Love, hate, inner, outer

It increasingly occurs to me

That my relationship to the parts of the world

(most significantly, others)

Is most often a reflection

Of my relationship to parts of myself.


And that until I learn how to give up

Hating, despising, fearing and judging my interior world

I can expect to have a tricky time

Loving the outer world, in which I live every day,

As fully as I could.

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How easy it is to be up to something while simultaneously denying it.

I have sophisticated strategies for trying to be in control while looking like I’m being inclusive, for trying to get people to love me while looking as if I’m just trying to help, and for being stubbornly attached to my own view while looking as if I’m asking what other people think.

All of these allow me to hold on to a particular kind of self-image (kind, accommodating, self-effacing) while simultaneously getting my own way. And they involve some sophisticated kinds of denial – spinning stories that blind me to my real intentions.

When I relate to other people in this way, things can get pretty complicated.

Sometimes, though – sometimes – I am able to see what I’m doing while I’m doing it. The intentions which I was subject to become object, moving from the background to the foreground, and then I have a chance to intervene and to take responsibility for what I’m doing.

I am less had by my strategies. I become someone who has them.

This move, making what we are subject to become object to us, is at the heart of all profound developmental transitions. Every time something moves into view (a part of us, or a way we’re thinking, or a way we’re constructing the world, or a way we’re being shaped by our interactions with others) it affords us more freedom to act, a more inclusive view of ourselves and others, and a greater possibility to take care of whatever and whoever it is that we care about.

And this move requires that we get onto our own con-tricksall the ways we’ll convince ourselves of our rightness and deny our part in what’s happening.

Often, it seems, what I’m hiding from myself about my intentions is pretty much the worse-kept secret of all, known to everybody else but me. And that is why, for each of us to develop, it’s so important to be surrounded by people who extend love our way, who see us for our goodness, and who extend the kindness and respect required to tell us the truth (with care for timing, and in ways we can hear and understand), rather than keeping what they see to themselves.

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Losing the way

Mostly, we’re so committed to knowing where we’re going, what we’re up to – planning, organising, setting goals, planning again – that we forget the enormous value of losing our way for a while.

It’s in not knowing which direction to turn – and being prepared to admit that, most of the time, we really can’t know where life is leading us – that we can discover a part of ourselves that’s often hidden. The quiet, steady, still centre from which everything arises. The part of us that can never be lost, even in the depths of our confusion. The part that’s trusting of life as it is, however it turns out. The part that actually looks at the world as it presents itself, instead of clinging tightly to how we’d like it to be.

If you’re living a life in which you’re expending enormous effort in an attempt to stay on top of it all, you might be missing all this, especially if you’re denying to yourself and others that you’re ever confused or uncertain. But, sometimes, allowing yourself to lose your way is a blessing, a way of encountering the part of you from which creativity can arise like a fresh, bubbling spring.

What would it take, do you think, to soften your grip on certainty so that any of this might become possible?


Good enough

I’m tired of organisational ‘stretch’ goals, increased productivity year on year, more-better-faster, doing-more-with-less, change after change, restructure after restructure. I’m tired of the push for endless growth, non-stop better performance, climbing the pole, getting to the top, being a ‘world-class’ whatever-it-is. I’m tired of squeezing out extra profit, running a lean-mean six-sigma machine. I’m tired of people being human ‘resources’ instead of people, of the way we’ve replaced the simplicity and directness of conversation with procedure and process, and of the increasing bureaucratisation of our workplaces that replaces practical wisdom with monotone rules and repeatability. I’m tired of endless criticism, not-good-enough-yet, and the self-judgement that comes with it. I’m tired of busyness and back-to-back meetings and no-time-to-talk and a million emails in my inbox and staring at my smartphone to see if anyone needs me. I’m tired of impossible targets and five-year-plans that everybody knows won’t come to be and corporate visions and values that box people in and try to make them all the same.

I see all of this in so many organisations I work with. And I see much of it echoed in myself. And I’m tired of it all.

