Getting unstuck, and learning together

Our repetitive, habitual patterns – and our ability to create them – can be great supports in our lives. Who would want to have to reinvent every day the familiar paths we rely upon to get us up, dressed and fed? Or those that support us in navigating our way through our houses and cities, or in driving our cars? Or those that help us relate to the people closest to us?

And yet there are times when our patterns become unwanted, because we’ve outgrown them or because they no longer serve the situations in which we find ourselves. Many of the changes we encounter in life – entering or ending a relationship, becoming a parent, losing a loved one, a promotion at work, changing career, stepping into a leadership role, growing from childhood to adulthood – require us to be able to identify the patterns that are no longer supporting us and let them drop away so that something new can be learned.

But this can be far from easy. Often we don’t know our patterns well enough to be able to work with them. And even if we know them, we don’t always know what to do in order to break free.

I’ll be taking up this topic, as well as introducing integral development coaching, at a quarterly Coaching Round Table event in London on Sunday 22nd November, which is open to everyone. We’ll explore coaching in the morning, and in the afternoon we’ll study the patterns we get stuck in from the point of view of the body, the imagination, and the narratives in which we live. You’ll have an opportunity to explore your own patterns, and to receive and give help to others in theirs. And together we’ll see what new new ways we can invent of stepping into bigger possibilities for ourselves.

I’m also teaching a two-day Coaching to Excellence programme in London on 7th and 8th December. It’s suitable if you’re experienced in coaching others or new to this work. We’ll study together what it is to be a human being, how development comes about, and how we can participate more fully in our own lives and in the lives of others. And we’ll learn ways of supporting ourselves and others to respond with wisdom and skilfulness to the wide world that presents itself to us.

It’s been very meaningful for me to meet many of you who read my work here at workshops and courses like this. Perhaps you’ll think of joining us this time.

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Doing it by half

Maybe it should be no surprise to me by now, but I’m finding out anew what crazy standards my inner critic has, and how it holds me to them.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve finished each working day with a queasy feeling of disappointment. Each day. And when I look closely, it’s apparent to me that it’s because I’m full of judgement about what’s not done, how much more I could have done, and how much more I should have done. I can easily live under the spell of this – the curse of this – convinced that it is the nature of things for me to perpetually fall short.

Perhaps you can imagine – perhaps you know from your own experience – what effect the constant comparison with an unreachable standard does to a person. At most intense it’s crushing, diminishing. But even without such intensity it’s like a gradual greying of life. There is little space for joy, abandon, deep connection or creativity when you’re caught in a vice.

It’s not been easy for me to spot this. It’s the nature of the critic to hide itself, to do whatever it can to present its standards and assessments as a simple feature of the world itself. But they’re not. They’re invented, or inherited, and either way they’re open to question. I’m fortunate enough to have people who care for me enough to ask me to look at the truth of my own capacity rather than pushing all the time. And when do I look at myself this way, I see that the standard and what can be done by me in reality are off by a factor of about two.

In other words, I can do about half of what the standards of the critic demand. Half of what I expect to do. Half of what I take to be the barely acceptable minimum.

And seeing this is a huge liberation.

When I tell the truth – I can do half – I free myself to put down an enormous burden of unkindness, and to actually do what I can do. And, in the truthfulness, my actions are so much less constricted, so much more natural, and so much more responsive to what’s around me.

And though I really can do only half, when I’m doing in order to respond to the world rather than to settle an implacable inner task-master, my goodness how much more appropriate and creative is the doing that I get to do.

Waking or Sleeping?

Both attention and absorption can be cultivated with practice.

Absorption is not so difficult. We are presented with opportunities to practice it at every turn. Entire industries are devoted to selling us an easy, shallow kind of distraction that numbs us, keeps us from ourselves, throws us into self-judgement and comparison with others, and keeps us buying.

But attention – learning to pay sustained, close, awake attention to life – is more tricky and troublesome, and it’s perhaps for this reason that it’s more marginal in our culture.

It can be difficult to practice being awake in life because almost everything that could wake us can also be a path for going to sleep. The revolutionary success of mobile devices such as smartphones, for example, with their unparalleled capacity to connect us to the world, may be in large part attributable to their equal capacity to soothe us, to lull us into a distracted sense of busyness, being needed, and being entertained.

And this dual possibility of waking or turning away is inherent even the rich, deep mindfulness practices developed in many spiritual traditions. These practices, increasingly fashionable in the corporate world, could teach us to be extraordinarily attentive and sensitive to what’s around us, but are frequently presented as new methods for conforming to the status quo without being too troubled by it.

Practice mindfulness and feel calm. Practice mindfulness and find tranquility. Practice mindfulness and you’ll find your stressful job easier to bear. Practice mindfulness and you’ll fit in to where you are with less self-judgement and less complaining. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be less trouble. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be tranquil enough not to ask difficult questions. Practice mindfulness, and go to sleep to yourself.

