Because we are story-telling beings, we humans have a million ways of avoiding being present to what is right in front of us – people, projects, possibilities, suffering – and what is within us – thoughts, feelings, and the sensations and wisdom arising in our bodies.

We so easily spin stories, throw ourselves into guilt and reminiscence about the past, worry about and try to anticipate the future. And while each of these have their place, they so easily distract us from what we’re most directly in the midst of.

Missing what and who is here robs us of the opportunity to experience life in its richness as we go.

More importantly for everyone else, it denies us the opportunity to bring ourselves at our fullest. Because in our distraction, we respond not to the needs of the moment, but to the needs of our fear, or to our wish to not have to face the world as it is.

Our deepest possibilities for connection and contribution are muted – whenever here is not where we are, and now is not what we’re responding to.

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Claims to truth

So many claims to truth.

So many kinds of truth.

The truth of science. The truth of the narratives we live in. The truth of our bodies. The truth of our feelings. The truth of our ideas.

The truth of our commitments.

The truth of our vows.

What if truth is not something we have, a fixed entity or property, but an event, always in progress, always in the midst of being brought about in and by the way in which we live and how we work?

And what if truth is not so much something we know, as much as it is something we do?

Necessary but not sufficient

We have to stop imagining that every difficulty we face has a technical solution.

For ourselves – if I just learned a new technique I’d have riches, fulfilment, love, power, or happiness. If I just followed the right steps my hollowness, longing, sadness or fear would go away.

In our families – there must be a book that will tell me how to avoid conflict, resolve it, have my partner meet my needs, get my children in line or save them from difficulty.

In our work – we’ll bring in a new process, organisation chart, reporting line, software solution, feedback system, leadership model, competency framework, list of values, behaviour chart, compensation scheme, training course. Then our difficulties will go away – our misunderstanding, confusion, and anxiety. We’ll know just what to do. Nothing will trouble us.

The set of difficulties resolvable by technical solutions when there are other people involved is small. We’ve been blinded to this by our insistence that work and life can be reduced to science alone, or that people are like machines, or that logic is the sole source of truth, or that what worked well in one place (what we call best practice) can be transferred to another without regard to the particular people involved.

No – when it comes to people, technical solutions alone will rarely do.

Instead we have to do the difficult, exciting, principled, confusing, uncertain work of talking together: inquiringwonderingrelatingtrusting, askingpromisinglearningcommitting, resolving, declaring, listening and understanding. 

None of which are easy, because they call on our courage and sincerity, our integrity and our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable.

Which is why we’d rather convince ourselves that technology or technique will save us. Necessary though they are, and sufficient though they are not.

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The moods we deny ourselves

Every mood opens us to the world in its own particular way, and every mood closes something off to us.

But we come to privilege certain moods and dismiss others as inconsequential, or intolerable. And this is not simply a personal choice – we are taught by our culture to value a few moods over many others.

I think it’s time we reconsidered, and allowed ourselves to discover, in our workplaces and wider lives, the particular gifts and wisdom of our boredom, confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, love and longing.

Because boredom reveals to us what we most care about (by its very absence).

Anxiety shows us when we’re stepping into new territory, leaving familiar ground behind us, or when something that really matters needs attention we are not giving.

Love brings to our attention what’s shining, life-giving, and meaningful.

And confusion can tell us when we’ve lost our way, or are on the brink of finding a new one.

We can discover all this by giving up our efforts to push away, deny, numb ourselves, or otherwise pretend these moods don’t show up for us.

This means turning towards one another in conversation, being prepared to name for one another the experiences in which we find ourselves. It requires widening our sense of what is true far beyond what we’d call narrowly ‘rational’. And it calls on us to wonder together, at where our moods arise from and what they might be showing us that has, until now, been invisible.

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Obsessed by youth

We’ve allowed ourselves to become obsessed by youth.

The way this has shaped our public lives is quite easy to see, from the relentless focus on youthful beauty in our media to the cruelty of causal ageism in the workplace.

