Deferring your life

Perhaps you’re living a life where happiness, fulfilment or meaning is dependent upon reaching some future goal:

You’ll happy when you retire
You’ll rest only when you’ve made (you choose how much) money
You’ll be fulfilled when people at last recognise and appreciate you

Meanwhile, you’ll put up with living a life at odds with yourself, or a life in which you don’t take care of what’s right here – your body, your loved ones, your talents, your capacity to contribute, and all the people who can support you.

What will your life be, do you think, if you never get to your dreamed-of destination? If the goal is never fulfilled in the way you’re imagining it? If you’re thwarted in your intentions by breakdowns and failure along the way? If illness, or death, intervenes? Or if you get there and find out it wasn’t, at all, how you imagined it to be?

Have lofty, ambitious goals, yes. Set out for something, yes. Bring energy, commitment, hope and optimism to it, yes. Make a contribution. Make a splash.

But please don’t do it for the far-off result alone, or have your life rely on things turning out in order for you to be fully in it.

Too many people have constructed their lives this way and found out, too late, that their deferring life in favour of an unknown future turned them away from the deeper rewards – and bigger contribution – made possible through actually living.

Photo Credit: Sam Ilić via Compfight cc

Maybe your thoughts

Maybe your thoughts turn quickly to standards, checking always if you are good enough, and if you’re right.

Or maybe your thoughts turn to how you can help, and how you’re probably letting people down already.

Maybe your thoughts turn to what’s been achieved, discounting anything that’s not doing or producing.

Or maybe they turn towards the particular sadness you’re feeling.

Maybe your thoughts go on and on, ever deeper into the intricacies of whatever your attention has settled upon.

Or maybe you’re scanning the situation for all that is dangerous and a cause for fear.

Maybe your thoughts leap ahead into the future, away from now, and into the many possibilities you can see. Maybe they’re looking for all the ways you can be in control of things once again.

Or maybe they’re discounting all that is troublesome and difficult, reassuring you and soothing you with stories about what is good and hopeful.

Whichever of these is most familiar to you, maybe it’s just a habit of thinking that’s become invisible because of its familiarity.

And maybe you’ve taken your own familiar thoughts, which are only one way of understanding your life, to be the one and only the truth.

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

The wisdom of our bodies

One of the first of our instincts that we’re socialised away from is the instinctual intelligence of our bodies.

The school system many of us encounter in the post-industrial Cartesian world does exactly this – gradually reducing the childhood orientation towards bodily experience and feeling, and replacing it almost exclusively with a much more detached, rational-intellectual approach. You only have to look in to a class of five-year-old children and then into a class of thirteen-year-olds to see how spontaneity, movement, and responding to feeling have been replaced by a more rigid uniformity.

We’re rarely, if ever, asked to engage in reflection on how our study of different subjects feels – what we’re drawn to, what we’re drawn away from, what dulls us, what brings us to life. And we’re discouraged from paying serious attention to what else our bodies might have to tell us – that we need rest, that we’re afraid, that we’re lit up, that we’ve discovered something special and of significance to us. All of this prepares very well for the numerous situations in adult life, in organisations especially, where we are encouraged to fit in, in just the same way that everybody else is fitting in.

It’s no wonder that, as adults, we have a hard time discerning what’s most meaningful for us, what’s of particular importance in our lives and our responses. And why we’ll put up for years with living in a way that is at odds with ourselves.

Reclaiming our adult lives involves no small measure of reclaiming the wisdom of the body from which we’ve been separated for so long. It requires us to start to treat what our bodies are telling us with discernment, care and respect. And it requires us to pay attention to ourselves and our experience in a new way, usually by cultivating some quiet time in which we allow ourselves to actually feel.

And it takes a certain kind of ongoing curiosity and wonder, because most of us have been estranged from our bodies for so long that we first start to feel again we no longer know quite what it is that we are being shown.

Photo Credit: Lotus Carroll via Compfight cc

Separated from our instincts

From the moment we arrive in the world, we have to learn to fit in with the family and social situation into which we were born.