Far less often do we see that mindfulness practices – a deep, rich, wide-open invitation into life – can help us develop deeper contact with our inner sense of justice and compassion. Rarely are we invited to see how this waking up to ourselves can lead us into to exactly the kind of trouble the world needs as we find ourselves disturbed, shaken, and enlivened by our attentive contact with life.

As we learn to pay more sustained, awake attention to what’s happening, we can find ourselves cultivating our capacity to speak up, to ask for what what we and others need, to stay in relationship as we explore deep and longstanding difficulties and disagreements, to stand out as different, to act on what’s called for rather than just what we like or what’s familiar, and to advocate on behalf of a life that’s bigger than our own personal concerns.

Both attention (waking up) and absorption (going to sleep) can be cultivated with practice.

Which do you think we should choose?

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Absorption and Attention

This morning, on my way home, I walk past a book table outside a local charity shop. One of the books has blown to the ground and only when I’ve walked some distance, when I’m close to my front door, does it occur to me how easily I could have picked it up and restored it to its place.

A small matter, perhaps, but one that’s emblematic of a bigger concern: the actions that are denied to me when absorbed in something and not paying attention to the world around me. My absorption in thought blinds me what’s called for, a simple opportunity to participate in a small kindness, and it gets me wondering about everything else I miss.

I notice that I often walk a line between absorption and attention and that while both are necessary (absorption for the effortless skilfulness of dealing with everyday things, attention for responding in fresh ways to people and situations) absorption is much easier. It’s familiar, comforting. It calms me. It takes me away from what’s difficult. And it allows me to miss the world.

When I’m absorbed I don’t just miss books on the floor. I miss people. I’m blinded to their difficulty as well as their joys. And just like with the book, I miss the opportunity to contribute, to do what’s called for, to be of use.

I notice how absorption can be a purposeful act of turning away. I easily become absorbed, for example, after seeing distressing images on the news, or walking past people sleeping on the street, or when I know I’ve wronged someone.

And so even if absorption in activity or in thought is a necessary and often sustaining part of being human, it can also be a way of being asleep in life.

And it is why paying attention is so much more difficult. To pay attention I must allow myself to be confronted by the world. I have to acknowledge what’s happening around me and within me. I have to allow myself to feel troubled. And I’m called to respond – to suffering, to difficulty, to books lying on the floor.

And in this way actively cultivating and practicing attention, being awake, is a moral question.

Because without attention I – we – slip into the easy thrum of habit and away from taking sufficient care of the world.

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Truth Telling

The more I look, the more it seems to me that among the most personally damaging acts each of us can take is that of turning away from truth.

I’m not talking grand universal truths here – the kind that people claim apply across time and space and across people. It’s quite easy to see that establishing truth in this way is fraught with difficulty.

No, I’m talking about something more basic and immediate: what’s true about this moment, this experience, from the place in which you stand.

If you pay attention, it’s not so difficult to tell when you’re turning away from truth in this way. The truth that you are sad, or joyful, or angry, or despondent, touched or numb, feeling whole or split apart. The truth that this is difficult or painful for you. Or the truth that this is bringing you to life.

The truth that these thoughts you are thinking, whatever they are, are what you are thinking. The truth that what you’re feeling in your body is what you’re feeling. The truth that this place is where you are, and that what you are doing is what you are doing.

When we deny these simple, basic truths to ourselves and others – when we speak of ourselves inwardly or publicly with deliberate inaccuracy – we assault our own integrity. And we cause ourselves tangible harm, in our minds and in our bodies, by putting ourselves at odds with ourselves, fuelling the inner battles that pull us apart.

And then being whole again requires a kind of return, a turning back to the part of ourselves that understands how things really are. A turning back to something simple, and straightforward, the heart of which we’ve known all along.

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Sometimes I remember that my days are numbered.

My days for working are numbered.
My days for seeing a cloudless sky are numbered.
My days are numbered for sitting beneath tall trees.
And my days are numbered for learning.

My days for holding the ones I love are numbered,
As are my days of kisses.
My days of anguish, fear, and longing – they too are numbered.
And my days of walking the crests of high hills.

My days of deep conversation with friends and colleagues are numbered
And the days on which I can make a dent on the world.
My days for inventing, creating, demolishing, undoing, subverting, contributing.
My days for mending and tearing apart.
My days of confusion.
My days of spreadsheets, keyboards, pens, paperclips.
My days for travelling by train, bus, boat, plane.
My days for reading, music, turning my face towards the stars, and washing the dishes.

My days of getting to know myself.
My days for understanding what life is.
My days for loving.
My days for knowing.
All of these, too.

I don’t think I can remember this all the time.
I am too forgetful for that.
Too easily absorbed in the work of the day.

But when I do remember, life shines with new depth and wonder.
And I find it much more straightforward
To do what I am here to do.

