It’s important to remember…

… that no is a necessary precursor to any, genuine, wholehearted yes

… because a life filled only with yes is a life without discrimination, without freedom, without choice

… a life shaped by the whims of others, the shifting trends of society or fashion, the fads of the moment

… and because a genuine yes can rarely take wing when smothered by what’s peripheral, incidental, distracting and unimportant.

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Baby steps

It’s tempting to think the change you’re longing for will come about through a single revolutionary step.

… somebody (usually not you) realising the error of their ways
… a new vision or mission statement for your company
… a new to-do list that will solve all problems, ease all ills

This is the kind of magical thinking that leads to the often-practiced and rarely effective tradition of team ‘away days’. Yes, a day of talking can take you a long way. And yes, a list of freshly-minted things-to-do can give you all a feeling of relief, perhaps even hope, for a few minutes at least.

But it should be no surprise that on return to the everyday world of your office or workplace, nothing seems to change as quickly or as radically as you had hoped.

From the ashes of magical thinking cynicism is easily born.

You might more helpfully think of most change – particularly change in relationships, trust or understanding – as a kind of titration. Drip followed by drip followed by drip.

Radical overnight revolutionary change of the kind that you’re hoping for, or promising, is the work of messiahs and magicians (and, sometimes, charlatans).

For the rest of us, the dedicated, consistent, purposeful, patient work of repeated speaking and listening, promising and requesting, messing up and correcting, talking and learning, practicing and practicing.

Baby steps, baby.

Baby steps.

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What people think

There’s a liberation in discovering that what other people think of you is not the same as who you are. When you can stop identifying yourself with the stories and assessments of others, you can also free yourself from the constant inner pressure to appear as you think people want you to.

But once you know this, you have to understand that other people are not the same as your stories or assessments either. That means that whatever you think you know about them can only ever be partial, one angle on a situation way more complex than you’ve allowed for.

It means you’re going to have to learn to be way more imaginative and listen much more deeply, if you’re ever going to understand what’s going on when others are involved.

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Love and fear

Love and fear are never so far apart.

To pursue something you love – a person, a way of life, freedom, making a contribution, doing something meaningful, having a voice in the world – is always to expose yourself to the possibility, the inevitability, of one day losing it all.

Often we’d rather fade into the background, doing what ‘one does’, not feeling too much, not standing out too much, not risking too much, so that we don’t have to experience the fear of the loss that we know will come.

Better, we think, to stay safe and not have to experience all this. That way, we imagine, we’ll protect ourselves from the pain we don’t wish to feel.

But to be human is to love. And to have a voice. And to contribute.

And to fear.

And eventually, yes, to lose.

What better time is there to begin, if you have not already, than now?

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Nothing to be done

“There’s nothing that can be done. It’s just the way it is”

The moment you say this about the situation you’re in, particularly if you’re in a position to lead or influence people, you close the door to many possibilities. Mostly, you’re inviting a mood of resignation, and you’re turning away from sincere inquiry into all the different angles and interpretations that you haven’t yet seen.

What brought about this situation?
How important is it to us?
What’s my part in it? Our part? Our culture’s part?
What don’t we understand yet?
What are we afraid of?
What are we trying to protect? deny?
Where did our story that there’s nothing to be done come from?
Is it true? How did we get to take it up?
What’s at stake here?
What do we really want to happen?
What’s missing?
What’s possible now?

Of course, there are genuine situations in which nothing can be done and in which it is just the way it is. But much less often than you might think.

And when that’s the case, your insistence that things are unchangeable is really just a way of getting yourself off the hook. Because if it’s just the way it is, there’s nothing you’ll have to do, and you won’t have to face your fear.

Or maybe it’s just your way of keeping things the way you want them while you rob others of their power to act.

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Cultivating moods

Moods aren’t phenomena that just happen to you. They always involve you. You’re an active participant in them, even those moods that seem to arise and fall away unexpectedly, mysteriously.

One way of starting to see this is noticing that there’s an assessment at the heart of every mood.