Learning how to behave, and how not to behave, who to be and who not to be, is a necessary and inescapable part of our early development. But it also has an enormous cost – our separation from our own instincts. In all our fitting in with what others require of us we lose touch with our capacity to trust ourselves and to know what is genuinely good for us. And we lose touch with that which is essentially, uniquely ours to bring, that which will bring us most vibrantly to life, and perhaps make a contribution to everyone around us.

And so if learning to fit in – becoming socialised into our family and culture – is a necessary part of our early development, finding ourselves and taking up our place in the world is a necessary part of our adult development. And this involves finding out all the ways we’ve become alienated from ourselves, from our basic goodness, and from our deep capacity to distinguish what is called for in, and from, our lives.

It probably takes waking up to the basic facts of our lives to begin to take this as seriously as we need to – that life is very short, filled with uncertainty, and cannot be controlled. And that there’s nobody to take responsibility for our brief stay here but ourselves.

Perhaps once we begin to get a feel of all of this, we can begin the urgent work of seeing through the layers of expectation and conformity which we took on in order to navigate our early years and, gradually, uncover our essential selves once again.

Photo Credit: Unitopia via Compfight cc

Rule followers

A hospital emergency department demands that doctors deal with 95% percent of patients within four hours. And then finds that the number of people admitted unnecessarily to hospital beds has massively increased.

A retail bank calls in to its branch managers three times a day to find out if they’ve hit their target for selling loans. And then finds out they’ve loaned to large numbers of people who could never afford to pay.

A technology help-desk demands that all queries are dealt with in under five minutes, meaning more customers are helped. And complaints go up because problems are not being solved completely.

Has it struck you that the more you try to manage us by giving us rules to follow (and this includes holding us to narrow measures that distract us from the wholeness or ultimate purpose of our work), the more you train us to be skilful rule-followers rather than people who can exercise judgement, discretion and wisdom?

What else, really, did you expect?

Photo Credit: Instant Vantage via Compfight cc

Story People

As well as living your life, you’re always in the midst of a story about it all, though perhaps it doesn’t often seem this way.

Our stories quickly become transparent, invisible, in the living of them.

But one evening, reading a book or watching a film, you find yourself deeply touched by the situation of one of the characters. Maybe it’s the one nobody understands, the one with hidden gifts they can’t seem to bring to the world, the one who seems doomed to hurt others, the one who has been carrying a heavy burden that nobody will take away, or the one who longs for some kind of resolution. You’re moved. You feel seen. And you have an insight, for a moment, into the way you’re constructing the story of your own life.

New possibilities open when we find stories that reflect our own experience in this way. It’s what the great fairy tales and myths can do. And it’s how the films and books that touch us reach behind the surface of things and show us our lives.

Most of us can also do with finding people who can do this for us. People who appreciate and show us, compassionately, the stories we’re living. People who see the hurt and the suffering, the longing and the hope, the wishes unfulfilled, and what we’ve been working so hard to bring about. And people who bring what’s become invisible to us back to our attention, so that we can find ourselves again.

Even more importantly, we need people around us who can see beyond all the stories. Those who show us who we are that’s outside all the narratives – of success and failure, joy and hurt, achievement and disappointment – with which we identify ourselves.

And we need those who can bring us new stories with which to interpret our lives. Stories with more space in them, bigger possibilities, and more life-giving ways of understanding ourselves. Stories that reconnect us with the sources of dignity, courage and strength that can sustain us as we do what only we can do.

It’s quite a gift to come across people who can do this for us.

And isn’t it, in the end, what skilful friendship, teaching, and leadership are all about?

Photo Credit: VinothChandar via Compfight cc

Coming to terms

It’s true – there isn’t enough time to do everything on your list.

And there is no final state of ‘everything done’ that you can reach, no matter how fast you’re going.

There’s probably not even enough time to do everything you think is important.

Would coming to terms with the messiness and ever-incompleteness of life allow you out of your cycle of rushing and give you a chance to live? And might that in turn be the opportunity, at last, to do something that really matters, because you’re no longer chasing everything else?

Photo Credit: markchadwickart via Compfight cc

Shifts in understanding

What might often be quite hard to see is that your understanding of the world is much more expressed in your practices – what you’re doing again and again – than in what you say about yourself.

You could look into this topic by studying your relationships with others. What is it that you take to be true about you and other people in relationship? And what understanding is embodied by what you actually do?

