Waiting until you know

Waiting until you know for sure what’s going to happen – where people are involved – means waiting for ever.

With machines, it’s easy. With sufficient understanding of mechanics you can often predict exactly what’s going to happen. Cause and effect, straightforward to establish.

But human situations are nothing like that, even though we pretend to ourselves that they might be.

Take a meeting, for example.

Should you speak up about what’s on your mind? Now? Later? What effect will it have on your colleagues? On the decision to be made?

You cannot know for sure.

Whatever insight you have about the situation can only ever be partial. You can’t know what’s going on for others. You can’t know what they are thinking of saying. And you can’t know – even if you know them well – how they will respond to your speaking.

You have to act knowing that you’re speaking into an unknowable situation. And that speaking up will, in all likelihood, change something, at the very least for you.

But staying quiet is an act too, changing things no less than speaking up. So you have no choice but to be an actor, whatever you do, and however much you pretend it is not the case.

We get ourselves into trouble when we forget all of this. We imagine that we can only act when we are able to predict the outcomes of our actions. Or we blame and judge ourselves and others when things don’t turn out the way we expected.

And all the while we’re holding back our contribution, our insight, our knowledge, our creativity, our unique perspective because we’ve set ourselves standards of understanding that were never – could never be – reached.

Photograph by Kate Atkinson

 

This room is a mess

This room is really in a mess.

I’m hungry.

It’s unfair that some of us are left out.

I have such a busy day today. It’s going to be hard to get everything done.

We’re never going to make that deadline at this rate.

It’s getting late. This has been going on far too long.

There’s something we’re not speaking about here.

How often do you speak in this way – making a claim or judgement about the world – when what you really want is somebody to do something?

In each of these examples the speaker disguises the request they’re wishing to make. Perhaps it feels safer this way. After all if you don’t actually ask then you don’t expose yourself quite as much. And you protect yourself from the discomfort of a potential ‘no’.

But speaking in this roundabout this way robs you of much of your power to have what’s important to you happen. It casts others in the role of mind-readers.

Can you see how your ongoing sense of frustration is being fuelled by this? And your identity – the way in which you and others get to see you as powerful or powerless?

The making of clear, explicit requests of others – and being able to tolerate the response – is, for many of us, a huge step into a much bigger world.

And the only way to really begin to enlist the support of others in what we really care about.

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Choice and the death of things

We have a difficult time with choice (or, at least, with choosing) because we have a difficult time with death.

Choosing always involves the death of what is not chosen. The death of a possibility. The death of a particular future that will, now, not be.

And because choosing requires us to face death, many of us would rather not choose at all.

And then we can only live a life that is never quite our own, because in the absence of our own choice everything is effectively being chosen for us. There’s no less death here – we’ve simply turned our face away from it.

But there is much less dignity, and much less responsibility.

Stepping into our lives means, inevitably, that we step also into the death of things.

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What is the world to you?

What is the world to you?

A battleground?

A source of mystery and wonder?

A set of obstacles to be overcome?

Cold, harsh, indifferent?

A lover? Beloved?

An enemy?

Ground that supports you?

A living web of which you are part?

A resource to be used?

And which particular possibilities for your life does your answer open, just as it closes down others?

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Seth Godin: Your Story About Money

I have been reading Seth Godin’s work for about five years. His book The Icarus Deception was enormously influential in my own decision to write.

I particularly appreciate his ability to see what’s powerfully shaping us, but normally invisible to us, and give it language which, in turn, makes it possible for us to observe and create and take new action. That’s a vital competence for anyone who’s a leader, entrepreneur, coach, writer, or artist to develop.

Here’s an example – a piece he’s just written on our cultural narratives about money.

And there’s a very interesting podcast interview with him on ‘The Art of Noticing, Then Creating‘ over at the On Being website.

You can find all of Seth’s work at www.sethgodin.com

Your story about money.

Is a story. About money.

Money isn’t real. It’s a method of exchange, a unit we exchange for something we actually need or value. It has worth because we agree it has worth, because we agree what it can be exchanged for.

