not for ourselves, then we must do this for all the people around us. Because our being convinced we’re broken – as so many of us are – is not only our difficulty. It affects everyone.

Every time we take our inner criticism to be real, we diminish ourselves and our capacity to contribute. We close off wide avenues of generosity and creativity.

And can we really believe we can accept the relentless attack of our own critic without it convincing us that everyone else is broken too?

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Growing up

Growing up:

Giving up the notion that the world revolves around you.

And that what happens, however good or bad it seems, is happening to you specifically.

Growing up:

Coming to the understanding that the world, and life, is just happening.

And none of it is personal.

And from there, learning how to respond.

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Withdrawing our shadow

Shadow – all that’s within us that we deny, and which we consequently project onto others in blame, irritation, judgement, frustration, fear.


“The best politicalsocial, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”

Carl Gustav Jung

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Your stories about others

Just as your stories about yourself are partial and particular to you, so are your stories about others. What you say about them is just one out of a million different ways of saying it.

So here’s a genuinely liberating and illuminating practice, when you’re sure you’ve been wronged, unloved, badly treated, ignored, slighted, misunderstood, or deliberately hurt.

Write out your story from end to end three ways:

  • from your own perspective (your usual, familiar telling)
  • from the perspective of the other (as genuinely as you can)
  • as if by a neutral observer who can see the whole situation but has no particular interest in any person or outcome

If you want to go further, you could write out your story as if from:

  • an alien who understands nothing about human life
  • a four year old you know
  • the wisest person you can imagine – whichever historical or fictional person you care to choose

And if you really want to open your mind and your heart to a different way of seeing:

  • go and ask the person you are sure has wronged you to tell the story as they see it, listening as quietly and as presently and as openly as you can.

You may just find your story isn’t nearly as certain as it seemed.

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Can of worms

In my work in organisations, a frequent objection to talking together about anything that really matters, has substance, could bring about change, or about which people feel something strongly is:

“We can’t talk about that. It’ll open a can of worms.”

How extraordinarily revealing of our basic assumption about people: we’re all broken, a seething mass of darkness and poison just ready to explode in uncontrollable ways.

Is it any wonder then that we run our organisations in such fearful ways, even as we dress them up as politeness or civility or professionalism? That we spend so much of the time trying to keep a lid on ourselves?

And what would become possible if instead we cultivated trust in our own, and others’, basic goodness?

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Your last week

My son asked me this evening how I would spend my time if I knew I had just one week to live.

On a mountainside, I said, or by the sea. With my closest family, and with my dearest friends. No question.

The conversation reminded me that very few of us ever discover in advance which is to be our last week. And we don’t get to find out which parts of life are actually the important parts, perhaps until they’re done.

And how important it can be to live, in each of our day-to-day choices, in the full knowledge that all this is the case, for all of us.

For a wonderful book on this topic see ‘A Year to Live‘ by Stephen Levine, a wise and courageous man who learned much about life through his dedication to supporting people in death. The book describes an experiment in conscious living – as if there are only 365 days left to go – and is beautiful, profound, and practical.

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How much room is there in your life for silence? 

For sitting quietly, silently, and just being with whatever it is that is there?

Most of us live lives constructed to prevent any possibility of this happening. We’ve lost the capacity to be genuinely still, and we don’t have practices for quiet reflection.

We’re fearful of what we might experience if we truly allowed ourselves to know ourselves and our inner worlds.

But in silence, we can meet ourselves and life in a new, and perhaps more truthful way. Instead of spinning off in busy activity and in distraction, a few daily minutes of quiet watching can show us the condition of our lives, and invite us into a different, deeper kind of presence in the world.

In connecting with ourselves more deeply, we can connect with others more deeply too.

A vital capacity for leading, and for living.

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Narrowed by our economic narrative

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

Today, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published a passionate and insistent talk by David Simon, writer of The Wire, on how all of this is looking in the USA at the moment. Wherever you live in the world, I urge you to read it.

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Don’t believe everything you think

We so often believe the stories we tell as if they’re unquestionably true.

But however convinced you are about the story you’re telling – about anything – it can only ever be partial.

For a start, there are so many other ways of seeing, so many other places to stand. Just ask a few people who saw the same traffic accident, for example, to get a sense of how differently each person observes a single event.

