Practical Magic

There’s power and magic in declaring a new interpretation of events.

But declaring a new way of seeing things – a new way of making sense – is insufficient on its own. Because a change of thought is not automatically a change of habit. And it’s through our habits and our practices that we bring about the world we inhabit.

For example, declaring “I am now open to earning money”, after years of underselling yourself, is a necessary first step. It opens up huge possibility. But that possibility comes into being not through the new thought alone. Rather, it’s brought about because you take up the practices of asking, promising, and making offers of your goods or services that others find enrolling and compelling. And, of course, such practices – if they are new to you – will be tentative and clumsy at first. The hidden possibilities of the declaration become manifest only as you develop the embodied skill that makes its promise real.

Similarly “I am now ready to be in a relationship”. Yes, relationship becomes more possible upon making such a declaration. Here, however, you have to start practicing listening, understanding, kindness, responsiveness, compassion, creativity and love in order to fully bring out the possibilities inherent in what you’ve declared.

So, please, work on shifting your interpretation of the world. But don’t expect a change of mind to equal a change of circumstance. 

The universe is magical, but not in that simple, simplistic, wishful-thinking way.

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Waiting to know

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

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

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

Take a meeting, for example.

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

You cannot know for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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Just about you?

Just because the truth of any event is malleable (shaped by your interpretation), it doesn’t follow that it’s infinitely malleable. In other words, some interpretations are better than others.

There are interpretations that open up possibility for action, and those that close it down. Those that bring out compassion, and those that bring out cruelty. And there are those that open you up to your participation in things, and those that put you at the centre of things.

These latter kinds of narrative, the ones in which you take yourself to be at the centre of the world, are ripe with difficulty.

On the one hand, they convince you that the problems you encounter are aimed, specifically, at you. It’s raining on you. Her anger is all about you. Those idiots who didn’t give you that job – they must have it in for you. The economic downturn is here to thwart your plans. Being the centre of the world in this way leads to both grandiosity and deflation, to an over-inflated sense of your own importance and to resentment that the world does not seem to treat you as you think it should.

One the other hand, the genuine power of new interpretation can lead you to imagine the world can be moulded to your wishes, just because you declare it to be so. Just declare that you’re open to receiving money from the universe, and you’ll become rich! Just declare success, and you’ll be successful! Here you are at the centre of the world again, but this time with the power usually reserved only for deities.

It does not take much sincere encounter with the world to see how often this is not the case. Notably, if were true that you could just declare and the world would follow your wishes, you would be solely to blame for the difficulties you’re experiencing. Your illness, your loss, your confusion – all fall squarely at your feet and nowhere else. There is no room, here, for a world of significance beyond you and your desires.

Best-selling books such as The Secret play right into our longing for such an interpretation to be true. But they do not meet the world as it is – bigger than each of us, shaping us always despite our wishes and intentions, and much more mysterious.

Learning that our interpretations shape the world is, rightly, a powerful move. But let’s not let it go, too much, to our heads.

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It’s a powerful move to discover that the truth of the world is not fixed, but shaped by interpretation.

Was losing out on that project a curse, or a blessing? An example of life’s unfairness, or a consequence of the endless, unavoidable change of things? Proof of your unworthiness, or opportunity to contribute afresh, discovering new skills and qualities? Cruel fate, or life calling you into a wider understanding?

Different aspects of the situation come forward according to the interpretation you choose. Events take on many kinds of meaning, depending upon how they’re framed.

In other words, the truth of an event is malleable. Much more than you might often acknowledge.

And even ‘this is just the way it is’ is an interpretation you’re in the middle of choosing.

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Producing ourselves

It may be hard to see, but every productive act we take in the outer world shapes us in the inner world.

A better way of saying this might be that we are not separate from what we do. We’re always being shaped by our actions, how we spend our time, what we pay attention to, who we speak with – and how, how we listen, what we make.

In a world obsessed with outer productivity we rarely spend much time considering what kind of person we’re becoming through how and what we’re producing.

Even if you have a narrow obsession with productivity this is important. Because, of course, the kind of person we each become profoundly shapes, in turn, what we end up producing in the world.

Wind from our sails

Work in the age of industrial revolution was founded on the principle that what we care about and are committed to need have no connection to what we do. The production lines invented by the great industrialists required only that we wished to make a living. We just had to show up and, ideally, set our cares and concerns aside so we could get to work.

This works only as for long as we’re willing to treat ourselves as the machines upon which this premise is based.

It’s stupendously difficult to do well anything that matters over a sustained period without caring about it deeply. It’s equally difficult to do anything creative, responsive, alive, or which has depth beyond its surface appearance, without a strong sense of heartfelt commitment to the work. And it’s a perilous endeavour to embark on a project without being in relationship with others who care about it too.