What’s harder to see is how it is affecting the narratives we have about ourselves.

We see all the ways that growing old is a falling apart, an endless series of losses, a disintegration. And so we try to stave it off, denying what is happening to us. As we grow older and as the time remaining to us diminishes, we become diminished in our own eyes. In this way we rob ourselves and others of our dignity.

But here is an account of ageing from the Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, which points to a different possibility:

All the days of a person’s life are laid out above,
one by one they come soaring into this world…
If a person leaving the world merits,
he comes into those days of his life,
they become a luminous garment.

Such a different way of looking, this – our inevitable, inescapable ageing as a gathering and weaving of the days of our lives into a single luminous garment. We wear the sum of all we have been and done in our bodies, on our faces, in our entire way of being in the world.

This gives us growing older as an integration, a chance to unify ourselves, turning towards the shadow parts that we pushed away when we were younger.

And it invites us to give up our dependence upon looking good or being liked, so that we can have our ageing usher us into the fullness of our humanity.

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Not so sure

It can be incredibly helpful to learn to distinguish between what happens and your assessment of it.

What happens:
She didn’t return my call

Your assessments:
I must have done something wrong
She’s angry with me
She hates me
She’ll never forgive me
I’m such a loser
This relationship is over

What happens can be observed and agreed upon by others, if they were there to witness it – even people who don’t know you, or who have very different opinions to you.

Your assessments are what you make of what happens. They are interpretations, arising from your particular perspective, experience, history, values, and commitments.

Assessments can be more, or less, grounded. Sometime they’re based upon a careful study of people and events. And sometimes they are wild flights of speculation and imagination. Or projections of a past situation into the future. Or an extrapolation: based upon an initial impression of someone we fill in all the details of who and how they must be.

Making assessments is necessary, of course, if we are ever to make any sense of a world in which things keep on happening in a way that matters to us. But they can land us and others in deep difficulty when we fail to distinguish them from the events upon which they are based.

When we take our assessments to be the unquestionable truth – and they can easily seem this way to us – we are in all likelihood heading for trouble.

This is why we all need people around us who respect us enough to point out when what we’re most convinced about is in fact shaky, and who can remind us not to be as sure of ourselves as we think we are. In the end, our truest friendship and deepest support comes from those who are willing to tell us that our assessments are assessments. And it’s a huge step forward when we learn from them how to do this for ourselves.

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A five-fold symmetry

You step off the train, in a hurry. So much to do.

Will you get it all done? What will other people think? Will you keep your job? Where will you be in a year, five years? Can you pay the bills? Will you get what you want? When will you get to rest? Will you find fulfilment? Satisfaction? Will you have to keep on pushing, putting in such huge effort? Can you stay in control of it all?

So many things to worry about.

And, as always, the platform meets your foot with exactly the right amount of resistance so that you can stand. Gravity holds you. Generations of human invention and discovery make possible the lighting, the locomotive pull of the train, the sliding doors, the clothes you are wearing. The air composed of just the balance of oxygen and other gases that you can breathe. And the lives of your billions of ancestors in oceans and on land, together with the extraordinary creativity of evolution, give you your eyes, mind, heart, body – the five-fold symmetry of your hands and feet.

All so that this, you, and your life, are possible.

So what if, as well as your fear and worry, you oriented to the day with the sense of wonder invited by this extraordinarily unlikely confluence of circumstances?

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Scared of ourselves

One part of me is often very, very scared.

It’s scared of losing people, and it’s willing to do pretty much anything to get people to stay.

It can be obsessive. It can fret over tiny details – what someone else thinks, whether they called or not. It can imagine the worst in an email (she wasn’t loving enough in the sign-off to that email, something must be wrong), or in a silence. It can imagine – and believe – elaborate scenarios in which people who are important to me have withdrawn already because of a slight, or an oversight, or a mistake on my part.

