What’s in the news

What is ‘the news’ anyway?

Is ‘the news’ just that account of events in the world that we see on TV or read on the web?

What about the way a young woman tucked her children into bed last night with such grace and kindness? The volunteers from churches, synagogues and mosques who this week provided warmth, food and overnight shelter to people otherwise sleeping on London’s streets? The reconciliation between brother and sister, long separated and estranged, with hugs and tears? The words of guidance and wisdom shared between teacher and student that bring a new possibility into view? The volunteers who planted life-giving trees on a dry hillside providing shelter not for themselves but for the generations who will come after them? The music composed, books written, scientific discoveries made, art created? The acts of great compassion, kindness, and dignity that happen in ordinary lives, day by day.

When we think of ‘the world’ as if it’s the same as the highly selective narrative of events we see on ‘the news’ it’s no wonder our fear and isolation are what we mostly get to feel. And no wonder that we feel our hearts hardening, our despair growing, and our deepening sense that nothing can be done.

But while the many shocking, frightening, disturbing events that are in the news do happen, and require our response, what’s ‘new’ in the world each day is not just that. It is barely that.

And remembering this might help us respond with our own dignity, kindness, compassion and love right when the world most seems to need it from us.

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What causes what?

What’s your understanding of the cause of your actions and other people’s actions?

Mostly we’ve been taught to think that it’s something within that produces what we do. We talk about motivation, or goals, or drive, or inspiration. We think of ourselves as separate from the world and that our actions and relationship to everything comes from inside us out into the world. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.

But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

We’re not as separate from the world as all that. Much of the time what’s happening is that we’re being drawn towards situations, equipment, or possibilities that we meet.

So, when there’s a chair in the room we’re drawn to sit down when we’re tired. Or when it’s time to go out of the room we’re drawn towards the door and reach for the handle, which draws us too.

This is different from the way you might think you relate to doors and chairs.

It’s not so much that before we act there’s a thinking process by which we first decide to find a door and then reach for the handle in a series of discrete steps. In the middle of everyday human life all of this just flows out of us, from the everyday familiarity and skilfulness in being in the world that we’ve embodied over a long time.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger called such features of the world that draw us out in particular ways affordances.

Being around different kinds of affordance draws us out of ourselves in different ways. Perhaps you’ll see this most clearly if you start to watch for a while what you’re drawn into – what you find yourself automatically doing, before you’ve even thought about it – in particular places.

What do the affordances of the kitchen draw you towards?
The lounge or sitting room with sofas and perhaps a TV?
A meeting room at work with a big boardroom table?
The bus-stop or the inside of a train?
A cathedral?
The waiting room for a doctor’s surgery?

If you watch for a while you’ll see that each place draws from you not just actions but a particular style of engaging with and relating to what’s around you that includes how you relate to others.  It’s all happening long before you’ve even thought about how to respond in this or that place.

This is an important topic because it shows us quickly how much place affects us and because equipment (whether paintbrushes, books, teacups or desks) and people are affordances too.

And there are huge practical consequences of this for all of us, that mostly we’re not paying attention to.

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Into the light

We’re born with such power and promise and creativity folded deep within us.

Such beauty.

But we so quickly forget.

Perhaps among the most important activities of any human life is to look into the darkness so we can recover that which has been lost to us.

And bring it back, again, into the light.

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No giant machine

And so it’s understandable, but disheartening, to see how often we’re moved to respond to situations that are simple, complicated, complex and chaotic as if straightforward cause and effect would explain it, or as if it’s possible to know exactly what to do.

Explaining the world by this-caused-that or pretending to be an expert who knows the answer, or saying that there is no answer ignores the complexity and chaos that is the nature of so much of the world.

Doing this makes us feel better. Perhaps it dulls our fear and uncertainty.

But it robs us of so much of the human ingenuity, care and creativity we need.

It keeps us small.

Responding to terrorism, and war, and climate change, and poverty, and social justice… and loving, and being in a relationship, or in a family, and working with colleagues, and leading an organisation… all of these require our ability to respond to complexity and chaos, as well as our expertise. All require our capacity to experiment, create, listen deeply, take risks, and learn as we go. And none of these are easy while we’re committed to reducing the world to a giant machine where someone or something is to blame for all the difficulties that face us.