Often, in my work in organisations, I come across leaders who sincerely wish to treat those around them as capable, responsible adults but who consistently embody in their practice an orientation of ‘better than you‘. Despite what they say, this orientation can’t help but come out in the way they speak, in the way they intervene to fix things, and in the requests and (more often) demands that they make.

Genuinely relating to other people as capable and responsible requires a whole set of interlocking practices that include both giving others the space and freedom to act, and sharing with others one’s own uncertainty and incompleteness. In contrast, ‘better than you’ involves acting as if you have all the answers, and subtly or overtly controlling others’ behaviour. And despite what we might say, most of us have – at least to start with – a strong ‘better than you’ understanding of leadership.

What is also often quite hard to see is that we don’t shift our understanding just by declaring our intention to be different – because our ongoing practices are our understanding, embodied in action. In other words, our practices don’t just express our understanding of the world. They also bring it into being.

And so a change in understanding always requires a shift in our actions, if it’s going to be a change in understanding at all.

Photo Credit: jonasginter via Compfight cc

Quiet time

At some point in your life you’re going to need to include a practice of regular quiet time: time by yourself, letting your life sink in, being still, allowing yourself at last to feel it all.

Does it occur to you that without this, you run the risk of living a full-tilt life that you never, quite, manage to touch?

And a life that is never, quite, allowed to touch you in return?

Photo Credit: geezaweezer via Compfight cc

On self-care


Getting enough sleep
Eating healthily, and often enough to sustain yourself
Quiet time – to read, ponder, think, walk
Being with the people you love, and who love you

Too many of us have decided (how did we decide this?) that self-care is optional, marginal or even a sign of weakness.

It’s a huge misunderstanding of what it is to be human.

And an ever bigger misunderstanding of where our capacity to do good work comes from in the first place.

Photo Credit: JoelMontes via Compfight cc

Better than you

On Monday afternoon I go to my kick-boxing class. I’m a little nervous. It’s been a few weeks since I was last able to go, and I worry that I won’t have the stamina I need to get through.

But, today, there’s a second student in the class. She’s older than me, stiffer, less fit, and clearly a beginner. I find the anxious part of myself relaxing.

I catch myself in the act. There’s nothing much different here from my expectations. I’m the same person I was on my walk to the dojo, with the same limitations that had worried me before I arrived. And yet, in the light of there being someone who’ll have more difficulty than me in the class, I’m settled. My sense of self and my possibility, I realise, is largely being shaped by the narrative of “I’m better than you”. My energy and commitment lift. This is going to be just fine.

And I begin to see how often I prop myself up – without paying much attention to it – with this kind of comparison. How I manoeuvre myself, subtly or overtly, to give myself a sense of superiority over others when I’m feeling anxious or unsure. How I can speak and act in a way that puts others into second place so I can be first. The subtle put-downs I can engage in. And, most importantly, the impact it can have on the people closest in, the people I say I most care about. The closer I look, the more I can see, and the less attractive this way of feeling good at the expense of others seems.

I’m struck by how easy, and how habitual, the ways in which we bolster self-esteem can become. How invisible. And how they may be silently shaping many or all of our relationships with others, perhaps at enormous cost to intimacy, trust and our shared sense of possibility.

Photo Credit: mdibb via Compfight cc

Learn with me in July and September

Another opportunity to learn integral development coaching with me over two days is coming along on July 14-15 2014, or on September 1-2, in London. All the details are here.

And the Professional Coaching Course, which I’ll be leading, begins in September.

My colleague, teacher and friend James Flaherty at New Ventures West has just published the article below about the coaching methodology we practice and teach and what it aims to bring to the world. If you’re familiar with coaching at all you’ll see it’s quite distinctive in intent and approach.

I hope some of you will be able to join us in July or September.

50,000 Life Coaches Could Be Wrong: The Importance of Development in Coaching by James Flaherty (from the New Ventures West blog)

Entering a six-month coach training programme on the suspicion that life coaches are glorified confidantes who charge a lot of money and that coaching is “new-age nonsense,” the author of a recent Harper’s article finds lots of evidence to support her hypothesis. The irony of the piece’s title, “50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong,” becomes quickly apparent.