In fear – something or someone is threatening me
In anxiety – there’s nothing solid for me to stand on
In love – there’s something or someone shining, alluring, life-giving here
In resentment – I’ve been wronged and can’t directly address it

A consequence of this is that it’s possible to consider cultivating moods.

You have some measure of choice about the assessments you make; about where you look for evidence for the assessments you do make; about what you read and watch and who you speak to; and about the practices you take up that shift your body in such a way that moods are prolonged or released. In this way you can gradually lay the ground in which new kinds of mood, perhaps those less familiar to you or less habitual, have the possibility of arising.

And because each mood brings about a world of possibility or constriction, attending purposefully to the cultivation of mood is a vital act of responsibility for our lives.

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Headlong

What if, instead of rushing headlong into everything at such speed, you committed yourself to slowing down, just a little?

Yes, even you, with so many important and urgent projects and responsibilities to take care of that you don’t have a moment even to think.

How would a 5% reduction in pace be for you?

Walk just a little slower from meeting to meeting. Pause, just a little longer, before you speak. Breathe just a couple more breaths before you answer or make that call. Sit, for just a second to two, before you switch from one task to another. Listen, just a little more attentively, and let what the other person is saying sink in, for a moment longer, before you respond.

Open up a tiny space where there was none before.

You might imagine that nothing that’s important will get done if you commit to this, such is your certainty that there’s never enough time in any case.

But you could find that your relationships with others deepen, bit by bit, as they begin to feel your quality of contact with them deepen also; that you can be more genuinely responsive; and that you react in fewer of the predictable, automatic, indiscriminate ways that have become your habit over the years.

And you might discover that slowing down so you can be present to yourself and others actually makes it possible for you to get to more of what you really care about, rather than less.

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Mystery

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When we are children it seems obvious to us that the adults have it all figured out.

But when we reach adulthood we start to see how little any of us understand. We find out how tenuous our hold on life is. People get ill, die, and disappear at unpredictable intervals from our lives and from life as a whole. Our inability to predict the outcomes of our actions becomes clear to us. And that we are constantly subject to forces – social, natural, historical – that are much bigger than we are.

And what do we mostly do? Pretend that we have it all together. That we understand. All the while desperately and quietly hoping that someone who knows will come along and tell us what to do.

It doesn’t take long for the cover story – whatever it is that we get up to that makes us feel secure or distracted from the uncertainty of everything – to become our life, our story about who we are. We identify ourselves with our job, money, title, house, social group, spiritual path, possessions.

We forget the true condition of our lives.

And then, sometimes, if we are lucky, we catch a glimpse of all of this – in a sprawling night sky, in the darkness of a cave, in the silence of a grove of trees, in the eyes of a child.

We remember that we’ve been taking ourselves much too seriously. And we experience for a moment the wonder and awe of living in the midst of a vast and extraordinary mystery that we can never figure out.

A reason to hope

In any situation, no matter how long it has been going, no matter how discouraging, there is always the possibility of taking a new kind of action, perhaps one that has never been taken before.

It can happen in the intimacy of a relationship between two human beings, in families, in organisations, in society, between peoples.

Some of the forms new action can take:

A new conversation.

A new request.

A new demand.

A new offer.

A new way of listening.

A new story.

Of course, there’s no sure-fire way of predicting what the effect of new action will be. A train of events will begin, yes. But where it leads nobody can know for certain.

Perhaps this is what has us hold back, so often, precisely when new action is called for.

But we could do well to remember that whatever has been started is subject to the same conditions as any situation. In the human world, the world of action and relationship, we can always take some other new action in order to respond to what we ourselves began.

Our endless capacity to invent cannot give us control.

But I think it can, when remembered, rightly give us hope.

Photography by Kate Atkinson

The world is a mess

The world is a mess.

And it’s not just the wars, political turmoil, economic instability and corruption that so many people in the world have to face.

The world is – intrinsically – a mess. Without our constant intervention, our conscious effort, things decay, break apart, get messy, disordered, unruly. Weeds grow in cracks – life will find its way wherever it can. Dust collects. Possessions, arrangements, human affairs fall into chaos.

To be human is to work, without end, to address such a state of affairs in which nature is, in many ways, always working to undo us.

