Reason and truth

Over the past few weeks I have been reading, and very much enjoying, Rene Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’, a book he wrote in the early 17th century with the intention of cutting through the confusion of the times in which he lived.

Insight into the genuine nature of things, Descartes said, had become so hidden behind layers of superstition and dogma that even the most intelligent and sharp thinking people of his generation were muddled and incoherent. It rightly bothered him that wisdom was so hard to find, and that attempts to establish a more solid basis for truth about the world were rewarded with punishment and scorn. He was keenly aware that his contemporary, Galileo Galilei, had been condemned and imprisoned by the Church for showing that the earth revolved around the sun and that human beings, contrary to dogma, were not the centre of the universe. And he became committed to laying out a new way of understanding the world that could influence the very people who held the newly emerging sciences in such contempt.

Reading Descartes is illuminating. He is warm, witty, playful and extraordinarily clear. And, throughout, he painstakingly describes a powerful method for arriving at truth that cuts through misunderstanding, prejudice and confusion. In many ways his method is simple. Doubt everything and only take as true that which you can prove by stepwise logical reasoning from first principles. Distrust your own judgements. Distrust your heart and emotions. Distrust your body. Distrust all of your experience of the world. Start with the only thing that you can really know – that you exist and that you are thinking – and rebuild the world from there, rigorous careful step by rigorous careful step.

The genius of Descartes’ work is that it works. By doubting all that we take for granted, and by establishing a method by which we can observe the world and prove things from it, he cut through centuries of irrationality and provided a firm basis for the sciences that have revolutionised the world in which we live. And not only is his method robust, reliable and truthful, in principle it can be learned by anybody.

No longer was it necessary to believe something simply because someone else told us to believe it. With the Cartesian method we could find out for ourselves that something was true. Or we could ask those making a claim to show us the steps they’d taken in claiming it. And so as well as establishing a new way of generating truth about the world, he democratised it, taking it out of the hands of those with power and giving it to all of us. The explosion of creativity and insight in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and the computational sciences that followed have transformed every aspect of the world – what we can make, what we can understand, what we can do, and what we make of ourselves and our place in the universe.

While there are many limits to the Cartesian way of looking at things, which I’ll get to another time, his plea for rigour and clear thinking strikes me as incredibly important at times like these when there is such polarisation, superstition, uncertainty and manipulation in our public discourse, our media and our politics. Descartes reminds us that there is a much firmer basis for our decisions than how we happen to be feeling in the moment, than our prejudices and fears, and than the stories about ourselves and others we were handed.

He reminds us that in many aspects of human life, doubting is a helpful and necessary orientation. And that there’s no substitute for looking closely, for checking evidence, and for talking with one another about how we’re reaching the conclusions we’re reaching rather than deciding in a vague, muddled or mistaken way on the big issues of how to live together.

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An act of remembering

When it seems like the world is against me and everyone is judging me, when no matter where I turn I can’t find a place that I feel welcomed or loved, when every glance, or look, or email is a reminder that I’m falling short, I’ve found it helpful to remember that what unites all of these experiences, and all of these judgements, is me.

And that what looks, so obviously, to be a way the world is, is quite likely to be a way my relationship with the world is. Or, said another way, the way the world shows up for me is profoundly shaped by the kind of relationship I have with it.

And this is good to remember when I’m looking to the world to change, or convinced of my own inadequacy. Because while the whole world cannot easily be called into question, the nature of a relationship can indeed be questioned and shifted over time. It’s possible to take up new practices – gratitude and forgiveness among them – that radically shift a relationship with the world and in turn shift the world itself.

And while I forget, frequently, and mistake the world for my relationship with it, perhaps writing this today will be a small act of remembering. And one that might help you, if you’ve forgotten, to remember too.

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From this place and no other

An unchangeable feature of life is that, at every moment, you find yourself inescapably in some situation or other – perhaps one that you did not choose.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. However magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

No manner of denial (and all the suffering that comes with it) can change that your life continues from this moment, this particular configuration, and not from another.

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is neither ‘putting up with things’, nor pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere you’re not, but responding fully from where you are, and knowing that many paths lead from this place.

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Supplier or partner?

A choice to make whenever you work with others: will you relate to them as supplier or partner?

Suppliers are there to give you what you ask for. ‘We want 300 widgets by Friday’ – there’ll be a supplier for that. The supplier does not need to know much about what you care about, or are committed to, beyond the needs of the current supply. Once they have fulfilled your request to the standards you lay out, their job is done. And in relating to them as supplier you become consumer – the one with the right to determine the spec, the one upon whose sole discretion the supply gets accepted or rejected, and the one who expects not to be challenged, or disturbed, or questioned.