Her skepticism is not unwarranted. There are, however, ways of coaching that offer more than what the popular trends promote. Coach training and the work of coaching itself may encompass goal-setting and happy-making, which is a good starting place. However, coaching can be more than being a good listener, giving advice or helping someone get what they want. These are all great things, of course, but they don’t necessarily address true development.

The modality that the author learned, along with her research that went as far back as the human potential movement begun in the 1970s, all speaks to horizontal development. In other words, there is something out there – a goal – that I want. To be happier, more productive, thinner, richer … we all know what goals are, and we know the ones that are common in our culture.

Integral Development Coaching, the methodology we practice at New Ventures West, is far more concerned with vertical development: helping the clients grow in ways that have them actually live in a different way, not just solve the problem in front of them. Coaches can certainly help clients attain their goals (and how wonderful that they do!). But when we understand why we’re doing what we’re doing—when we’re attuned to ourselves—the goals themselves change. In Integral Development Coaching we are interested in supporting clients in developing the capacity to respond to what life hands them and to understand “for the sake of what” they want what they do—what is their true longing? What is it only they can bring to the world?

So much of this information lives in the body, an aspect that is often left out of coaching. Attunement and resonance, capacities that are essential in supporting someone as a coach, are developed on the level of physicality. Our physical bearing often correlates to how the rest of life shows up for us. For instance, how much can you infer about someone who is slouching and folded in on themselves all the time? Or a person who can’t stop fidgeting?

Most importantly, practices that occur on the level of the body are the ones that bring about this vertical development and longer-lasting change. Repeated action actually rewires our nervous system. If we train ourselves through repetition to move in a different way (breathe, shout, lift weights, relax, stretch, chant, kickbox – whatever fosters our intended growth), it goes to follow that our experience of the world will change.

We also must remember that we are so much more than our ideas. Insights are fantastic but unless they are grounded in practice it’s possible that they will never become realised. In addition to our thoughts, we are embedded in a world of relationships and culture. We operate in a particular environment and use tools and technology. Without taking into account the unique matrix that makes up each person we are not seeing the whole picture, and we may not be making adjustments in the most appropriate domain.

Apart from differences in coaching methodologies, coach training programmes vary widely in terms of requirements, rigour, and outcomes. The Coaches Training Institute, where the author of the Harper’s article did her training, and many other popular programmes offer modules that are likely to fit in a student’s life, certify them and get them working more quickly. A valuable approach.

Integral Development Coach certification takes one year, plus a two- or three-day prerequisite. That is barely enough to fit in what happens. It is a deep dive into one’s own life, ideas, presumptions, relationships, biases, patterns. It’s all unearthed, examined and worked with in the interest of building what we call the body of a coach: a body that is present enough to let life through, that is free of bias, that can meet the client where they are. There is no one way to be an Integral Development Coach except that those qualities come forward in interactions with anyone—not just clients. As such this work finds its way into places other than entrepreneurial coaching practices (i.e. it’s far more than a way to market oneself). The certification process not only asks you to demonstrate your aptitude in the methodology. It looks at how present you are—how much you’ve come to know your habitual tendencies, how consistently you catch yourself acting from the patterns that aren’t serving you. These skills and qualities are essential to fully support another person in their vertical and horizontal development. It’s not an easy process, and it’s not for everyone.

The result, however, is a person who knows herself and can attune to others on a level that is not commonly seen in the coaching industry. When the question shifts from “what do I want” to “what is life asking of me?” we encounter a different human being. And that is the question into which we, as Integral Development Coaches, are inviting everyone. For some this is a lofty inquiry: there are plenty of people whose life is a series of emergencies and who are looking to calm themselves enough to be able to sit in conversation with someone for longer than five minutes or learn to take a deep breath. So we start there. We start wherever the client is, and we invite them into deeper, self-generating development.

Regardless of the kind of training or coaching one does, how wonderful it is that there are so many people in the world who want to make a living by helping improve the lives of their fellow humans. On that level alone we can probably agree that it’s by no means a racket, a ruse or a moneymaking enterprise. Hooray for the people who are learning to be better friends, helping people attain their goals, wanting to make others happy. It’s an industry that was born of a collective understanding that there has to be something more to life, and that we have a right to endeavor toward greater meaning, whatever form it takes. We celebrate that so many people want to train as life coaches. Power and luck to them. 50,000 people who are up to that really can’t be wrong.