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Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic

Here’s a way to categorise the things we work with (from Dave Snowden), and the things we struggle with:

1 Simple

Things we can make sense of quickly and easily, for which no particular expertise is required beyond what we’d all be expected to have in our culture.

A light switch is a good example of ‘simple’. It’s obvious how it works, and what it does. On is onOff is off. And that’s it. There are no other ways to use a switch. No nuance, no special techniques, no room for creativity. A switch is just what it is.

We can learn how to deal with simple phenomena easily – a simple set of instructions, a little while shown it by another person, and we’re done.

2 Complicated

Complicated phenomena, such as the engine of a car, require something different. Most of the time an engine, to most of us, is a simple phenomenon. We turn the ignition, and off we go. But when the engine breaks down, or needs tuning, it becomes clear to us that it’s not simple at al.

Quite specific and broad-ranging expertise (theoretical and practical know-how) is required to work with a complicated situation. Any fault may have a number of causes, and it takes discernment and skill to both to discover the causes and to fix them. Many years of study may be required, and lots of practice. But built into our understanding of complicated phenomena is the understanding that there is a cause which leads directly to the problem and, with the right skilfulness and tools, dealing with the cause gets the engine working again.

We learn how to deal with complicated phenomena by developing expertise.

3 Complex

In complex phenomena, the link between causes and effects is much less straightforward and, in most cases, there is no way of saying that this cause produced this effect.

Organisations behave as complex phenomena much of the time, in large part brought about by human free will, our mysteriousness even to ourselves, and the complex web of interactions that changes us even as change things. Because every relationship and conversation I’m in affects me as I affect the conversation and relationship, and because this is happening in many interactions simultaneously, there’s really no way of knowing quite what causes anything.

Expertise can only get us a little way here. What to do has an emergent quality. We discover it out only as we engage in doing and experimenting, and it relies on our openness and our capacity to feel our way.

4 Chaotic

With chaotic phenomena, such as occur in many sudden and unexpected crises, we can’t find any link between cause and effect. There’s no way of knowing what will happen from what we do, but we have to act anyway. Best practice and expertise can’t help us.

It’s our ability to come up with novel actions and new ways of making sense, to free ourselves from our rigidity and habit, to observe accurately and truthfully, and to trust ourselves in the middle of not knowing what’s going on that serve us here.

So much of our difficulty, and our suffering, comes from failing to see that there are these different kinds of phenomena and that they require different kinds of response. In particular, in so many of our organisations and in our politics, it’s our determination to treat everything as if it’s simple or complicated that gets us into so much trouble.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that our determination to understand everything as a machine where an expert can determine cause and effect – the same instinct that leads us to punishment and reward, carrot and stick, bonuses and KPIs, process and best practicebehaviour frameworks and forced-ranking performance ratings, rigid hierarchies and command-and-control – doesn’t seem to help us nearly as much as we imagine in our organisational lives.

It’s only when we see the limits of expertise, in so many of the domains that matter in our lives, that we can open ourselves to responding in a way that’s called for. And that’s why working on our development matters so much – because development is always a process of loosening our grip on what we’re most certain about, and most rigid about, and opening more and more to the world as it presents itself to us rather than the world as we’ve concluded it to be.

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Hidden Valleys

Tucked in a corner between two major roads in North London, a path framed by trees drops steeply out of view and joins the London Loop, 150 miles of walks through parks, woods and fields in a ring around the city. Only a short distance from where I have lived for eighteen years, today is the first time I find myself walking the route, and soon I’m in a damp, green, frosty world only feet from the concrete paving and thundering traffic above.

It’s quieter here, a little misty, and what startles me most is how the physical geography of the city is brought into view. Alongside the path runs the Dollis Brook, these days hemmed in by concrete and brick banks. It’s clear to me from here that it is the brook that has opened this valley in the soft London clay.