But we forget this.

So often, in modern organisations, we expect people to jump into action without addressing this essential matter of the heart. We begin new endeavours without taking the time to talk together about why it matters to us.

We say “we’re a team” without making any serious effort to find out what binds us.

And then we wonder why it seems so hard.

And why the wind seems to be sucked from our sails so quickly, and so often.

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Pay attention

If you read the news, speak to friends, look at what’s happening around you, it’s hard not to be reminded of the transience and fragility of life. And even if we manage to avoid disaster, accident or misfortune that ends our lives early – even with a long life – we are gone in the blink of an eye.

In the light of this it’s understandable that we’re spooked – rushing and spilling over ourselves to make a mark on the world, or numbing ourselves with our busyness. In the face of our own finitude the contemporary world affords us endless opportunities to scatter ourselves into a million projects and distractions.

But there are parallel paths available to us, that I think are worth returning to, often.

When you eat, just eat.

When you are with another, just be with them.

When you work, just work.

When you read, just read.

When you kiss, just kiss.

When you walk, just walk.

When you arrive in a place, look.

Stop, sometimes, to do nothing apart from paying attention, for longer than you can usually bear.

These are paths to putting things down – outer things, inner things – in order to be in contact with the life we are each in the midst of living, for a while. While we still have it.

None of this comes easily to most of us. We are so practiced at being in a billion places simultaneously. And so we have to consciously take our practice in the other direction. We’re called upon to practice simplicity. To practice being up to one thing at a time.

And to practice paying attention to the exquisite depth of what is, always, right here in front of us.

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You’re furious at her.

The update was late, twice as long as you’d wanted, and not written for the audience you had in mind. And the meeting where you have to present it is first thing in the morning.

You’re not just furious. You’re frustrated, and not a little bit scared about what’s going to happen as a result of all this.

And in your fury you’ve said some things you regret. Some things that fail to see her dedication, the hours she put in, the way she set aside her own concerns in order to help you. By not seeing her good intentions, and by being so sure of your rightness, you’ve left her feeling hurt and wounded and confused, and wondering if her commitment to your project was well placed.

And, when you’re brave enough slow down a little and start to look more closely… which is difficult, because looking honestly hurts you, too… you start to see what you’ve known from the moment you asked her to take this on. You weren’t clear. You were in too much of a rush. You assumed she’d know what to do without checking it out with her (“that’s what she’s paid for after all”). You were afraid to show her that you didn’t, really, quite know what to do yourself.

When you look closely, you start to see that your anger – real as it is – is not so much anger at her, as it is anger with yourself.

And this is the crucial revelation.

Because you see that you projected your own shame and your own self-criticism towards her. And you see that this primarily played a self-protective role. By being angry at her, you did not have to feel your anger with yourself. Covering up your own vulnerability and uncertainty allowed you to shift the burden – and the blame – her way instead of yours.

And it is this revelation – seeing what you were really up to – that allows you to take responsibility, and to make amends.

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We humans are in-between beings, caught between known and unknown, past and future, the possible and the impossible.

In this borderland it’s tempting to try to be certain, to find enduring truths that we can rely on in all circumstances.

But it doesn’t take very much careful attention to see how lost we are and little we know, even when we know much: about what will happen, about the nature of the world, and about the nature of others. How little, if anything, there is that is certain, that we can absolutely rely upon.

In such a world – and this is our world – we depend on interpretation in order to find our way. We have to choose, from the many possibilities available to us, how to understand the lives we live and the events we experience. And we have to learn how to discern between better and worse interpretations, because although many are possible not all are equally good. Some open up possibility, while others imprison us. Some bring forward human dignity and kindness, while others lead to resignation, resentment and cruelty. Some interpretations lead us to abdicate our responsibility, while others bring us into the orbit of care for life.

And when we have chosen an interpretation, a way of making sense, we have to watch out for holding onto it too tightly. Because the moment we say our interpretation is the truth – that there really is only one way to see something – we close down life, and we shut the gates on a bigger kind of truth: one that is capable of including and responding to the very depth and complexity of the world that brings our lostness about.

Coaching Roundtable – an opportunity to learn together

On Sunday April 12th 9.30am-4.30pm, in London, there’ll be an opportunity to learn with me and some of my friends and colleagues, and to find out about integral development coaching and the programmes we teach.

We’ll meet at 9.30am for a morning session on human development and, specifically, on the method we teach for skilfully supporting others in this. There’ll be the opportunity to engage in conversation and ask questions, and to see a demonstration of coaching in action, as well as to find out about the many programmes we offer in this field.