How to respond?

Perhaps to live in constant state of resentment or rejection of the inherent chaos of everything. Constantly tense, watchful for any intrusion on your sense of order, you try to retain tight control over everything and everyone. There is always something more to be done. And then more, and then more. Any instability, any hint that the world may be beyond your influence stirs up anger, rejection, clenched jaw, frustration.

Or choose resignation. Since the world is already and always falling apart, there’s no point trying. No point in creating order. Perhaps no point in creating anything since it will eventually be swept away. No point speaking up for yourself, or on behalf of others, because you’re not powerful enough to make a difference. No point pursuing justice, or compassion, or growth of any kind. Instead, gradually settling into a world-weary, knowing cynicism in which human limitation becomes an excuse for giving up responsibility.

Or another possibility: that to be human is also to walk the path between these two poles – between the responsibility to act, bringing about a new future, and the responsibility to accept our limits in the chaotic, uncontrollable world in which we live.

 

Flatland

We are human beings because we participate in worlds – complex, interrelated systems of meaning, significance, relationships, tools and practices. A person is never just a physical object, but a participant in something much bigger than them, which they are contributing to and which is shaping them all the time.

To see this clearly, try first living for a few days with a family that’s not your own. You’ll soon come to appreciate that, despite much being shared, much is different in this place. Words mean something subtly different. The way people eat, dress, argue, love have somewhat different meanings here. They relate to time differently, uncertainty, money, mess. The significance of the past, the possibilities of the future – all with their own nuance. And most of this, that you can see so clearly by being with others, is usually invisible in your own life, a transparent background upon which all else is founded.

Then extend your inquiry by living in a culture very different from your own for a while. Here, the difference between your world and the one you are visiting will start to reveal the way world extends into everything. What buildings mean and are for, what it is to sleep, wash, work, parent, pray. What ‘community’ is, or ‘society’. What constitutes suffering and what constitutes joy. What people are, what life is for. All ‘world’ and all present in your own life but mostly invisible in its everyday familiarity.

It’s striking that our bodily, biological similarity to one another is precisely what makes our widely varying worldhood possible.

When we reduce people to generalisations, statistics, measurements, personality types, exam scores; or to their merely physical presence – brains, neural structure, blood chemistry, bodies – we leave out all of this vital context that makes them the particular kind of beings that they are. These reductions are necessary, sometimes, but we miss out so much that’s important when we mistake the reductions to be what’s most essential about us.

It’s no trivial matter, because the deworlded, reduced account of people dominates our understanding and discourse in much business, government, medicine and education and produces a kind of ‘flatland’ in which the full humanity of human beings has quite little room to show up.

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Does it strike you…

Does it strike you…

…that the difficulty you complain about so often, to yourself, to others

…is something that you have a part in keeping going

…and that maybe there’s something in it for you that things are just the way they are

…some kind of self-esteem generated

…the righteous, wronged, suffering one

…who nobody understands

…and that if you gave it up

…you’d have to face that you have some responsibility for how things have been

…and that there are choices, now, that only you can make?

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Deworlded

The mastery of the wheelwrights about whom I wrote yesterday involves not just practical skill in working with wood but attunement to the personal and cultural background of their customers. In this way, there’s never such a thing as a ‘standard’ wheel and, indeed, not even a standard response to a particular customer. Instead, what gets made is a sensitive and appropriate response to the current moment, and to the unique intentions and life of the customer.

In other words, as well as responding to the particular domain of their craft, the wheelwright is responding to an entire context or, better said, to a world.

Standards and uniformity make absolute and vital sense in many domains. Without the USB standard, for example, connecting devices to computers would be a nightmare. Imagine also if you had to have bespoke tyres made specifically for your car every time you had a puncture.

But in dealing with human beings, what’s often called for is a sensitive response to an entire world, just as in the case of the wheelwright.