Seeing that it is a valley at all is a surprise. Under the covering of tarmac and housing the swells and hollows of the landscape are disguised, appearing as part of the purposeful human development of the area. But here in the quiet by the brook I can see how the forces of the natural world, over timescales much longer than each of our lives, have shaped the place in which I live. I live on the slopes of a small river valley. This is a new place from which to look at where I dwell, a different take altogether from seeing myself as living on this-or-that street in a suburb in the north of a busy metropolis.

After about a mile, the brook passes under the brick arches of a bridge, six lanes of cars rumbling above. I take a winding path up the valley side, emerging on the pavement of the North Circular Road, built in the 1920s to connect industrial communities while bypassing central London. I have driven this road thousands of times and have never noticed what I can see now in a narrow band on both sides of the road – that the wooded valley continues, flanked by suburban houses, their chimneys poking out from between the trees. It would be possible to walk, drive, and live in this area for years and not see that this is where we are – on the banks of a river that soon joins the River Brent and, a few miles on, becomes part of the broad valley of the Thames which has so profoundly shaped the development of London in the centuries since it first became a city.

I’m struck by how pervasively our capacity to construct has hidden the contours and foundations of the landscape upon which we live and walk. And grateful that there are those with enough foresight and courage to preserve the narrow bands of green that thread their way through the city, so that we can turn from the familiar path and encounter it from a different perspective, and with different eyes.

And it has me wondering about all the other ways we pave over the contours of human life. How we hide the mysterious, life-giving rivers and valleys of meaning and longing and despair and hope and love under concepts and frameworks, procedures and policies, under the shiny, hard surfaces of professionalism and consumerism. And, too,  under the ever-growing plague of busyness that seems to have taken the place of a deep encounter with anything as mysterious, or quiet, or ancient as a river valley threading its way through the city to the sea.

Image of Dollis Brook courtesy of Grim23
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

The enigma of insight, and the Dept. Store for the Mind

Sophie Howarth’s wonderful Department Store for the Mind arrives in the world today, and I’m thrilled that she asked me to write about the relationship between insight and coaching for the launch. I wanted to capture something of the exquisite possibility that arises when we meet someone who’s dedicated to helping us see ourselves and our lives more deeply.

Head over to the store to read more on insight by poets, scientists and philosophers, and to see the range of beautiful and inspiring things that Sophie and her team are bringing to the world.

Coaching, and the enigma of insight – for Dept. Store for the Mind

So much of who we are is invisible, hidden in the vast background of our minds, the familiar habits of our bodies, and the culture in which we swim. It’s as if the conscious mind, which we usually think of as ‘I’, is one tiny part of a deep and mysterious ocean that is more truly who we are. Because of this, insight can be difficult for us to come to alone. And so when we’re in difficulty we can benefit enormously from having a coach alongside us – another human being with the language, courage, and kindness to show us who we are, bring what’s hidden into the light, and help us work with what we find about ourselves in fresh and life-giving ways.

More here…


Looking up


Years ago, a good friend taught me to look up more as I walked the streets of London.

There is exquisite and fascinating architecture hidden, in plain view, above us.

I remember how important it was to discover that I look at my own city in a very particular, habitual way that hides surprising and important features of the world. And if it’s true for the way I look at a city, it’s equally true of the way I look at people, including myself, and at life.

There’s so much that I miss, and so much I choose not to see. And when I’m bored, or stuck, or frustrated, or desperate, or exasperated with people, the surprising, exhilarating, troubling, mysterious features of the world that could liberate and illuminate are invisible to me.

Not because they’re not there, but simply because I’m not looking.


Fear and love

There are, I was reminded this morning, really only two orientations to the world.

One is fear. The other is love.

And everything follows from which we choose.

There are endless reasons to live from fear if we so wish, and almost anything can be its source. Our fear that we will lose people, property, identity, and all the ways we know ourselves. Our fear of illness. Our fear of growing old. Our fear of dying. Our fear of not being loved. And of losing love. Our fear of not having enough. And, this Monday morning in the cities of Europe, our fear of the world’s instability and our own insecurity. And all the fear that arises when we see that we cannot control the world or what happens to us in it.

I think it’s necessary to allow ourselves to feel fear when it comes. To do otherwise is to deny our care for what matters to us. Our fear shows us our care for our lives, and for our society, and for the people we love. Our care for our lovers and partners and friends and children. Our care for our freedom.