But there’s something far more powerful going on here.

We don’t actually agree, because each person’s valuation of money is based on the stories we tell ourselves about it.

Our bank balance is merely a number, bits represented on a screen, but it’s also a signal and symptom. We tell ourselves a story about how we got that money, what it says about us, what we’re going to do with it and how other people judge us. We tell ourselves a story about how that might grow, and more vividly, how that money might disappear or shrink or be taken away.

And those stories, those very powerful unstated stories, impact the narrative of just about everything else we do.

So yes, there’s money. But before there’s money, there’s a story. It turns out that once you change the story, the money changes too.

Seth Godin, March 2014

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What others are to you…

What’s your understanding about what other people are?

A way of getting what you want?
A nuisance, an irritant?
To be battled and ultimately overcome?
A source of comparison – always better, or worse, than you?
To be kept-up with?
Machines for production?
A bundle of behaviours to be changed?
A supply for your self-esteem?
Mysterious, inviting wonders?

Which interpretation you choose (and you’re always choosing one, even if it was handed to you by your culture or your family) powerfully shapes

What’s possible for you and for them
What kind of relationships are possible

If you look closely at yourself, can you tell which your understanding is?
And if it’s producing the kind of life and work you’re really intending?

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She said, he said

She:

[Sincere, interested. I wonder how he’s getting on. Perhaps I can offer him some support]

“I’d like to arrange a chat with you about that project you’re running”

He:

[Feeling anxious, hurt. People have been talking about me. I’m sure this is part of it. She’s going to accuse me of something, I can feel it]

(aggressively) “Why? What do you want to know?”

She:

[Surprised. Wow, he seems very defensive. Can’t he see I’m trying to help him? Feeling hurt now. I’m not sure I can count on his support. And I wonder if there’s something he’s hiding from me]

“I’m starting to worry about whether everything’s going ok.”

He:

[Suspicious, wary. See, I was right. I’m going to have to watch my back. I won’t tell her about the difficulties I’ve been having getting this all done in time]

“Everything’s fine. And I’m really busy. Let’s wait a couple of weeks and I’ll speak with you then.”

She:

[Feeling anxious. I’m really going to have to keep an eye on him]

He:

[Feeling anxious. I’m really going to have to find a way to stay out of her way]

Can you see where the trouble starts? How quickly both are swept up in it? The silent part each person’s inner critic plays behind the surface of the conversation? And how each person’s certainty about what’s happening quickly spins this conversation from sincerity to distrust? From contact to distance?

Stepping out of a cycle of mutual suspicion and hurt requires that we learn to spot our own inner critic at work so we project it less often onto others. That we remember that trust is created precisely by extending trust, and not by setting up constant tests that others must pass.

And it requires we hold our certainties very lightly indeed. Then we give ourselves a chance of finding out what’s actually happening when we’re in the complex, possibility filled dance of conversation with another person.

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Befriending sadness

What are the emotions you deny feeling?

Sadness? Anger? Frustration? Longing? Disappointment? Love?

Sooner or later, if you’re going to participate fully in your life and in the lives of others, you’ll have to turn towards all that of yourself that you push away. You’ll have to bring down the walls that separate you from your own experience, that separate you from yourself.

Every mood arises in one way or another from what matters to you. So learn, gradually, to befriend your sadness, your anger, your longing and your love for the gifts each of them contains.

And then, quite possibly, you’ll find out that every mood, even the most unwelcome, has something to reveal to you. Some new way of understanding the world. Some new way of understanding others. Some new way of understanding what you most care about. And some new way of acting upon what you’re most genuinely committed to in this one life you call your own.

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When ‘yes’ doesn’t build a relationship

Saying ‘yes’ to a request, where you mean ‘no’, might sometimes look like a way to build a relationship with the person who’s asking.