After a break for lunch we’ll join together with graduates of our courses (who’ll have been involved in their own session in the morning) to take up the topic of freedom. We’ll focus on cultivating the freedom that’s always available to us, and which can easily seem so distant as we encounter our habitual patterns, inner-criticism, busyness and distraction. You’ll have the opportunity to explore the constraints you (and your clients if you have them) experience, and to find powerful ways to declare, and take up, new freedom to act in life.

It’s going to be a wonderful day.

All the details are here.

We’d love to have you with us.

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When I stop and look, quietly and patiently for a while, I come to see how often what I’m trying to do is get away.

Get away from this experience – so that I can have another one that promises to be better, more soothing, less troubling.

Get away from this conversation – that’s stirring up my familiar sense of not having done enough, not having been responsible enough, not having taken care enough.

Get away from this moment so that I have a chance of being at peace.

How pervasive ‘get away‘ is for me! My habitual orientation, unless I take care of it, is away-from-here. It’s predicated upon an interpretation of life in which there is, in some way, always somewhere or somewhen better to be.

And that is an interpretation riddled with difficulties and troubles, not least of all because of the dissatisfaction it produces, and the small space it offers in which to act. My attempts to escape life turn out to be a prison of my own making.

So I’m working on deeper in to this experience, this conversation, this moment.

Truth is, I’ve been working on this for a long time already. Because it’s tricky – there are so many opportunities and reasons to fall back into trying to get away.

But work on it I must – we all must, I think – in order to be present to, and to contribute to, this crazy and breathtaking life into which I did not choose to be born, but in which I nonetheless keep on finding myself. And from which there is nowhere better, truth be told, to escape to.

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I’m waiting for some friends to pick me up in their car.

All around me, people are coming and going on errands, on their way to meet friends or loved ones or business acquaintances. Some are hurrying, others earnest, some struggling with the pain of simple movement. Seagulls are calling. There’s a distinctive fresh salty tang to the air. The sun is low, soft-edged, orange-yellow in the late afternoon sky.

But I miss all of it. Because a small device in my pocket, bevel-edged and glassy, has grabbed my attention. I’m enchanted, responding to emails, checking for news that I’m wanted and needed, feeling the weight and promise of everything I’ve offered to do for myself and for others.

And I’m at least a little afraid of what I’ll feel if I put this down.

Wherever I am I always have something to do. I’m defined by my doing, my to-do, my not-yet-done. I become, always, some form of producer or some form of consumer.

And, because of this, I no longer know so much about the art of waiting.

I am rarely freed, rarely cut loose to fall into the depths of my own longing, my confusion, my boredom, or my simple capacity to wonder at all that is around me.

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When promises break

We’ll never talk behind one another’s backs
We’ll take our concerns directly to the people who concern us
We’ll always give feedback with care

When you have made agreements about behaviour in your team, in your organisation, in your family, it’s unhelpful – and unrealistic – to expect them to always be upheld. Such expectations, in the face of the many breaches and breakdowns that will occur, can quickly lead you and others to assume your agreements were meaningless and insincere. And from such a position comes despair and cynicism – nothing can ever change around here. In such a light, our promises soon come to mean nothing.

Far more powerful is to treat the original agreements as sincere and genuine, but inevitably in conflict with other equally sincere competing commitments which we all hold, for example our commitment

to not feel ashamed
to look and feel supportive to others in their difficulty
to be liked and respected
to be helpful to the person who’s with us right now

In the light of this, you can use your own and others’ inevitable breaches not as an source of resignation but as an opportunity to understand and respond more skilfully to inner contradictions. And as an opportunity to look together, with curiosity, at the very real difficulties and challenges of being in relationship with others.

When we discover and talk about our inner complexity, and correct our actions from there, we create the possibility of responding to difficulty not with recrimination (towards self or others) but with learning. And in the light of this our promises, shaky and incomplete as they are, can come to take on a new authority shaped less by our expectation that they’ll be perfect, and more by our understanding of what to do – together – when they break.

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Make good art – inspiration for the start of the week

If you have time to watch one talk this week, I can’t recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s talk on the human imperative to make good art.

Though he’s talking to arts graduates (at the University of Philadelphia) his advice – a passionate plea that we not hold back our creative faculties – is a powerful invitation to all of us, whether we consider ourselves ‘artists’ or not, to live our lives themselves, as Abraham Joshua Heschel recommended, as art.

His is a vital voice in a world where we’ll all too quickly reduce ourselves and those around us to ‘behaviours’, to units of production, to the product of neurons firing or genes expressing themselves, or to passive consumers – and in the process forget to make the contribution that’s really possible for us.