To deny our fear is to push part of ourselves away, into the shadows, where it can have much more of a grip over us than when brought into the light. When we don’t feel our fear we easily find ourselves living from it, constructing our lives from the midst of its constricting, narrowing grasp and all of the reactivity and self-obsession it brings.

I’ve come to understand that when I’m in the grip of unnamed fear, there’s so much that I don’t see. I don’t see the stability and resilience of the society in which I live. I don’t see what a blessing it is to sleep in my house at night safe from the terror of shelling and bombing. I don’t see what a gift it is that I can meet with whom I choose and where I choose, and have the freedom to express my thoughts, feelings and commitments openly. That my children get to go to school. That we have food to eat, and water to drink, and systems to bring it all to us from across the world. That I have wide open choice about what work to do, and how to do it. That my family are cared for by health systems, and transport systems, and by a system of law and order that is so easily part of the taken-for-granted background. I forget that this is true even when terrible, frightening things are happening in a city only a few hundred miles away and, perhaps, in time, in my own city too. And I forget that in many parts of the world none of these blessings are a given.

When I’m in the grip of my fear I forget how much more there is to bring to the world than worries about my own safety. From fear I hardly have any sense of the power and possibility of my own contribution. From fear my world shrinks to the tiniest of proportions.

On this Monday morning in the cities of Europe, I am reminded how afraid I can be and how easy it would be to live this way.

And it’s for all these reasons, it seems to me, that it’s our responsibility whenever we can, not to turn away. To feel our fear, and talk with one another about it. To see what it shows us about what matters to us, and then to respond as fully and as generously as we can – to ourselves and to those we meet – from love.

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Just like me

When you’re irritated or annoyed with someone for the way they’re being, you may think “I would never be like that”.

But the intensity of your irritation could be a sign that you’re experiencing a shadow side of yourself – a part of you, seen reflected in them, that you deny and which you do your best to keep out of view.

Pushing the other person away is an attempt to push away the part of yourself you’d rather not see.

And instead of believing all your judgements, you could start to recognise that what you’re seeing in them is, indeed, just like youAnd then you have the possibility of reaching out to them with compassion rather than hostility, learning more about yourself, and healing what’s pushing the two of you apart.

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Planetary Bodies

Finding out how much you’re shaped by the others who are around you could easily be a cause for resignation.

After all, if it’s not all down to you, what’s the point of taking any responsibility for what you do? From here it’s all too easy to attribute everything that happens to ‘the system’ or ‘the culture’.

But that would be too narrow a position to take, by far. Because – even in a complex situation such as an organisation, or a community, or a family – everyone is bringing everyone into being. Like the bodies in a planetary system, each of us is not only subject to the pull and push of others, but is an active part of bringing ourselves and others into our orbits around one another. We don’t have unlimited power to shape what happens around us, but we’re not at all powerless either.

This requires us to take more responsibility, not less. To see change for the better as the result of many small acts of choice – choices that can only start with each of us.

And this is why attending to our development is so important. Because development always includes learning to move from reacting to responding – seeing through our automaticity and becoming more able to be the authors of what we do as the world presents itself to us.

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Shaping One Another

We’d had a testy exchange earlier in the week and by the time we met, I was sure that he really had it in for me.

Except, he quite probably didn’t. But I was quite sure of how he was going to be in this interaction, and who I was in response. And so I was careful, detached, defensive, and withholding of myself. And the more I was that way with him, the more his sense of distrust and discomfort with me was amplified. Pretty soon we were both spinning away from one another in a spiral of distance and mutual recrimination.

And what’s startling about this is not, perhaps, the obvious point that my story about all this shaped how I was with him. It’s that my story about him also profoundly affected how he was with me.  

We don’t just shape ourselves with the stories we tell ourselves. We shape one another, bringing each other forth even when we might think our stories and interpretations are private and personal.

Seeing this opens up enormous possibilities.

Firstly, and most immediately, that I might actively work to see what interpretation I’m bringing to people and situations, and believe my own stories less readily.