Yes, I’ll make that call for you
Yes, I’ll come to that meeting
Yes, I’ll join your committee
Yes, I’ll take on a heap of extra responsibility

But a yes that means no isn’t really a yes, and so its power to build genuine relationship is much weaker than it seems. Before long your resentment and reluctance will show, as will all the times you subtly or overtly dodge the commitment you’ve made in order to attend to the things you really care about.

A ‘yes’ that means ‘no’ doesn’t build relationship because you can participate with at best a half-heart. And relationships founded on insincerity have little strength with which to sustain themselves over time.

So practice yes’s that mean ‘yes’, and clear, straightforward, honest and sincere no’s that mean ‘no’. Your whole-heartedness and sincerity will serve you both far better over the long-term than any attempt to manipulate the other person into liking you or respecting you.

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The heart of a complaint

Every complaint has at its heart a genuine treasure: a something that the complainer values and cares about.

It’s so easy to miss this when we dismiss people as moaners, whiners, or nuisances.

When our complaints are disregarded the hurt and resentment comes not so much from you not doing what we asked of you, but that you didn’t see us first and foremost as human beings with cares and concerns that matter.

Instead of seeing complaining colleagues, customers, family as irritants, can you allow yourself to see the committed person behind the complaint? It’s a far more powerful, relationship-building, trust-developing place from which to respond.

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Living the questions

We search for answers.

But we would be wise, in anything but the simplest situations in life and work, to live in the light of great questions.

I argued earlier in the week that leadershiptrust, empathy, and friendship cannot be reduced helpfully to lists of behaviour.

Because a list is an attempt to answer a question that needs to continue to be asked in order to be alive. Because once we have an answer, everything is closed, spoken for, silent. Because simplistic answers cover over the great complexity in which we find ourselves. And because questions allow us to continually respond in fresh ways that answers cannot.

Here’s a reminder of all of this from Rainer Maria Rilke, who says it so beautifully in his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

I beg you … to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now. Perhaps then someday far in the future you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer.

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Learning with us in London in 2014

Two more opportunities coming up to learn with me and with my colleagues.

Coaching to Excellence runs in London on May 1-2 and is a two-day foundation in Integral Development Coaching – a powerful way of working with people and their development. Suitable for you if you’re a coach, consultant, if you manage or lead others, or if you simply want to make a meaningful difference to the development of people around you.

And applications are just open for our Professional Coaching Course in Integral Development Coaching starting September 2014. It consists of 17 days together in London in four long-weekend sessions over the course of a calendar year. It’s a programme that aims to open profound opportunities for your own development, courage, and capacity to act on what’s important – and for your skill in helping others to do the same. We frequently have coaches, consultants, organisational leaders, entrepreneurs and educators as participants in the programme. Places are strictly limited to 20 in each cohort.

Please be in touch through the form at the bottom of the About page if you’re interested in joining us for either of these possibilities. We’d be delighted to talk with you.

Hunting down leadership

Of course, it is tempting to think you can bring about leadership or trust in your organisation by making a list of behaviours that express it and then getting everyone to agree to behave that way.

But has it struck you that the list you come up with is just one point of view on something that’s not fixed but very much alive? 

Whatever you list is only the surface manifestation of something much bigger, and much more important, than any list can express.

A mandatory list of behaviours is likely to kill exactly the thing you’re looking for.

You’ll have a much better chance of bringing about what you’re hoping for by cultivating and ongoing and sincere inquiry in your organisation into what leadership or trust means… not an inquiry that seeks to end with a definitive answer, but a way of keeping on talking with one another – in short, a way of staying in the question.

As we engage with questions –

What is leadership to me? What is it to us?
Is this, that we’re doing right now, leadership?
How can we tell?
What’s making it possible?
What’s making it difficult?

– we do something much more important and more powerful than trying to programme people with the one right way to do something. We open up a new kind of conversation from which we can learn, and we continually deepen our understanding and capacity to respond.

Don’t smother something as important as leadership, trust or creativity by treating it as if it can be known. Much better to treat it as something mysterious and elusive that you’re going to have to keep hunting for.