I think there’s a chance you may be tired of it too. Even if (especially if) you’re one of the people arguing most to bring all of this about.

We enslave ourselves to the idea that we’ll be saved if we can just keep going faster – an idea that produces so much of the difficulty above, and so much stress in each of us.

What would happen I wonder if, instead, we freed ourselves into the possibility that so much of what we do is just fine as it is?

And that we, and all we are up to, are good enough already?

Silent disco, camp fire

Moods happen, sweeping in and out of our lives, but they don’t just happen by themselves. We are always, in one way or another, participants in them.

Each mood shapes our engagement with what we experience, bringing forward some features of the world and obscuring others; and each mood opens or closes a particular space of possibility for us. And because of this we each have the opportunity – the responsibility – to understand how to shift our moods, so that we can respond appropriately to what the world is bringing us.

I’m writing this tonight because I’ve found myself, since this morning’s first light, most prominently in a mood of despair. It had crept up on me overnight, as such moods often do, and although it brings with it a certain attunement to the troubles of the world, it also robs me of joy, and of connection to others, and of hope.

And then, tonight, I find myself dancing with increasing abandon at a silent disco, around a blazing campfire, on a programme I’m working on this week. Being in company, sharing in an activity with others, thrilling music, flames and smoke mingling and lighting us, the deepening mid-summer sky – all of these bring out in me an intense joy at being alive, at being in relationship, at being in human.

And I’m overjoyed by my joy. Without it, I would long ago – and in a very constrained, held-in kind of way – have slipped away to bed.

My darker moods often obscure this very possibility. That, for me, dancing, walking outdoors, a blue or starlit sky, the ocean, holding hands, writing, poetry, music, looking into the eyes of a person I care about, studying something I love, a mountain – that all of these bring me to life again. All of these restore me to joy, and gratitude, and wonder.

And they remind me that life is very precious, and very very short, and that joy and gratitude and wonder, at least some of the time, are pre-requisites for a life well lived and good work well done.

How looking ok nearly undid me

Today, the third anniversary of a close encounter with the fragility of my own life, I’m reposting, below, on the necessity of asking for help, of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and of turning towards darkness when it presents itself.

It turns out that spontaneous blood-clotting is relatively common and often not well diagnosed. If you are interested in finding out more, check out the website of the Hughes Syndrome Foundation.

Looking Good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Two summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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We are the environment for each other

It’s clear that we human beings are deeply affected by the environment in which we find ourselves. We are in a constant exchange with what is around us, both shaping it and being shaped by it.

And so it’s worth remembering, because it’s mostly so invisible to us, that we are each the environment for one another.

Which means in turn that difficulties that occur for other people and with other people can often be addressed, first, by taking responsibility for what is ours, and how it’s affecting those around us.

Two tiny miracles

So many times I’ve forgotten that my body is alive. And so many times – in a culture in which we’re so quick to reduce ourselves to units of production (always more to do, always some target to hit, always the possibility of pushing harder) or consumption (so I can get more, more, and more) – I’ve seen taking proper, exquisite care of myself as a luxury, or as a distraction, or as an interruption to the ever pressing demands I’m apparently meant to be satisfying.

If I stop to go to bed – I won’t get enough done.

If I stop to eat properly – I won’t get enough done.

If I stop to rest, or to meditate, or to exercise, or to pause, or to look deeply into the eyes of a loved one, or to sit quietly among tall trees, or to walk in the fields, or to have a massage, or to read poetry, or to play with my children, or to listen to beautiful music, or to paint, or to just talk with someone, or to write – all of which support my alivenessI won’t get enough done.

This understanding of myself – that I’m more like a machine or an object than a living breathing being – is seductive, and powerful, and pervasive. We’re taught it in our schools. It’s embodied in many of the practices of our workplaces and the narrative of our politics. And when I’m not paying active attention to it, when I’m rushing around in busyness or greediness or hollowness, I can quite easily forget myself and what it takes to flourish and support others in their flourishing.

I know I’m not the only one who is affected in this way. Even the idea that flourishing is a serious subject for our attention is difficult for many of us.