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An autumn walk

I’m on the way in to central London this morning, a short journey from home to meet someone. I’ve left in good time, and as I step out of the door the autumn sun, reflected from the windows on the other side of the street, catches me with its warmth.

I’m already heading for the bus. Quick, quick, my inner-critic says, so much to do. If you rush you’ll have a few more minutes to get everything under control. My chest tightens, and my jaw clenches just a little, and my shoulders turn inwards and upwards. I become something of a getting-there machine.

But this morning I’m fortunate that I spot what’s happening and question it. Yes, there’s a long list of things to do… isn’t there always? But I did not set out early in order to go faster. I set out early in order to go slow.

The bus journey to the station will save me five minutes, and I’ll arrive for the train squashed-in, ruminating on things done and not done, body more clenched than before, another step into a machine-like understanding of myself.

Instead, this morning, I walk.

The sky is exceptionally crisp and clear today, orange-tinted clouds against a striking, high blue. And the leaves are turning to match the sky. Deep green outlines early-autumn red. I slow my pace so I can feel my body and my breath, and allow myself to open to the beauty around me.

And I reclaim myself. I remember that I am human – not a machine. That productivity and efficiency are but one part of a fully-lived life. That beauty, and the sky, and the rhythmic pace of walking and breath, and the deepening stillness of my mind are all foundations upon which I thrive.

The critic is, for now, silent. And my sense of time is greatly expanded. I see again how long the world has been here before me, and how long it will be here after me, and that now is but but one tiny aspect of a vast world of which I am a part.

We live deeply embedded in a narrative of efficiency and productivity, in which we measure our own worth and that of others by what gets done. In this understanding we understand ourselves as units of production, forgetting ourselves and our humanity so very quickly.

And we forget the simple practices, invisible from our narratives of busyness, that can restore ourselves to a fuller life.

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From irritating to mattering

I’m sitting at my desk, opening the mail. It’s been a long day. It still feels to me that there’s much to do.

The phone rings. I answer. It’s Sam. He’s calling to ask my advice on something that matters to him. Actually, it’s something that really matters to me too.

A part of me, deep inside, whispers too much to do, too much to do. It has quite a grip, this part. It twists itself around the inside of my chest, squeezing and pushing. And as I acquiesce and reach for the pile of unopened mail, it loosens, but only just as much as it has to. Ah, that feels better.

For the first few minutes of the call with Sam I’m trying to speak with him while opening the mail. Keep it quiet, the squeezing part says, so that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I open the envelopes as carefully as I can – which even then is not so quiet – and hope that he won’t notice. At least the gripping has relaxed a little so I can breathe.

The thing is, we’re talking about something that really matters to both of us but, caught up as I am in a narrative of productivity (demanded) and deficiency (mine) I’m hardly present at all.

I feel flat, a bit shaky, urgent.

And I’m not listening. Just pretending to listen.

I feel small, shallow, hollow.

And then I remember myself. I remember all the times I’ve called someone I trusted for help and advice and found, quite astonishingly, someone willing to set aside whatever else they were doing to be, fully, with me.

I put down my envelopes, and I set aside the demands of the critic-part, and I surrender myself to the conversation we’re having.

And all at once I’m in contact with Sam, and in contact with myself, and I find myself deeply touched by the conversation we’re in the midst of, which itself moves from irritating to mattering.

And I am reminded that things mattering is what makes us most human.

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That hollowness you feel.

Are you sure that running from it – into work, busyness, emails, surfing the web, eating – is such a good idea?

What you’re experiencing is at the heart of the human condition. Not an error, but an understanding. An insight that there really is nothing to stand on.

We’re thrown, without our permission, into a world that is bigger, more complex, and more mysterious than we can understand. And we have to find a way to live, knowing that we know so little, and that everything is shifting all the time. That at any moment it call all be taken away from us.

In that way hollowness is not a mistake, but is instead a sign of your deep sensing of the way of things. By fleeing from it again and again into shallow distractions, you’re deepening your suffering. You’re fleeing from life. And whole industries exist to help you to do this.

Today, perhaps, it’s time to turn fully, with courage and openness, into the hollow heart so it can give up its gifts.

Let it become your home.

Let it support you in standing, rather than fleeing, in the storms, uncertainty and huge possibility of a life that you did not ask for, but nevertheless have this one glorious opportunity to live.

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We’re all unfinished.

We’re all a bundle of contradictions, confusions, momentary glimpses, endless forgetting and unmeasurable possibility.

We’re all sadness, joy, brokenness, longing.

And yet we pretend to be anything but.

We’re prepared to visit exquisite harshness on ourselves just for being who we find ourselves to be.

What a kindness it would be to give up our attempts to impress ourselves and others with our togetherness and instead stand in wonder at the marvellous, incomplete, ragged and exquisitely beautiful mystery that we are.

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