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A genuine treasure

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

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

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

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

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Towards or away?

Watching Julianne Moore’s sensitive and touching portrayal of a women with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, I’m struck by how much each of us stand to lose. Whether it occurs for us as the loss of our selves first, as it does for Alice, or in some other configuration, we’ll one day lose all of our relationships, all of our possessions, all of our stories.

We’ll lose trees and buses, boring train journeys, washing the dishes, music, kisses, worrying about money, sun-filled afternoons, drawing, gazing into the eyes of another, learning, the saltiness of the ocean, tax returns, earache, job titles, paperclips, mountains.

It’s the knowing that Alice’s departure awaits all of us, though in wildly varying forms, that makes watching it so tender and so affecting.

And it raises a question for all of us – what to do with this knowledge?

Surrender and despair because nothing ever works out anyway?

Open ever more widely to the wonder of the life that is here already?

Make ourselves feel strong, impenetrable, holding rigidly onto our ideas and fighting away what scares us?

Retreat into a world of banal distraction, turning into what’s trivial because it soothes us?

Build towers and edifices – real or symbolic – so that our names are never forgotten?

Damage and destroy others, using our destructive power to give us the feel of conquering death?

Open ever more to the knowledge that we’re all – all of us – in this together and act from there?

It seems to me that we’re always in the midst of choosing one of these responses, or others like them, whether we’re paying attention to our choices or not. And the kind of life we lead will flow, in significant part, from the way in which we choose to run from life and death, and from the way we choose to turn towards them.

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Easy to say, difficult to do

Of course sincerity is often difficult, because we’re afraid of its consequences. We’re frightened that if we speak truthfully we’ll fall short of other people’s standards,

or we’re afraid they won’t love us any more.

We’re afraid it’ll get in the way of our looking good,

or we’re afraid people won’t understand us.

We’re afraid it will open a can of worms,

or we’re afraid our words, once spoken, will box us in to a future we do not want.

We’re afraid that owning up to what we really mean will make us look weak,

or that it will cause conflict we’d much rather avoid.

And because of all these fears we twist ourselves, distort ourselves, so that what comes out of our mouths no longer chimes with the wishes, longing, and intention of our hearts and conscience. Perhaps, as I know I do, you struggle with this daily, finding yourself looking sincere but knowing all the ways you’ve fallen short, again. Perhaps you know this is only human. Perhaps you’re starting to see the cost to yourself, and to others. Because there’s only so much twisting a human heart can take, I think. At some point we each have to start teaching ourselves that the price of our insincerity is far greater than we had imagined, and the consequences of our fears, far less.

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A useful, simple, pragmatic definition of sincerity:

“Saying on the outside what’s happening on the inside”

… so that when you ask, promise, declare or inquire those who are listening are offered the possibility of trusting what you have to say

… so that when you speak you are also offered the possibility of trusting what you have to say

… and so we don’t have to spend so much of our time and energy playing games – trying to figure out what each other want, and need, and are really committed to.

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Monster or angel?

Pick someone important in your life – a lover, friend, colleague. Your boss. A team member. Brother or sister. Mother or father.

Now look – who are you having them be to you? What image are you projecting their way?

Are you expecting them to take your pain away, to hold you in a perfect embrace (physical or metaphorical) in which you do not have to feel any worry or address any trouble?

Are they an object for your resentment or your hate – propping up your self-esteem each time you belittle them in thought or deed?

Do you have them elevated, on a pedestal, a constant reminder of your own inadequacy (and hence an excuse for the way you over-extend yourself or hold back)?

Are they there to show you that you’re loved and respected always? And when they fall short, to be the target of your frustration and woundedness?

Are you expecting them to parent you? To excuse you? To soothe you? To excite you? To rescue you? To provide for you? To be an object of your scorn? To be a monster or an angel?

And because of all of this, are you relating to them as them, or as an image?

All of this matters because too often we find we’re not in relationship with a person, but with a story. And as stories are smaller and more rigid than people are, it turns out that’s not much of a relationship at all.

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Something missing

Behind all our activity, all our busyness, we live with the constant, gnawing sense that there’s something missing.

Often we try to hide it:

From others. From ourselves. This is the root of much of our rushing and many of our addictions (shopping, email, browsing the web, eating). But numbing ourselves in this way numbs us to the rest of life too.

Or we try to fill it:

We imagine the perfect relationship, house, holiday or job title will have the feeling go away. We pursue power, money, sex, recognition, fame. We imagine there’s a mythical island somewhere where we won’t have to feel this way. And we imagine that others – upon whom we project the image of a perfect untroubled life – live there already. All of this fuels our suffering, our desperation, and our feeling that somehow we didn’t work out how to live a properly successful life, while others did.