And after some days recently of feeling too tired, achy, and restless, of pushing too hard and denying it, I have stumbled back upon two simple, revelatory miracles that I have known time and again but then forgotten.

Miracle 1 – Sleep

There is, simply, no substitute for enough sleep.
Good sleep is foundational for a life in which I get to create and contribute.
Good sleep is foundational for life itself.
Good sleep is neither a luxury nor optional but a basic, non-negotiable necessity.

Miracle 2 – Water

Getting dehydrated happens easily and it matters. When I don’t pay attention to this I spend my days tired, distracted, confused, and my mental and emotional acuity is blunted.

I’ve started carrying a bottle of water everywhere with me over the last month, drinking regularly, and the way I feel, as well as my sense of presence and sharpness, has been transformed for the better by it.

I like to think I know about all of this already, but these two simple acts of self-care continue to be a revelation. And they teach me so much about how easy self-forgetting is, and how necessary it is to have ways of remembering what it is that I really am.

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It’s not kindness

Sometimes, a commitment to everyone around you being ok can cause more suffering than you know.

You might think you’re just being kind, principled – a person committed to harmony, peace, and the wellbeing of others.

But it’s not kindness if your habit of saving others from their difficulty:

denies them their dignity or freedom
hurts the people around them
has them become dependent upon you
acts so that you, principally, can feel better about yourself.

It’s not kindness to insist all is well, that everyone look on the bright side, and in doing so ignore others’ difficulty or judge it as moaning or whining.

And it’s not kindness to turn away from important conversations that can liberate people from their suffering, simply because you fear that you or others might get upset.

Kindness like this might still feel like kindness to you. It might feed the story that you’re really there to help. But what you’re doing each time is covering up the difficulty. And in each case there’s some significant suffering that calls for a much bigger contribution from you.

Kindness that makes a genuine difference to others requires enormous courage, because it can never just be about fulfilling your story about yourself, or making you feel better that you did the right thing.

This kindness knows when to wait as well as when to act. It knows that cutting the bonds that hold others in their difficulty can require fierceness and sharpness as well as softness. It has a much bigger perspective than just this moment, just this incident, just what you’re feeling right now.

And this sort of kindness – which looks long into the future to assess the consequences of its actions, and which casts a broad net to include many others in its care – has so much more possibility for bringing about the peace and freedom you really long to bring into the world.

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Acquisition or contribution

What do you think?

Are we human beings more fulfilled by, moved by, and given meaning by

contribution or acquisition?

Which gives us the deepest satisfaction, allowing us to find a home in life?

Which keeps us running, pursuing, chasing?

And which have we built our culture, our workplace systems,
our education system, our lives around?

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The antidote to resentment

Resentment is a mood that has, at its heart, the judgment that you have been wronged and there’s nothing you can do about it. It casts you in the role of the righteous injured party – the one who must get even in order to have any self-esteem, but is denied any route to do so – and the other person in the role of villain. 

It’s no wonder then, where resentment leads – either to a cold, aloof distance or to silently but subversively trying to get even. And when resentment shows up in relationships that matter (can it ever meaningfully show up anywhere else?) it quickly has a powerfully corrosive effect by perpetually casting you as the victim to the other’s persecution.

The antidote? Learning how to make requests. Because requests bring us in close, back into relationship, into contact – even if the other person says no to what’s being asked of them. Making requests of another accords the other person dignity, elevating them from mere object of your scorn into a full human being.

And sincere requests accord you the dignity of once again being human too – being one who has the power to make your needs and wishes heard. So learning to ask when you’re resentful, rather than distancing yourself, might be the most counter-intuitive and the most healing move you can make.

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It can only be love

When you find out about death…

And when you yet feel your own aliveness coursing through your body, heart pumping, breath breathing without your having to do anything, thoughts thinking themselves into existence…

When you see and feel how much is alive around you, in you, with you…

When you look into the eyes of another…

What else can it be, all this life, but a boundless expression of love of which you are, indivisibly, a part?