When I think this part is me, I too am afraid. And in my fear I try to drive it away: I do not want to feel the way it feels. I do not want to think the way it thinks. I work hard to push it out of view, out of my thoughts and out of my emotions.

And the fear multiplies in direct response to the abandonment I inflict upon it.

When I understand this part as if it were a whole person with its own coherent thoughts and feelings, I can see how my own fear of it makes it more afraidAnd my abandonment of it gives it the proof it dreads. It knows, from first-hand experience, that it is always at risk of being exiled.

I have been relating to this part in exactly the way it most fears. And it is no wonder that is has continued to haunt me.

As I wrote earlier this week, our own relationship to the parts of us has a profound effect on them, and hence on us. And so more recently, when I feel afraid of losing someone – when I feel the irrational, obsessive, implacable fear start to form – I practice turning towards the afraid part in as appreciative and loving a way as I can. Welcoming it home. Showing that though others may leave, I will not. 

And the fear settles.

By welcoming my own complexity and contradictions rather than turning away from them, I’m finding that I can create the conditions in which the parts of me, sometimes fearful, frequently needy, often longing, can find some peace. And in welcoming myself I am able to bring myself more fully, more generously, and with much less clinging to those I love, and to those with whom I work.

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The parts you push away

When you know yourself as made up of partsyou can start to ask yourself how the parts relate to one another, and how they relate to you as a whole.

Do some parts get loved and appreciated by you?
Do other parts get pushed away?

More illuminating still is to understand that parts have their own identity and intelligence as you consider these questions.

What do the parts you love do in response to your love?
And what do the parts you push away do in response to being pushed away?

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See what happens if instead of ‘I am afraid’, you say ‘Part of me is afraid’

If instead of ‘I am unsure’, ‘Part of me is unsure’

Instead of ‘I am angry’, ‘Part of me is angry’

By allowing yourself the understanding that you are a being of many parts, rather than a single, monolithic self, you open up these possibilities:

Firstly, coming to understand emotions as something you have rather than what defines you …

… It really is quite different to know yourself this way – there is much more agency in having rather than being had by what you feel.

Secondly, remembering that there are always parts of you that are feeling something different to what’s most apparent to you …

… parts that are settled when you’re experiencing anxiety, parts that love when you’re feeling irritated, parts that are courageous and able to take action when other parts of you are paralysed with fear.

And thirdly, discovering that the same is true of others …

… so that when you’re bewildered by her rage you can remember that there is still a part of her that is kindness; when you’re supporting him in his uncertainty you can call on the part of him that has clarity; and when you’re struggling with his self-centredness you can remember the part of him that still, even in the midst of all the difficulty, cares deeply about all of it.

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Is it?

Is it learning when you insist on hearing what makes you comfortable?

Is it love when you’re in it just because you feel good around him or her?

Is it practice when you stop because you don’t feel competent, or because it’s not much fun?

Is it harmony when you deny the conflicts within you and around you?

Is it leadership when you won’t tell anyone what’s really important to you?

Is it conversation when you’re paying attention only to what you have to say?

Is it commitment when you stay in only when things are going your way?

Is it trust when you demand that everyone always meet your standards?

Is it freedom when you insist on never, ever being constrained?

Is it strength when you won’t ask for help?

And is it respect when you won’t say what you think in case they don’t like it?

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Pouring it away

So much of what we waste – time, money, trust – we waste because we haven’t found skilful ways of talking to one another.

All the time spent pursuing projects that nobody wanted.

All the time doing things to try to look good in the eyes of others, without even asking them if it actually looks good to them.

All the work we do trying to guess what other people wanted because we’re afraid we’ll look stupid if we tell them we don’t understand.

All the projects that could not happen because we did not find a way to agree on what we really intended.

All the effort spent on what we thought was urgent because we could not talk about what we felt was important.

All of the energy we put into doing things because we felt that acting now was more important than talking with one another about how to act rightly.

And how much we could improve things if, as well as rushing into restructures, reorganisations, and process redesigns, we were prepared to invest as much time and effort learning to talk and listen well together.