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Ordinary heroics

It’s very easy – easier than you might notice – to slip into an almost constant background of self-criticism:

All the ways you should be doing better, being more diligent, pushing harder, being more reliable. All the standards and measures – formally identified or not – for you to meet. All the people you imagine are watching you, judging you.

Yes. Because you care about what you’re doing, and how things are going.

But how about, for today, declaring the inner-criticism committee free from their duties? They’re more interested in keeping you in line and protecting you from shame than they are in helping you with what really matters to you.

In the quiet their absence creates you might get to marvel at the ordinary heroics of your life. The strength and persistence you’re bringing. Your capacity to keep going even at your most uncertain, day in, day out. Your ability to feel so much, whether joy or determination or sadness. The creativity and ingenuity you have to bring to even the most simple of actions. The relationships you’re sustaining at work, at home.

There’s much to be said for recognising, with gratitude and humility, the enormous capacity and skilfulness and dignity you’re mustering, minute by minute, that supports you in engaging with life in the way that you already are.

Just living each day requires a set of super-powers we rarely stop to appreciate. And what you are sure are your failings are also marvels of this one human life you are in the midst of living.

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Hafiz – a poet of wonder and love

Some days, we lose touch with our essential aliveness, with the source of our power and agency in the world. And on these darker days it can be helpful to be reminded of the possibility and life that’s always surrounding us, of which we’re always inescapably a part – however separated we might feel.

One source of help in this that I’ve found particularly valuable is the work of the fourteenth-century poet Hafiz, particularly in the beautiful English translations by Daniel Landinsky.

Landinsky’s book A Year with Hafiz offers one poem a day for the entire year, and each is a tightly packed jewel – often uplifting, searching, frequently challenging, always loving. A wonderful resource for any of us who aspire to live fully in life.

Here’s one of his poems for this weekend, a reminder of the costs of the defences we put up between ourselves and the world:

That Shield You Hold

There is a shield you may still hold because of
so many battles.

I guess another conflict could begin at any moment,
so maybe lugging it about could be of some use;
or is it just an undermining habit?

Does it not get heavy, so much that you
sometimes carry it on your head at noon?

And then do wonder, with your insecurities so
intact… about casting darkness as fears can
shadows

even if the sun is out, if the Sun is out – if God
is really all around in the middle of a beautiful
day or night.

Yes, how amazing that a small umbrella or an
illusion, held over your head… or clung to, can
hide the stupendous fact of omniscient Light.

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Yes and no and…

When someone makes a request of you, there are at least four possible helpful responses.

Many of us have only one of these in our repertoire, and a lifetime of habit that makes the others invisible to us:

1 Yes (which means, I promise to do what you ask)

2 No (I promise I will not do what you ask)

3 Here’s a counter-offer (I don’t intend to do what you asked me, but can imagine this alternative that might be acceptable to you)

4 I promise to commit later (I don’t know yet how I’m going to respond to your request, but I can promise you a specific time by which I’ll let you know).

You can build your capacity to respond genuinely to others’ requests by practicing the responses that are less familiar to you.

And if you’re a serial ‘yes-er’ (as so many of us are) who then gets overstretched and resentful, practicing response 4 can open up much needed space in which you can settle on an answer that’s true, heartfelt, and takes all your existing commitments into due account.

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From where does behaviour appear?

technical

In my work in organisations I frequently come across people trying to bring about meaningful change by making lists of ‘behaviours’ that people should take up. If we can just pin down how people behave when they’re being loyal, or creative, or leading, or trusting – the theory goes – and can convince people to agree to it, we’ll be done.

But it is woefully insufficient. Easy to talk about, easy to imagine, and based on a misunderstanding of what human beings are.

You can do a simple thought-experiment to show this. Start by making a list of all the behaviour that constitute ‘trust’ for example.

Can you make a complete list? Whatever you write down, there will always be something important left out – some situation you didn’t yet think of where trust would be expressed in a new way. A phenomenon such as ‘trust’ is way too complex, too rich, and too changeable to be enumerated like this.