The humanity of the other

The enabling step, David Broza said, in bringing together Jewish and Palestinian musicians in such a tense, fraught, risky situation was to eat together. The evening feasts organised around the recording involved up to a hundred people talking, eating, and singing with one another – catered for by Israeli and Palestinian chefs – a series of encounters that laid the possibility for everything else, an extended conversation for relationship. This, he said, is how things really happen in middle eastern cultures. But it’s also the way of humanity.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas makes a similar point. Discovering the human world of others, he says, is a primary moral obligation. And once you see that another person is a human being, as you are, once you enter into an I-You relationship with them, other moral obligations necessarily follow. In the face of the other you are obliged to listen, to enter into dialogue, to say what is true, to extend yourself as far as you can to understand the other’s world, and to respond with both compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps it’s this very fact that leads us to avoid the intimacy of genuine human to human contact in so many situations between communities and in our organisations (where it’s quickly dismissed as ‘touchy feely’, as if that itself seals the matter). Because when we encounter the other as human, we discover that we have responsibility towards them.

Without attending to this, anyone – lover, friend, colleague, child, neighbour, visitor, customer, a whole people – easily becomes an object; an ‘it’, a means to an end, a supply for our own need to be loved, to be right, to rage, to hate, to earn, to judge, to feel superior. When you have eaten with someone and, more significantly, when you have allowed yourself to feel what it is really like to be with them it is much harder to see them this way. When you have heard them talk about the longing of their heart, when you have shared a meal, when you have understood the feel and detail of their ordinary domestic life with its concerns and struggles, when you have looked into their eyes, when you have been in contact with their humanity it’s more difficult to see them as an object: the enemy, the boss, the subordinate, the supplier of my needs, the one to mistrust, the one placed on a pedestal, the Palestinian, the Jew.

East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem

Yesterday evening singer-songwriter David Broza was in London. I was fortunate enough to be at an event where he spoke, and sang, and showed his film East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, which documents the recording, over eight days in an East Jerusalem studio, of an album featuring Palestinian and Jewish Israeli musicians.

The music itself is really quite something, but what struck me even more was the deep longing and humanity expressed in the film by each of the musicians participating, both Jews and Palestinians. The longing to be seen, the longing to be in I-You relationship with others and the longing to express hope and despair and love and sadness. And what happens when that longing can be met with sincerity by the longing and humanity of others, however apparently different their culture and background.

In his talk about the project David spoke about how important hope is. Once hope is replaced by the cynicism and despair so familiar in our times, he said, nothing is really possible any more. Cynicism closes off so many avenues that hope keeps open. And so hope, or a faith in our capacity to improve things, becomes a moral imperative, a necessary condition for the resolution of suffering and the solving of our most complex and confusing difficulties.

He also said something deep and important about time. Peace, he said, like so much that is important to us, requires a multi-generational commitment. We misunderstand it, as we do so much else, by insisting on immediacy, too quickly concluding that it is impossible because we’re not personally seeing the fruit of our labours. There is a significant kind of peace and understanding between people that can only be brought about by the diligent commitment of many over long periods. It requires persistence, and patience (surely in great decline in our current age), as well as the hope I described above. How many of us, I wonder, are willing to dedicate ourselves to anything big enough, and difficult enough, that it takes more than the span of our own short lives?

And he spoke, as did Du at our event last month about what it is to respond to a vocational call (though he did not use this word). The East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem project, he said, is but the latest expression of the one and only contribution he finds he can uniquely make, given who he is, when in history he is living, and what he loves. It’s clear from being with him and listening to him play that this is not so much a choice he is making as a call that life is making on him – where his heart’s particular longing and gladness meets the particular troubles of the world in which he lives. And in responding to life’s call his part is not to make grand political gestures, but to be in close, in intimate relationship with others, making music and inviting the humanity of close-in relationship and singing about what he uniquely sees and what uniquely moves him.

And what beauty it brings about, as you’ll see if you have an opportunity some day to watch the full film, which as yet does not have a distributor.