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Blinded to half of our lives

The separation of subject from object brought to us so powerfully by René Descartes in the 17th century (and which I have written about here) gave us new ways of understanding and manipulating the material world which in turn gave birth to modernity. His work ushered in an age in which at last science, technology and medicine could seriously take root. You don’t have to look far to see how much this has made possible.

But you have to look more closely to see how it has also led us into a deep misunderstanding of ourselves.

In the 19th century August Comte built on Descartes’ position to create logical positivism, which argued that nothing in the human world could be considered to have authority unless it could be objectively measured. For positivism what was real about people included behaviour, action taken, money earned, measurements made. Feeling, meaning and stories were distinctly second class as far as truth was concerned. In a stroke, positivism declared much of the experience of being alive, the unique subjectivity that makes us most human, to be irrelevant, a marginal footnote to the real stuff of existence.

We’ve enthusiastically taken positivism into the heart of our institutions and as we’ve done so we’ve understood ourselves and others primarily as objects and as consumers – a surface, materialist understanding that leaves a huge part of ourselves behind. We relate to people primarily through how they can be ‘of use’ to us, what they can get done. And consequently we are often at war with ourselves, suppressing and denying our longing for something real, something that has depth, something that’s more than surface.

It should be no surprise that positivism was seized upon enthusiastically by the architects of that most modern of human institutions, the organisation. By reducing people to surface and to measurable activity, and by discounting the rest, the early factory owners could have people become extensions of the machinery of production. It is at work in so much of what’s considered ‘best practice’ in contemporary management – in behaviour frameworks, performance grading, the banishment of the inner world from the workplace, the label ‘human resources’, and our insistence that people fit in rather than bring themselves forward fully.

Positivism is so prevalent and so often unquestioned because, in many ways, it works – just as long as you are happy that people stop being people so they can become part of the machine.

But it fails to take account of so much of what we are – symbol-making, metaphor-creating, meaning-seeking beings who navigate our lives wondering, dreaming, fearing, hoping and longing – and that our measurable doing is just the tiniest part of it.

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In praise of shadows

Although there are clearly constant qualities that each of us carry from place to place, relationship to relationship, there’s also much of us that gets expressed – drawn out of us – by the places we’re in and by who we’re with.

The offices, public areas, homes, living spaces, kitchens and meeting rooms we inhabit, each with their lighting and decor and furniture and equipment, afford us certain possibilities and deny us others. Some places bring out the possibility of being focussed and diligent, others bring out our playfulness, and in yet others we get attuned mostly to our boredom or agitation.

As we move from place to place, situation to situation, we might notice the different possibilities that are brought forth. But we rarely see that the entire cultural and architectural background in which we live is shaping us all the time. The very kind of people we come to be is, in large part, being produced by the built environment in which we live. And because it’s all pervasive – we’re born into it and, unless we immerse ourselves first-hand and deeply in other cultures we rarely escape from it – much of its shaping effect is completely invisible to us.

I have been reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows this week, which is all about this. Tanizaki shows us how, in the west, our contemporary buildings emphasise light. We build large windows to catch the sun, and where this is impossible we add bright electric lighting – fluorescent tubes, halogens, bright white bulbs – to illuminate and to banish darkness. And while this can be beautiful, and is at the least enormously practical, there is something profound about the possibilities of deep shadow that we rarely encounter, and so barely know.

On the traditional Japanese way of building a toilet, for example – so different from bright white, tile and porcelain constructions – he writes:

“There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and a quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.”

It is shadow around which the traditional Japanese interior world is constructed, and which Tanizaki describes so beautifully in his book. His attention ranges from the design of living rooms and bathrooms – and their affect on us – to the experience of eating steaming rice in the dimness of low-eaved, paper-walled dining rooms; from the practicalities of cleaning and heating our living and working spaces to the possibility of ordinary, everyday buildings as places of spiritual repose.