What we’re up to at New Ventures West is something different, though we haven’t yet found a name for it that lives outside of the very broad category known as coaching. The methodology and the training go deep, and people emerge forever changed: set on unexpected spiritual paths, reconnected with a passion long since forgotten, suddenly understanding what is theirs to do in the world (which may not, in fact, be coaching).

There aren’t 50,000 of us doing Integral Development Coaching … more like 2,000. But we’re out here, and we invite you to explore what’s possible.

Photo Credit: vapour trail via Compfight cc

Outsmarting ourselves

I’m walking on the beach at Mar de Jade.

It’s early morning, and the sand is still cool. A pair of tiny hermit crabs are inching their way across the sand. They pull their shells down quickly as I draw near and then, if I’m still enough, peep out tentatively before beginning their journey again. The waves are warm this morning, and I wade out until the water reaches my knees. There’s a stronger undertow today. I have to work hard to keep my footing.

There are no aircraft here, I realise. In London I am used to the almost constant roar and whine of jet engines passing above and the criss-cross trails across the sky. Here, the skies are silent and clear. The shadows passing overhead are the pelicans, back this time in smaller groups of five or six, flying together v-shape just inches above the water. And wherever the pelicans gather, wheeling frigatebirds follow, high. They keep airborne with hardly a movement of their wings, turning in graceful arcs.

A larger group of pelicans, fifteen of them, cross the bay in a line. And all the while, I realise, I’m hardly here.

I could be paying attention to the warmth of the water on my feet, the tug of the tide, the bright sunlight and – beyond all of this – the intricate wholeness of this place, and how it’s all impacting me. I could be noticing this, in all its exquisite beauty, before I head off to the airport and hours of travel home.

But instead I’m thinking, mostly about what’s not here.

I think about what I’ll write today, and how to write it; about clients I’m due to meet next week, and all the preparation still to be done; of my family and all they’ve been up to; about things to be done around the house; about far-off projects only just coming into being. I think too already of how much I’ll miss this place, and wonder if I can bring any part of the experience home with me back to London. I think of what of my week here I’ll forget, and try hard to grasp onto it.

And then, momentarily, I catch myself in the act.

Our extraordinary capacity to think means we often outsmart ourselves, us human beings. We can think ourselves away from any situation. And in doing so, we miss so much of what’s present just here, as well as the wisdom of our bodies and hearts that have so much to say that can be different from our thoughts. We do this not just on the beach, but in our work, in our family lives. And in doing so we miss out on a a vital aspect of our own intelligence.

And so, for a while, I see if I can settle and just allow myself to be in the middle of it all – to be a witness to the wholeness of what’s happening here, both on the beach, and within me.

Photo by Justin Wise

Of sand and stars and time

I’m sitting on the beach at Mar de Jade on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

The sun is setting, fire-red, turquoise, slate. The stones and sand, still warm. About twenty feet from where I’m sitting I can see the occasional silhouettes of fish leaping from the water. And further, westwards, a group of pelicans are circling, sharp against the twilight. Each, as if taking turns, chooses a moment to furl its wings and dive into the waves before climbing, fish-laden, to join the others. I sit for nearly an hour, as the sky darkens. The pelicans wheel to the south. The tall lights of distant boats come into view.

This moment, with its tender joyful sadness, sings to me of sand and stars, of friends who are here with me, and of my family far away and back home on another side of the world.

I remember the feeling of such places from my childhood – the easy feel of being swept up into an endless and timeless landscape, wondrous and vast. And today, in my forty-fifth year, the same wonder tugs at me.

But from this part of life it’s different from before. I can already feel the inevitability of losing all of this, one day and who knows when, for another kind of timelessness.

Photo by Justin Wise

Aliens, part 2

Next time you’re in the midst of a fight, you could imagine the alien of yesterday coming to visit.

The alien takes no sides, and knows no history. All it can do is look at the situation from the outside, and say what it sees about your part in it all.

You might like to consider what the alien would have to say to you.

It could be quite different from the way you see things.

Especially so when you’re sure that the other person is wrong, and that you are right.

Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick . via Compfight cc

The Alien Game

Here’s an illuminating game you can play.

Imagine that an alien comes to watch you at work (or with your family) for a day. The alien has perfect command of your language but no understanding of your culture. Your practices, tools, systems and relationships are all new and strange to it.

The alien’s part in the game is to be deeply interested in each thing that you do, the way that you speak with people, the meetings you go to and the processes you follow. It asks you, at every turn

“What is it that you’re doing? And why are you doing it?”

Your only role in the game is to answer truthfully each time. But you’re not allowed to say “It’s just what we do”, or make up a plausible, but false reason. “I genuinely don’t know”, “It’s what my colleagues taught me (but I don’t know why)”, “It’s what we did in my family when I was growing up”, “it distracts me from what I’m scared of”, “it keeps me looking good” are all allowed, if true. You have to have to account, as completely as you can, for each part of your day.

The last part of the game is the most important.

Given what you’ve said, you get to decide whether to continue on as you are.

Or whether something – perhaps many things – have to change.

Photo Credit: rishibando via Compfight cc

Becoming human

Four ways of dealing with the anxious feeling that you’re not completely in control of your organisation:

give someone a poor appraisal (blame someone else instead of facing that there are limits to own your power)

invent some targets for people to hit (if you can think of something measurable you might be able to avoid talking about all the uncertain, difficult to understand aspects of your work)

restructure (much easier than actually talking deeply to people about what’s going on, from which who knows what trouble might happen?)

or go the other way and try to do it all yourself (keeps your heroic image going and allows you to show people how much you suffer for your role)

Or perhaps you could give up ‘looking good’ – which gives rise to all of the above – as the primary task of leadership.

Owning up to your uncertainty and your anxiety, and to your limitations, allows you at last to become a human being to those around you, so that they in turn can be human themselves.

Photo Credit: Infinite Jeff via Compfight cc

Categories of experience

How do you label your experiences? Can you even see that you’re labelling them at all?

How do you decide what kind of experiences you label as welcome and unwelcome, acceptable and to-be-avoided-at-all-costs?

And which labels do you give to joy, calm, fear, surprise, confusion, anxiety, delight, guilt, shame, love, uncertainty?

Most importantly, can you see that the particular categories you have become used to are only one possibility? That your categories are not fixed truths, but are something you’ve been taught or have taught yourself over time, and solidified through years of practice?

If you were prepared to loosen your certainty about all of this, you might find that the experiences you’re most dedicated to avoiding hold hidden treasures and possibilities. Which, as long as you’re avoiding them, will never be revealed.

Photo Credit: Jeff Kubina via Compfight cc

Your part in your mood

Opening the door to gratitude is not easy.

But when you find out how improbable it is that this (whatever this is) is happening – that anything is happening at all – it can liberate this moment, and the next, and the next, into a new-found amazement. And wonder and amazement, even at the mundane everydayness of life, are the ground from which gratitude arises.

Gratitude, resentment, cynicism, resignation – all involve no small measure of choice on your part.

Which are you in the midst of choosing today?

Photo Credit: city/human/life via Compfight cc


Yes, I know, you’re really busy.

But would you take some time to sit still for a while? I mean really still. Twenty minutes of not doing anything.

Sit upright, alert, awake to yourself and your life for a while, and see what you find.

Don’t go to sleep (though you might quickly find once you’ve been sitting for a few moments quite how tired you actually are).

Quite soon you might discover how difficult you find it to be with yourself (could this be why you’re quite so busy as you are?). And how much is going on even when you’re doing nothing.

Thoughts crowding in. Ideas. Plans. Judgements. More plans. More judgement. Your inner critic chomping away. Feelings – irritation, anxiety, fear. Perhaps flashes of joy. Maybe love. Maybe gratitude. But, for many of us, mostly anxiety and irritation of one sort or another.

But if you do sit still for a while, and if you do it regularly, you might start to catch glimpses of something that’s behind your familiar whirling thoughts and feelings, behind all the stuff that you habitually take to be you.

Maybe the first thing you’ll encounter is a more expansive you than you ordinarily know. A you that can observe all of the activity, judging and fearfulness, and know itself to be bigger than all of that. A you that doesn’t need to be needed. A you that isn’t so invested in running away into busyness. A you that’s able to experience whatever there is to be experienced.