Now, look at the items you have written down on your list. Can you imagine situations where somebody does the opposite of what you’ve written but it still could constitute trust? For some items on your list the answer will be yes – because human behaviour is always contextual. We make sense of a particular moment in the light of the particular situation, its history, the future possibilities and intentions we’re pursuing, and who is involved. There is no context-free list of behaviour that defines trust. We know trust when we experience it, but its way of being expressed is particular to this moment.

Lastly, imagine a robot carrying out those behaviours – a robot that has action on the outside but is empty of feeling or meaning on the inside. Would that constitute trust? I don’t think so.

Can you see how this extends to empathy, leadership, friendship?

Yes, we can make lists of behaviour that can help us understand. And, yes, bringing change into being does require us to change our actions. But our lists of behaviour can never be definite and they never are by themselves the phenomenon we are trying to bring about.

Just because I’ve agreed to your list doesn’t mean I’m going to be able do it in anything more than a robotic fashion, or know how to respond when I find myself and others acting ‘outside’ of the list.

Bringing about change by tying people into lists of behaviour fails in large part because it’s a technical response to a developmental issue.

Instead of reducing trust or leadership to something measurable and observable in a fixed way, we need to look upstream at what gives rise to it, and work there. This takes new questions – more powerful, and more complex. How does trust appear in me, between us? What practices make it possible? How might we correct ourselves? And how do we need to speak with one another, when it’s not appearing?

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Confusing Action and Relationship

At work we often confuse getting things done with doing good work. 

They are not the same thing.

Sometimes the very best work comes precisely from not rushing into anything at all. And when we forget this we sacrifice quality for the sake of production, rushing to do things even when the doing will be manifestly unhelpful.

Similarly we confuse conversations for action with conversations for relationship. We mistakenly think that to solve our difficulties with one another we need to produce things – policies, procedures, processes – rather than turning towards each other in new kinds of conversation.

And so when we are having difficulty trusting our colleagues we make lists of ‘behaviours’ we imagine will help us. We say ‘we’ll be able to trust one another when we have better communication’ and head off into producing plans to have this happen, rather than simply speaking directly and honestly to one another.

We’re scared, of course, because turning towards one another and extending trust and openness requires us to be vulnerable, to take the risk of being seen.

And so we tell ourselves the story that talking is a distraction, and relationship-building soft, when there’s the hard work of ‘work’ to do.

But we forget that all work done with others only happens because of relationship. And that if we’re not attending seriously to relationship as the foundation for all action, we’re not attending seriously to our action at all.

I’ve written more about this here and here.

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Becoming ghosts

Robert Montgomery is a poet who makes ‘recycled sunlight’ poems. This is one of my favourites.

It’s a reminder of what I wrote about yesterday.

In the end most of what we leave behind us is very simple, however impressive our ambitions and our plans, however grand our status or fame.

Much of what we leave soon crumbles away.

So perhaps we can leave lives touched by our presence, and the way those lives touch the lives of others because they happened to meet us.

In that way we become ghosts in the lives of others, in the sense pointed to by Montgomery.

And perhaps we need to ask ourselves, most urgently and frequently, what kind of ghosts we are working on becoming.

Extravagant Purpose

A life of extravagant purpose, a grandiose mission to ‘change the world’ and ‘leave a legacy’

~ or ~

Genuinely touching the life of each person you meet with truth, kindness and simplicity?

Many people in apparently mundane roles change the lives of people they encounter simply by being generous enough and available enough to make genuine, heartfelt contact, person by person, in their work, in their family, on the street.

Many in supposedly powerful roles hardly leave a mark.

The repair of our world is mostly made in small, close in, contributions. The kindness and truthfulness that touches one person, lightening their load or reducing their suffering, has them make an impact on others’ lives, and on the chain of lives they touch in turn.

Don’t underestimate the significance of ordinary lives lived consciously and whole-heartedly.

They really can change the world.