In Praise of Shadows is readable in one short sitting, and an exquisite way of seeing in a new way what’s possible for us, and hidden from us, in the contemporary world of work and home.

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Change is a practice not a thing

We would help ourselves greatly if we saw change not as a thing but as a practice.

When we treat change as a thing we imagine that inventing what we want will be enough. We return from an away-day or conference brimming with ideas and plans, commitments and to-do lists, and we think those are the change. And then we get disheartened when nothing seems different – when it turns out that our habits have far more tenacity, and our ideas far less power, than we had given them credit for.

When change is a thing we imagine we can systematise it, programme it, schedule it, roll it out, cascade it. We think a series of workshops ought to do it. Or a clever deck of powerpoint slides. Or a rebranding exercise.

When we find out how difficult this is we think we didn’t try hard enough, or weren’t committed enough, or weren’t smart enough. And so we go round the cycle again. Or we give up – a result of our growing cynicism and weariness.

But change is not a thing. And anyone who has ever experienced the changes that come from learning a musical instrument, or a new sport, or a language knows this deeply.

To bring about change in those fields we know that imagination is not enough. We have to practise. We understand that it takes time, and that there will be many setbacks along the way. We know that from the vantage-point of the beginner we cannot understand all that it will require. And we know we have to keep practising even when the path is unclear, the results uncertain, and when we’ve become bored and frustrated and disillusioned.

We practise because we know it’s in practising that what is going to be born will be born.

Seeing change as a practice allows us to keep going in the face of our anxiety and confusion. And to see it as the process of living, and learning, that it always is.

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Finding joy in a messy life

It’s so easy to fear and despair, and to self-judge, when the world seems so obviously and continuously to fall short of your expectations:

  • when it’s so hard to bring things about
  • when accidents of timing or geography make some paths impossible and you catch on to all the could-have-beens and never-would-have-beens
  • when people are unpredictable and unknowable
  • when things fall apart
  • when you make mistakes, and when others do
  • when the world is so hard to understand
  • when projects and plans fail
  • when things get scary and unpredictable
  • when the sweep of world events is so much bigger than you
  • when you’re filled with a longing that does not seem to be fulfilled
  • when you don’t quite know who you are

It’s a mess. And no amount of effort seems to make the world less messy.

But, perhaps, it might gradually be possible to see that you could love this sacred, unchangeably messy life with all of its inevitable disappointment. And that it is possible to cultivate joy – that the very mess that it is exists at all. And wonder, and amazement – at the miracle that you’re here to be in it, to witness it, and to contribute in whatever way, however incomplete, that you can.

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The danger of silent expectations

It’s so much more powerful to make clear requests of others than it is to hold silent expectations.

If you expect all of your team to speak up for themselves…
but don’t ask them to

or if you expect your friends to remember your birthday…
but don’t tell them how important it is to you

or if you expect your family to invite you round…
but don’t say that to them

or if you expect your partner to put the bins out…
but don’t mention it

or if you expect people to be punctual in meetings with you…
but don’t let them know

If you do any of these, if you say ‘they should just know what I want’, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, resentment, and resignation.

Because silent expectations require other people to be mind readers. They set invisible standards that are almost certain to be missed because of their invisibility. And they cause confusion when others’ good intentions (that just didn’t happen to match your hidden expectations) fail to satisfy you.

Perhaps this is what you intend. Maybe you have expectations rather than asking because it keeps proving that nobody cares as much as you do.

It may feel clunky and awkward, but if you really care about things happening, and if you care about being in relationship in a way that maintains everyone’s dignity, it’s far more skilful to ask, directly for what you want to happen:

“Please, speak up in this meeting. I want to hear what you have to say”
“Please remember my birthday. It really matters to me”
“I’d love to see you more. Would you invite me round more often?”
“Please can you put the bins out?”
“It’s important to me that we start on time. Please be there before 9.”

At least then everyone knows what you wish for. And you give everyone the dignified possibility of saying no, or offering to do something different, both of which are denied when your request is hidden by a silent, invisible expectation.

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