And secondly, your telling will inevitably be just one interpretation. You’ll privilege certain voices and characters, and omit others. Some people will have a voice in your version, and others will be forgotten completely. Your account captures a particular viewpoint and particular choices about what’s important, among an infinity of alternatives.

The story itself is bigger than any retelling you can muster.

All of this is the case however certain you are that your way is the only way to tell it.

Even if the story is the one you’re telling about yourself.

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Why you’re doing it

How much of the way you’re leading – that you explain with careful, rational and logical reasoning – is actually a strategy to make sure you never have to feel what you don’t want to feel?

And could it be that your colleagues are doing some or all of what they do for the same reasons?

Much of organisational life is an elaborately constructed strategy to prevent us from feeling anxiety, fear, loneliness and uncertainty.

But because we’re not aware that’s what we’re doing, and because emotion is excluded from many work conversations, we dress it up as something else.

And can that really serve the contribution you, and your organisation, are longing to make?

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Shaped by others

Just as places shape us, calling us into particular ways of acting and relating, people we’re around do the same. Another way of saying this, using the language of my recent posts, is that people can be affordances too.

Stop and watch for a while and you’ll probably see what I mean.

Around some people we open up, bringing our troubles and difficulties and confusion into the light. And around others we close down. Nothing seems possible to say around them.

Some people bring out our hopeful optimism. Others evoke more of a sense of darkness, despair or resignation. And around some people we get to see and think clearly, perhaps in a way that isn’t possible for us when alone.

Over time, who we are with significantly shapes us, our preferences, our language and our everyday responses to the world.

Two consequences of this:

Firstly, the way other people are around you might have a lot to do with you.

Secondly, who you spend your time with matters, more than you might know.

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How place shapes us

I wrote a few days ago about how much of the time our actions – and our whole style of relating – are drawn out of us by what we’re around. The word I introduced to describe the things which draw us into action, “affordances, comes from the work of Martin Heidegger.

I pointed out then how physical environments and all the equipment that comes with them are affordances in this way. Being in the kitchen among the pots and pans and cutlery, or in an office with its desks and computers, in a nightclub with its lighting and bar and dance floor, or in a football stadium or on the side of a mountain each elicits from us a whole style of relating and interacting, as well as certain actions we take without having to think about them. We simply find ourselves acting in whatever way meets the situation before we’ve framed a conscious thought.

This is so important to see, because it can begin to show how much the places you spend your time in shape who you are as a person, and your ordinary, everyday, habitual comfortable reactions to everything. You’re constantly being drawn into ways of acting and relating by all of it, and over time this has a huge effect. 

What kind of person do you become, do you think, if you spend all of your time in the built environments of train, car, plane and office? Or if you spend all of your time outdoors? What kind of person is your home shaping you to be? Or the local shopping mall?

You and others really are not so separate from the places you’re in as you might have come to believe.

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Brought to life

Somehow, many of us have allowed ourselves to believe that the mark of professional, business-like conversation – the kind we’re apparently meant to have in our organisations – is that it should bore us to tears.

Too much aliveness, too much spontaneity, too much that’s genuine, too much feeling has us shut ourselves and others down.

As long as we can speak in business-speak, preferably with bullet-points, we feel safe. Because then we’re dead to ourselves and one another, which saves us from all risk, of course.

In this wonderful talk, Benjamin Zander reminds us that one of the primary human responsibilities is to bring ourselves and others to life. And you can tell quite easily if you’re doing that by looking for the moments when people’s eyes shine.

If you’re speaking or listening in a way that has your eyes or other people’s eyes glaze over, you’re contributing to our collective deadness.

Please stop it, now, and do something else instead.

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What happens, happens because the conditions were such that it could happen.

How common it is to try, push or strive to have what’s important to you take place, without paying any attention to this.

Right now, for example, are you giving any consideration to the condition of your own body? It’s from this that every action you’re able to take arises.

Are you cultivating the energy, ability to concentrate, capacity to tolerate difficulty, and ability to stay in relationship that will support your intentions? The presence, openness, centeredness to be able to respond?

And if not, do you see how all your efforts might be wasted because you’re working against the very conditions that could support you most?

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