And then, given enough careful attention, and with much waiting and stillness, you might discover something even beyond that. A background aliveness from which all of the you that you experience arises. An aliveness that’s deeply engaged in everything – for it is life itself – but not caught up in it. An aliveness that’s content with simply being alive, amazed at it even. An aliveness that finds joy in the simplicity and sheer unlikeliness of being here – in breathing, in the beating of your heart, in your capacity to see, hear, love, hate, grieve, act, sleep, rest, eat, move, speak, listen. An aliveness that is not trying to get anywhere at all but which is fiercely, actively committed to life itself.

We forget this part of ourselves because finding it also requires us to find so much of ourselves that we can’t tolerate. But we would do well to remember it once in a while, because it’s a source of deep love, deep commitment, and vibrant, generous, living possibility.

And to be sure, we could all do with some of that in our frantic, over-stretched lives.

Photo Credit: loungerie via Compfight cc

The route of dignity or defensiveness

Many of us were initiated into fear from an early age, even if we grew up in the most loving of families. We came to know it intimately as we encountered the prospect of punishment. We feared being ostracised, feeling ashamed. We feared our most cherished possibilities being withdrawn from us by those with power over us. It was central our education system, and it is what gave such powerful impetus to our learning to fit in as we grew.

And so as adults we come to rely on fear as a way of having things happen, and we hardly know we are doing it. We build it into our institutions, practices, policies and procedures. We barely see how we are creating circumstances in which we and others cannot speak up, cannot say what’s true, cannot bring ourselves forward strongly. We are blind to how our own fear is shaping us.

And fear’s wish to hide itself – because we are fearful of speaking about our fear – means this can be the case even in those organisations with the noblest aspirations.

So maybe it’s time to ask some important questions – ones that may provoke some fear themselves if you truly address them, head-on.

Does the way you run your organisation draw out the dignity of others, or their defensiveness?

Their genuine capacity to contribute, or their wish to protect themselves?

Their care, or their fearful self-interest?

Their ability to do the right thing, or their skill in looking good?

Their capacity to tell the truth, or to hide things away?

What does it draw out of you?

And could you learn, even though you are afraid, to be someone who draws out dignity, contribution, care and truth in those around you?

Photo Credit: Sigfrid Lundberg via Compfight cc

Fourteen questions about meetings


While we’re talking about meetings, are you organising your meetings

So you can look good?
So you’ll feel needed?
Because you think you should?
Because it’s what everyone else does?

Are you paying any attention at all to

Whether they’re effective for achieving what you intend?
Whether you actually know what you’re intending?
Whether people feel alive, connected, and able to contribute?
The shifts in mood, engagement, and authenticity as the meeting unfolds?
Whether your meeting actually helps people talk about what’s true and important?
Whether you and everyone else are just marking time?

And if you’re invitated to join a meeting do you

Speak to the organisers to determine what they’re intending?
Find out what your contribution could be before you say yes?
See if there’s a more effective way for you to contribute than just turning up?
Ever say ‘no’?

There are a million ways to communicate information, make a decision, come up with a new idea, learn from others, make a discovery. And just because endless meetings are what you do, it doesn’t mean for a moment that they’re the best way to have any of this come about.

Photo Credit: sjrankin via Compfight cc

Decisions, emotions and our deepest concerns

We’re often taught that emotions get in the way of good decision-making, and that it’s our logical, rational selves that are most human.

And, of course, it’s true that emotions can get in the way of deciding well:

Deciding your future in an outburst of rage…
Choosing who to recruit to your team from the midst of your frustration…
Making a commitment from fear or panic…
Or getting blinded by love, by resentment, by shame.

But your habitual, reactive ways with emotions are not all that are available to you.

Emotions can be cultivated, refined, mined for their deep intelligence, if you’re prepared to pay attention to them over time, allowing them to reveal their complexity and depth instead of pushing them away. Behind your hot, of-the-moment reaction, which for some emotions may be very narrow indeed, can be something more rarefied, more significant, and with a deep intelligence all of its own.