Photograph by Kate Atkinson

Four truths

Three truths that you might be hiding from yourself:

  • You will grow old.
  • You will at some point, inevitably, get ill.
  • You, and all of us, will die – as do all our projects, our creations, and even, over time, all that which we thought would be our ‘legacy’.

Nobody escapes this. No balm, no cream, no status, no wishful thinking, no protestation of the unfairness of all of this will make a bit of difference. It is simply the way of the world.

You can run away from this realisation for only so long. And then you have to choose – will you turn towards life because of it, or away?

Because the fourth truth is simple:

  • Right now, you are alive.

What kind of life, leadership, relationship, work is produced from your turning away?

And what kind of life, what kind of leadership – what sort of fierce, practical loving-kindness – might be produced from living in the full knowledge that these four are the case, inevitably, for every single one of us?

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On Regret

It’s the nature of all of our lives that we have to choose, repeatedly.

And because we have to choose, it’s the nature of our lives that we experience regret.

Every choice we make involves not choosing something else.

Sometimes we forget this. We try to live without regret, as if we could avoid it completely. But that forces us in turn to live without choice.

And this in turn produces a bitter new regret all of its own – the regret of a life we have chosen to freeze in place.

And so regret cannot be avoided. But we can choose to feel it rather than run from it. This way we can allow our regret to bring us its hidden message, which is to remind us that we care, and what it is that we care most about.

Avoiding regret turns out to be a way of avoiding life. And turning towards regret a way of turning back fully, towards our lives and towards ourselves.

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Yes to your life

What would it take – how much walking, meditation, silence, prayer, music, reading, talking, singing, running, teaching, contributing to a community, making art – to at last say a wholehearted yes to your life?

Are you working on this?

Doing something, anything, that might even begin to make this a possibility?

And if you’re not saying ‘yes’ to life, what are you doing instead?

With what cost to you, and to all those whose lives you touch?

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The filling of our holes

We’re told again and again that the cure for our emptiness is always away from ourselves. The promise: there will be some product or some experience that will make us feel whole again.

Eat. Shop. Work harder, for longer. Watch this TV show. Wear these clothes.

It’s no wonder we consume so much. The distraction of consumption, with all its promises, never adequately fills the hole we’re longing to fill.

But there is another direction to turn – back into intimate contact with our own lives. This requires us to cultivate a relationship with stillness, with quiet, with practices and with relationships that allow us to be just here rather than spinning away into distraction so frequently.

Here we might find ourselves able to be with our own emptiness, the yawning anxiety that there is nothing to hold us. And, paradoxically, in our sustained encounter with nothing, find that we are held by everything, by all of life, without our having to do anything at all.

When we know our own holes but do not move to fill them, when there is no running away to do, we can start to live deeply in the lives we are living, knowing that emptiness is as much a part of our humanity as our love, our fulfilment, and our joy.

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The silence you create

I wrote yesterday about the power of ‘naming the daemon‘ in our own lives – what can happen when we give truthful names to the moods and experiences that transparently shape us.

Of course moods are not just private, personal experiences. They exist between people, in the background of all relationships, groups, organisations and communities. And here – in the public sphere – naming can have extraordinary power too.

How often we say in our work lives ‘enough of the soft stuff’ or ‘we don’t talk about touch-feely subjects’. How often we spin the lie that somehow at work we are immune to human experience, or that it is in some way irrelevant to the action we wish to take.

You can be sure that mood is ever present, despite attempts to say it is not so. Fear, anxiety, pride, love, shame, resentment, frustration and all their cousins will be shaping what can be said and not said, what is paid attention to and what is avoided, what can be done and cannot be done.

A commitment never to talk about this, to avoid naming, gives up a measure of your power to take effective action, to change things.

In the silence you create, you’ll be had by whatever mood is shaping you, rather than having it.

And so the courage to talk about it with others, to find words together for what’s really there – for your shared fear or shame or pride or resentment or love –  must be one of the foundational responsibilities of anyone who considers themselves a leader.