The feeling that there is something missing is, to our surprise, not solved by having more. See Lynne Twist’s book The Soul of Money for a first-hand account of the anguish even billionaires – those who want for nothing material – so often seem to have that their billions did nothing to assuage.

No, to live with the sense that something is missing is an essential aspect of being human. It arises from our capacity to see possibility in every person, every thing, every situation. We know, always, some sense of that which is not yet here. And it is this very capacity that affords us our creativity, our compassion, and our ability to act to improve things both for ourselves and for others.

Trying to rescue ourselves from the queasy hollow feeling of ‘missing’ fuels our obsessions and our distraction. Let’s, instead, learn to do the difficult work of turning into it, towards it, living in it and with it and from it. And then, maybe, we can respond to the situations we find ourselves in rather than reacting mindlessly, blindly, and madly to banish what cannot be made to go away.

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Learning, organisations, emotion

The very idea of ‘professionalism’ which demands that we separate ourselves from our emotions and personal concerns at work was invented in order to make mass production possible.

To produce systematically, repeatedly and at large scale required people to behave as predictably as possible. And so we equated a machine-like, rule-based way of being with ‘work’, and did our best to fit ourselves and others into it.

We’re still doing this, insisting that we leave our lives and our emotions out, even in many organisations whose premise and purpose is nothing like the industrial-revolution production machines whose needs gave it birth.

There are many difficulties in this, of course, and much suffering. But what I want to draw attention to here is how much trouble it causes us in learning from what we’ve done and developing our capacity to respond differently in the future.

Because learning and reflection – particularly the kinds that support us in questioning our premises, undoing our rigidity and seeing what we’re blind to – always involve emotions.

In order to question ourselves we have to be able to feel and face and talk about our hopes and dreams, our longing and wishes (which sometimes have us doing the same thing again and again even when it’s patently not helping), our shame and our fear (which keep us from admitting we ever did anything wrong, or seeing what we did that was right), our anger (when something we care for is violated), and our joy (at our successes, at the successes of those who matter to us).

We have to be able to give our own inner-critical voices some ventilation and expose them to the insights of others (lest they hold us in small tight circles, or puff us up and have us fight off anything that might be troubling). And we have to be able to find and feel those emotions that show us when we’re doing something that matters to us, that has integrity, and that we care about.

And perhaps most importantly we have to be able to talk about our wish not to feel certain things – mostly shame, fear, embarrassment, uncertainty – and how it leads us to take actions that we dress up as ‘reasonable’ but which can be manifestly unhelpful.

In a world where we can’t talk about emotions, it’s difficult to learn about and from any of these.

And that gets us into no end of trouble.

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Most true

The moment you say “I’m sure” is the moment you close off the future, turning away from the unknown that is always coming.

“I’m sure” is a claim to understand fully how things are.

And how often, if ever, can you know life well enough, particularly how things will turn out, for this to be true?

You could even say that you’re at your most truthful, your most sure, when you let go of the thin veneer of certainty with which you prop yourself up: when you admit first to yourself, and then to others, that you don’t know the whole truth, you don’t fully know who you are, and, like all of us, you really don’t know nearly as much as you say you do about what’s going to happen.

When we hear that from you, we can own up to our own lostness too. And then maybe, together, we can get up to something that matters rather than trying to make ourselves feel safe all the time.

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The difficulty of being present

Mindfulness, the art of paying attention to what’s here and to what’s happening now, has become a fashionable topic in recent years. Perhaps this is a way in which we acknowledge that there’s a limit to the back-to-back scheduling of our lives, and the way that everything is always interrupting everything else.

When our culture has us skate over life at a breakneck pace, when the only response we seem to muster to our busyness is more busyness, the idea of some peace – some respite – seems understandably appealing.

But we misunderstand the practice of mindfulness, and the possibility of being present, if we see it as a technique to quell and soothe our restlessness.

Because being present means we actually have to face our lives rather than run from them.

When we quieten ourselves enough to really listen, we come to feel our own pain and our own anxiety – as well as our love and our joy and our deep unfulfilled longing . And if we stay still for long enough, we also begin to see all of this in others. And we are called to respond.

Most of us, I think, don’t want to experience that feeling, or that responsibility, for too long. We’re happy to toy with the idea of being more present in our lives, without wanting to commit to it, at least not too much.

And in this way being present in our lives becomes another fad, a passing phase, rather than something we’ll dedicate ourselves to for its own sake.

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