There’s a film of David Broza speaking recently at a TEDx conference in Jerusalem which you can see here. I strongly recommend watching at least the first few minutes in which he plays and sings one of the central songs of the project. And if you’re prepared to dedicate a few more minutes of your time, you might find something of what I’m saying above in what he has to say.

Here’s a video of the title track from the album, recorded with Wyclef Jean.

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Learn with me in London, July 20-21

The work that I do – which, most straightforwardly put, is that of helping people to flourish and become skilful in taking action that matters – is one of my great joys. But an even greater joy is teaching other people how to do it themselves.

In early June I taught our two-day introduction to all of this, ‘Coaching to Excellence’, with an exquisite group of students who stepped in with quite some courage and sincerity. And Sophie Howarth, who was one of that group, wrote this piece to describe her experience. Please read it – I thought it was a beautiful introduction and invitation into what we’re doing.

“The practice of two people supporting each other
to become more human together”

There’s another chance to come and learn with me coming up next month, July 20-21 2015 in London. It’s open to everyone – whether you want to coach, help others develop, or are interested in your own development. It would be wonderful to have some of you join us.

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We see others as we are, not as they are

Even before we’ve really studied ourselves and developed some kind of understanding of the vast contours of our inner worlds, we’re presented with a difficulty in relating to other people, because in so many ways the personhood of others is mostly invisible to us.

We see our own commitments, cares, and intentions – and interpret our actions in the light of that knowledge. But when it comes to others we can only see their actions, which we most readily interpret in the light of our way of knowing the world.

Or, said another way, we see others not as they are, but as we are.

And how much difficulty, trouble, and suffering can come from that simple, basic, misunderstanding. Until, in due course, we find out how to soften the certainty of our own interpretations and open, with curiosity, to the very otherness of even the closest of others.

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Wisdom that comes with age

We live in a culture that prioritises youth over genuine wisdom, the speediness of the moment over what takes time to mature and grow, and obviousness and immediacy over the deep understanding of complex, interrelated systems. Given all of this it’s wonderful to see serious coverage in the mainstream UK press given to the possibilities of development – and all that it brings – as we grow older.

The capacity to be powerful in the midst of the super-complex systems and organisations upon which we rely does not come easily. It requires a significant set of interrelated skills in sensing, understanding, speaking and listening, self-care, self-awareness, request making, and acting into the unknown. These skills do not come immediately to us and require years of practice, diligent self-observation, commitment, and a genuine capacity to let go of what seems certain so that what’s less obvious can be encountered. So it should be no surprise to us, as reported in this week’s Guardian newspaper, that such capacity is more often found in those who have had longer to live so far (as long as they have remained sufficiently open to the developmental opportunities that have come their way).

The Guardian article draws on a paper published by consultants PwC, itself drawn from research carried out at Harthill, that shows that people who have reached this skilful strategist stage of their development are more frequently found among women over the age of 55 than among any other group. This is important for us to see – because we don’t take adult development nearly seriously enough (it’s vital if we are to be able to effectively manage and run contemporary systems and organisations for the benefit of everyone), and because we don’t see that there is a kind of systemic wisdom we need that is rare, necessary, and most widely found in those people we quickly write off as ‘past it’.

David Rooke and his colleagues at Harthill are among a number of people who have done excellent work in describing what development is – descriptions which make it easier for us to talk about and identify the kind of wisdom we most sorely need, as well as what can make it possible for people to bring it about.

For a clear introduction which goes far beyond what’s included in either the Guardian or the PwC paper, you could read Rooke & Torbert’s paper ‘The Seven Transformations of Leadership’ published originally in the Harvard Business Review, summarised here, and available from Harthill’s Leadership Development Framework website.

And for a deeper understanding of what development can be, and the consequences of our blindness to it, read Robert Kegan’s book ‘In Over Our Heads’ or his more recent (and more straightforward) book with Lisa Laskow Lahey ‘Immunity to Change’.

You can read more about what I’ve had to say about this topic here and here.

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