Photo with thanks to Kate Atkinson

Naming the Daemon

When you’re caught up in a something that’s pulling you away from life, distracting you, narrowing your horizons, or having you act in ways that don’t seem to match your intentions, you could try to give the something a name.

Is it anger, shame, resentment? Frustration, boredom, cynicism? Fear? Resignation? Your inner critic?

Names have power.

Moods, and our own inner critic, are often transparent to us. They recede into the background of our lives – shaping the world without us knowing, but shaping the world nevertheless.

But a phenomenon, once named accurately, starts to come forward from the background. It becomes possible to point at it and to have some kind of handle on it. The something you’re in takes a step from having you to being had by you, just as in the naming of daemons in the old myths – once named the daemon’s mysterious power begins to dissolve.

So, when you’re in some kind of difficulty, you could try to see what name fits best.

Anger? Fear? Frustration? Shame?

If you pay attention you’ll know when you’re on to something, particularly if you pay attention to the felt sense you’re experiencing in your body. An accurate name, something that’s true enough, will feel different, almost as if the phenomenon you’re naming turns towards you in recognition, becomes willing at last to make itself known.

And once named, first to yourself, perhaps later to others, see what new purchase you have on your situation. You may find that the invisible grip of the invisible something that has enveloped you will start to soften so that something new – a possibility or course of action – comes into view.

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Nothing more whole

Right in the middle of your most profound difficulties, maybe the difficulties you’ve spent your whole life trying to avoid, there can be the birth of something new.

Perhaps an illness, a loss, or a disappointment leads to a new kind of strength, intelligence, compassion, or kindness. Perhaps it leads to gratitude for your human faculties and for your relationships with people around you. And perhaps a deeper understanding of human suffering, and of the nature of life itself, that had previously been denied to you.

Your attempts to turn away from difficulty, to pretend that all is just fine, can rarely come to much.

They arise from your fear that your heart will be shattered, that there will be nothing of you left. But hardening your heart to keep you safe leaves you rigid and frozen, disconnected from what can support you most.

Your attempts to stop difficulty getting to you also stop life from getting to you. And life will always, somehow, find its way through.

And so this is the logic behind the words of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

“Nothing is more whole than a broken heart”

Things are not always what they seem. Sometimes your attempts to hold harm at bay themselves cause you great harm.

While you hold the world away, you can live only tentatively in the shadows of your own life.

And eventually, perhaps, you turn towards it all in welcome or in acceptance, allowing yourself to feel so much that your heart can break open and life come flooding in.

And you discover at last that difficulty and heart-brokenness are guests, uninvited and unwanted, who turn out to be the greatest teachers.

Photo Credit: Linh H. Nguyen via Compfight cc

On Comparison

Comparison – the key to so much suffering.

Obvious comparisons that cause us difficulty – comparing ourselves with others (what they have, what they do, how they look), and with standards (I should be able to do better than this, I’m useless, my efforts are not good enough).

These comparisons keep us in perpetual dissatisfaction and self-criticism, a state of never being sufficient.

Less obvious, our comparisons of life now to life in the past or in the future – everything was so much better when I was younger, before I had children, before I had to work; or will only be ok when I’m more grown up, when I’m promoted, when I’m famous, when I have time to myself again, when I retire, when I live in a different town, when I’m not confused or scared any more.

These comparisons keep us in stasis, unable to live now because of a life lost or a life as yet unrealised.

Both kinds of comparisons absent us from the life we’re already in, telling us always that life is not to be lived here, or now, but elsewhere, always elsewhere.

Can you see how deeply much of the marketing that surrounds us is invested in keeping us comparingamplifying our dissatisfaction, our restlessness and our rootlessness, rather than turning into the fullness of what’s already here?

Giving up comparison does not mean giving up hope, or giving up aspiration. And most significantly it does not mean giving up commitment to improving things.

But it does mean giving up our disowning of this moment, this place, this ground upon which we stand – the only moment, place or ground we ever really have.

Photo with thanks to Kate Atkinson