And, secondly, we might start to question the highly individualistic accounts we have about what happens in our organisations. Because if the way he is with me is shaped by my stories, how much more so is the way we all are in our work shaped not just by our own stories but by the stories of all those we are around.

In our organisations, and in our communities, we are all bringing one another into being. This renders many of our simplistic cause-and-effect accounts of performance and outcome very shaky indeed. And it ought to have us deeply question the way we give feedback, hold one another accountable, carry out performance reviews, explain success and failure, and blame others when things don’t go the way we’d hoped.

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On thinking

I can think. I really can.

I can think long, and hard, and deeply, about complex problems.

And because I can do it well, I often live as if that’s all there is to do in the world. To think, and to solve, and to work it out. As if this is what I’m here for.

It’s got me a long way. It brings many blessings. But it also creates great difficulty.

When I live in this way, I have a propensity to believe the truth of my thinking, far beyond its actual truthfulness. I try to understand that which cannot be understood in this way – life, or relationships, or what I’m here to do. I think myself away from situations where what’s called for is stepping further in. I seal myself away from the world with a shield of thought. And I judge myself mercilessly for not yet having thought enough or well-enough.

When I live this way, my mind is never still. There is little room for mystery, awe, and wonder. I’m anxious (because no amount of thinking is ever enough). And because of this I’m working, hard, all the time, to work it all out.

And what gets forgotten is that there are other kinds of wisdom upon which I can call. The wisdom of others. The wisdom of my heart. The wisdom of my body. The wisdom of breath. The wisdom of not-knowing, and of un-knowing. The wisdom that can only come from stillness.

And my work, if I am to be fully in life, is letting go enough, surrendering enough, opening enough to let these other kinds of wisdom in.

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Learning to walk

What it takes to learn to walk:

Having things around us to hold onto – sofas, chairs, people’s legs
Experimenting – learning by doing rather than by thinking it through
People to model walking for us
People to applaud us, encourage us on
People who know what we’re working on and are willing to let it happen
People who are willing to let us fall
Spaces that will allow us to fall
Allowing ourselves to be clumsy
Gentleness with ourselves
Sufficient time
Caring enough about it to stay at it
Our willingness to open to a new and unknown world

How rarely we allow our learning to be this way. Increasingly, and particularly in our organisations, we want learning to be quick, simple, obvious, least-effort, fail-safe, planned from end to end. We want to not make mistakes, not look stupid, not expose ourselves. We want immediate, measurable results.

We want to not be troubled by what and how we learn.

We want to know where we’re going before we set off.

We don’t want to be surprised.

We apply these criteria even to what’s most rewarding, most meaningful, and most pragmatically useful to us.

And even when it’s quite the opposite of what’s actually, most practically, called for.

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On love

Mostly we experience ourselves as separate from one another.

We experience the way our bodies are separated from one another in space, the way our personal life history is distinct from that of others, and the apparent hiddenness of our inner world. And we conclude that in some fundamental sense the distance between us and others is unbridgeable, that we are alone.

And it’s no wonder, because as well as what we see, the public discourse of the past 300 years or so has encouraged us to relate to life in this way. Rene Descartes‘ move to portray us as isolated individual minds, separated from everything else, plays a big part in this. And our increasingly individualistic political and economic narratives have split from one another still further.

But when we look this way we’re looking only at the results of something, not the something itself that underlies it all. We take our separate and individual bodies as proof of our separateness, but we are looking too far ‘downstream’ as it were.

If we were to look further upstream we’d see not just our separateness but an endless process of becoming that produces it all.

We’d see the whole of human life renewing itself through the biological processes of conception and birth, each new generation of human beings emerging from the bodies of those of us already here. And we’d see human life becoming itself through language, culture, conversations and ideas, through the grand stories and narratives that shape us even as we shape them.

Looking downstream we see our physical separateness. Looking upstream we see that we are expressions of a unified and ceaseless process of becoming that happens through us and because of us, and that produces all of human life.

Sometimes we gaze at others and realise this. We see them not as separate, but as an expression of the selfsame life that we are. We realise that ‘they’ are really another aspect of that which makes us ‘ourselves’.

And this, I think, is what we call love.

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