So before you act, before you decide, you could ask yourself:

What is this emotion drawing my attention to? What is it trying to say? What is it trying to protect? To what in my history is it attached? What care of mine is it expressing? What bigger commitment? What does it want?


Is there anything in all of this that seems true? That I want to take into account?

Reacting to your emotions in an unsophisticated way can be shortsighted, yes. But leaving emotions out of your decision-making means leaving out what matters most intensely to you.

Because emotions are always in one way or another intelligently associated with our deepest cares, and our deepest concerns.

Photo Credit: LaPrimaDonna via Compfight cc

What kind of person

Asking questions – significant ones, sincere ones – is a powerful way of opening up possibilities for yourself and for those around you.

The best questions are the ones whose answers don’t come readily. Such questions have the capacity to undo what you’re standing on, and to unravel what you’re most sure about.

That way, something new can emerge. Some new way of understanding yourself. Something outside of the familiar world you already inhabit.

It is the process of asking and inquiring itself that can change things. If the question is big enough, important enough, you might find that instead of answering the question, you are answered by the question.

Which question you choose is important, though. The bigger the question you can ask, the bigger the change that’s possible.

How do I earn more? is not as big as What kind of work do I want to do? which is not as big as What contribution am I called to make?

And none of these is as big as that most important of questions, the one from which every other question flows: What kind of person do I wish to be?

Photo Credit: Funky64 ( via Compfight cc

What makes our difficulty possible…

Of course it’s not just by being good that we think we’ll be deserving of escaping life’s difficulties.

We imagine that if we make enough money (always more than whatever we have now), have enough friends, own the right kind of house or car, or make a name for ourselves, then suffering will not be able to touch us. That everything will be ok.

And all the while we’re pursuing this, we’re turning away from life, denying our inescapable part in it. It’s another version of the mountain myth about which I wrote in September.

I wrote yesterday that part of growing up (which may come very late in life) is finding out that this is not true, and that there is nobody to save us from life itself.

But releasing ourselves into life at last is our opportunity to discover that we don’t need saving at all. That our life, which itself is so incredibly unlikely, is holding us at every moment. And that this is precisely what makes all our joy, delight, trouble and pain possible at all.

Photograph by Emma Gregory

On being good

When we are young we are taught that rewards come to those who are good. Good grades, good behaviour, good work, we learn, guarantee recognition and the next big opportunity. A place in a new school. A prize. A degree. A job.

And so as adults we come to think that being good will save us: from pain, confusion, failure, and from having to face life. If we’re good, the world will bring us what we want, and what we need. If we’re good, we secretly hope, we’ll be spared illness, and perhaps even death. People seen as good, we think, are exempt from all of that.

Growing up – whenever it comes – means finally finding out that none of this is true.

The world is not set up to guarantee, or owe, anything. It is not waiting for you to show how good you are. There is nobody to save you from life itself.

We’d better do our best, most important work not because of what it will bring us, or because of how it will look to others, but for its own sake, then.

Photo Credit: esther** via Compfight cc

The way we do meetings… is just made up

Why do you do meetings in such an extraordinarily wasteful way?

Perhaps because it makes you feel good. You get seen to be busy, involved, making things happen, even if the result of your time together produces disengagement, poor decisions made, and time wasted. Or perhaps because you’ve taken the form of meetings to be a fixed feature of the world – a ‘truth’ that is self-evident, unquestionable, just ‘the way things are done’.

But, simply put, meetings are just something that somebody made up. And you then took on. And, consequently, there is no ‘right’ way to meet.

Which means when you find yourself, as so many do, locked in stultifying, oppressive meeting practices – that have you bored, overstretched, checking out, distracted, attending when you’re not needed, or when you don’t wish to be there – you’re complicit in keeping things that way.

Unless you choose to speak up. Unless you choose to change things.

Which you could. If you stopped insisting that the way you do meetings is simply the way things are. And if understood that instead that meetings are an invention, ripe to be reinvented.

For some powerful, provocative support in undoing your assumptions about what meetings are for and how to go about them, take a look at Al Pittampalli’s book Read This Before Our Next Meeting. You’ll see a whole new way of thinking about what meetings are for, and why most of them are an unnecessary, wasteful distraction.

Photo Credit: Andreauuu via Compfight cc