So…

When a doctor treats your symptoms without first asking about you as a person, or about the life in which they arose…

When an HR department or manager fits you into a competency framework or grading system that takes no account of your particular you-ness that you bring, let alone the unique characteristics of your work that can never be reduced to a job title or list…

When the person who’s coaching you uses a technique or a list of questions that they’ve used with every client so far…

When a person is replaced by an automated checkout machine that says to you in truncated English ‘Place item in bagging area’, and you’re left feeling alienated and disembodied…

In each of these cases you’re experiencing being de-worlded, or put more simply, having your human world and context ignored. And there’s also a way in which the person with whom you’re interacting – if there is one – is de-worlded too, abandoning their capacity to sense into and respond to the totality of a situation and responding in a narrow and automatic way.

Medicine and coaching, teaching and managing, parenting and friendship, therapy and leadership, legal advice and mentoring – of these require, at their best, the kind of attunement to the particular world of the other that I’m talking about here. Or, put another way, an I-You rather than an I-It relationship.

It’s a necessary capacity, all too often ignored or considered irrelevant when we pursue speed and efficiency as the only measures of work, or service, or relationship with one another.

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On Standardisation and Attunement

Wheelwrights – the craftspeople who make wooden wheels for carts – are not much in demand in contemporary, mechanised, industrialised mass-production societies.

But consider this: to make a good wheel, the wheelwright needs to be deeply sensitive to three different domains:

The first is the forest. What kind of wood grows where, and when. The flow of the seasons, their rains and dry periods. The properties of each kind of wood, how it responds to cutting and shaping, what will happen to it as it dries and weathers, its capacity to bear load in different directions, the unique effect of knots in the grain, how it responds under pressure, and how all of this changes depending upon when in the season the wood is felled and when it is cut. A skilful wheelwright is attuned to all of this, able to tell just what is called for, and able to assess a piece of wood and just how to cut it well from its feel, its weight, its aroma, its colour.

The second is the domain of carts. Precisely how the wood is likely to be used. The specific demands called upon in being pulled by horses or donkeys or people, in driving over firm ground and muddy ground, with the sorts of loads and distributions to be carried.

And the third is people and culture. The wheelwright needs a deep understanding of the end-purposes for which people choose to use carts, and a similarly deep understanding of people in particular so that, when Arthur or Jenny or Miha or Danha ask for a wheel, it’s possible to respond to just what is called for that will meet their particular concerns, their intentions, and the commitments they’re in the midst of.

A deep attunement to all three domains is what enables the wheelwright to provide just what’s called for, just what meets the situation that calls for a new wheel, when a customer walks in.

In a mechanised, mass production culture all three of these kinds of attunement are easily obscured. We are blinded by the production of vast quantities of products that are all the same as one another, standardised, uniform, efficient to produce, but which can only respond in the most generalised of ways to each of us, to our situation, to what’s called for. We can easily come to think that the benefits of mass – the machines that can cut through any kind of wood whatever the grain, the standardisation of products that can be shipped quickly all over the world – are the only benefits worth looking out for.

But what we gain in efficiency we lose in artistry, and in mastery, and in our capacity to develop our own deep kind of attunement to place, people, and materials. We produce products and services that do their job well in one way, but pay little heed to the particular human worlds in which they will be used. The effect? Efficiency at the cost of responsiveness to the richness and aliveness of human life.

In some domains standardisation is vital. But there are many areas where we’re effectively insisting on a mass-produced response when attunement is what’s really called for.

More on this tomorrow.

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Fear’s fear

When you’re afraid, but starting to see that it’s time to move towards exactly that which your fear is having you avoid…

speaking up
standing out from the ‘norm’
taking action
forgiving someone
doing something that matters
giving up ‘looking good’
making a contribution
making art

…it’s helpful to know that the possibility you might actually do something is precisely fear’s own fear.

So, as you move into action, expect your fear to redouble its efforts to hold you in place. And, perhaps, you could re-interpret your feelings of uncertainty as the sign not that you have to back out, but as a surefire sign that you’re on a path that matters.

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Missing

We find it incredibly difficult not to have a story.

So we wrap stories around what we don’t understand, around anything seems incomplete, around anything mysterious.

Which means we’re always making up stories about other people, whose actions we can see but whose inner experience we can never fully know. Instead of leaving ourselves in the dark, we invent intentions, thoughts, purposes and feelings on behalf of others – whatever will give us a coherent story to which we can respond.

And then we forget that it’s a story at all.

And because it’s our story and not theirs, it should be no wonder that it contains endless assumptions, projections, speculations, inventions, judgements – many of which will be coherent but inaccurate.

And then no wonder that we can have such a difficult time getting along.

One approach to all this? Cling more and more tightly to your story. Don’t look for or let anything in that might blow it apart.

Another? Adopt the radical move of dropping all your stories and listening for a while.

But when you’re prepared to treat another person, another team, another group, another community as mysterious enough, perhaps you’ll discover that what’s going on is way different from what you thought.

More importantly, you’ll give yourself a way of responding that actually meets the other person, sees them, instead of missing them by a mile.

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Nothing of the sort

A mistake your inner critic most probably makes is projecting your own inner self-criticism onto what others say to you. Or, in other words, adding criticism to what’s being said.

Under these circumstances even genuine, heartfelt expressions of interest and curiosity from another can feel like attack.

So can love.

Could it be that you’ve misunderstood?

The first and necessary step in finding out is distinguishing your own inner dialogue from what others are saying to you, so that you can find out what’s yours and what’s theirs.

It’s not easy, as the critic is often committed to hiding its involvement in things.

But pay this enough attention, over sufficient time, and you might well find out that what you’ve understood as their attack, or their criticism,

perhaps for years,

is indeed nothing of the sort.

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Not your circumstance

You’re not the failure of your most recent project. You’re not the loss of your job. You’re not the disappointment at not having come first. You’re not that mistake you made, or your company results.

You’re not your success, your fame, your glowing reputation, either. You’re not the letters after your name, your job title, your exam results, your place in the hierarchy.

You’re not your bank balance, your debt, your smart suit, your car, your house, your muscles, your illness. You’re not even your happiness, your sadness, your rage, your shame, your hope.

How could you be any of these, given that any of them – any of them – are liable to change at any time?

It’s a huge misunderstanding of what humans being are, and one that your inner critic can go wild upon, demanding that you fix, or change, or that you hold on ever so tight to what you’ve got for fear of losing it.

You are not your circumstance.

Perhaps there is a new kind of freedom you can find from knowing this. A new kind of acceptance of the transience of the world, and of your own strength and constancy.

And a new kind of hope.

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Book Week Day 7 – On The Internet

How do we learn, really? And what kinds of skilfulness it possible to acquire by learning online? What do we lose in a world in which there is increasing pressure for learning to go quickly, to be bite-sized, and to be done without a teacher (by streaming video, online lectures, online self-study)? These are the most urgent questions posed in this slim volume by Hubert Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Using many examples, Dreyfus shows convincingly why the acquisition and mastery of complex human skills always involves significant time in the bodily presence of others who have already achieved some level of mastery themselves. Distance learning can’t easily replace this not only because so much in the moment feedback is missing, but also because by leaving out bodily participation we rarely experience the emotional and bodily sensation of being fully engaged. Learning to do something well, argues Dreyfus, requires exactly this. We have to risk, to fully feel our successes and our failures, and most of all to jump in even when we don’t know at all yet what we’re doing.

All of these, Dreyfus says, are denied us when our primary form of interaction is at a distance, is disembodied, and is mostly anonymous. Just compare the experience of asking a question that matters to you when you’re in the same room as the teacher and other students, with the safety and relative hiddenness of a question by email. It’s in the felt experience of risk and its consequence, of being in the mess alongside others, and of caring deeply about what happens that much learning of value takes place. It may not be needed for learning facts alone, but if you want to learn do something well it’s vital, and hardly available to us online.

On the Internet also takes up bigger questions about how technology shapes us as we use it. Alongside Dreyfus’ account of what it takes to master anything, including a clearly described series of stages through which all learners must pass, the book includes chapters on the changes in human knowledge brought about through search technology, and a sharp critique of the net’s capacity – by disembodying us – to rob us of our own ability to discern what really matters. For this reason it is a wonderful read for anyone who cares about learning and change – in individuals, in systems and organisations, and in wider society.