The consumer-supplier relationship, even if it lasts over a long time period, is essentially a relationship of safety and utility (an I-It relationship). If someone else comes along who can give you what you ask for more quickly, or more cheaply, or with less fuss, have them supply you instead.

And while supply gives you what you asked for, it gives you only what you asked for. You may get what you want, but you may well not get what you need.

Partners are there to be in your commitments with you. To be a partner is to step in, to care about the same things that another cares about, and to build a relationship which can hold creativity, surprise, trust and difference. To be a partner is to be prepared to question the spec, the strategy and the premise, and be questioned in turn for the sake of the larger commitment you share. It’s to enter into something big together, to be influenced by one another, and to be in it for the long term.

When you step into a relationship this way, you invite the other party to join with you in your endeavours. As such partnership is an essentially I-You relationship, a shared commitment aimed at a far bigger set of possibilities than a supplier-consumer relationship can ever hope to address.

The partner-supplier choice applies to just about any relationship. Colleagues, employees, consultants you bring in, people who make things and services you use – any can be partner or supplier. In each case you choose. Will you invite the other to be supply for your requests or partner in bringing about what matters most?

Each kind of relationship has its place, and each has its consequences. But what gets most of us into trouble, sooner or later, is how often we try to make ourselves suppliers when a bolder, riskier and more significant contribution is called for. And how often we look for the safety and reassurance of a supplier, when it’s a partner that we really need if we’re going to have the impact on the world we’re hoping for.

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Family

Seen against the ever-present certainties of our lives – we will die, we will grow old, all that we build or create will eventually fall apart – differences between us drop away. We are all the same.

It’s so hard to live consciously with this in mind, to reach out across the space we imagine separates us and be open to one another. So hard to share our fear, our longing, our truest hopes. So hard to stay present long enough to look deeply into the eyes of others, to fall into them, allowing ourselves to know and be known.

Why so difficult? Perhaps because of the shame we necessarily picked up along the way: sharpened every time we had to be told not to do this or that, to be this way or that way in order to fit in with our families or with our culture. Because of our self-doubt and our inner-criticism, which make it so hard to love ourselves fully (a pre-requisite for allowing ourselves to un-self-consciously love others). And because we are afraid.

And so we hold back, always reserving some distance even from those who love us the most, because that way it feels as if we’ll hold on to some measure of safety. Or we judge others, resent them or hate them, turning them into less than human-beings in our hearts, because it makes us feel better for a while.

Even though we know that our deepest connection with one another is precisely that which can save us from the void.

This is the great ethical work, so difficult to do and so necessary, which calls to us – learning the sensitivity to respond and be open to other people, who we take to be so different from us but with whom we share common ancestry, and common destiny.

For we are intimately related.

Family.

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Asking for it

If your requests to others aren’t resulting in much in the way of action, you might like to look at whether you are actually asking anything at all.

“That office needs tidying”

“The rubbish is collected tomorrow”

“We’re spending more on travel than we should be”

“This is really difficult”

“It’s my birthday next Tuesday”

and even your silence

may seem to you like obvious displays that you need help. But they quite possibly sound nothing of the sort to the people around you.

Indirect requests are a manipulation, a demand that others show they love or respect you by being able to work out what you really want. But when you don’t get what you were expecting the result is frustration and resentment. And confusion, for everyone else, when you’ve become annoyed, or angry, or withdrawn – and they don’t understand why.

Over time, such vague requests erode the foundation of your relationships even as you’re trying to get people to come in closer.

Please, if you want to enrol others in doing something that matters you, ask them directly for what you want.

It creates so much more possibility and dignity for all of us.

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In the hours to come

In the hours and days to come may you know yourself as the sun, and the moon.
May you know yourself as shining star-light.

May you know yourself as the softness of earth
and as the strength of tall cedars.

May you know yourself always, inescapably, as loved.

And may you know yourself as the deep, entwined roots of vast forests
and as the waves of the sea.

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Overflowing

As David Steindl-Rast points out, we experience gratitude – we are able to be grateful – when we know our hearts as spilling over with appreciation for all that’s around us and within us.

And there’s no shortage of life to fill us up.

We needed do nothing to be given life, air, trees, sky, earth.

Other people dreamed up and made and brought us trains and cars, electricity and hot water, paper, pens, computers, steel and wooden beams to build our houses, and interlocking institutions, intentions, people and practices that teach us, care for our health and security, collect taxes, entertain us, feed us, sustain us.

We are inheritors of untold riches in the work of novelists, scientists, poets and philosophers. We needed do nothing to find ourselves in a world where all of this surrounds us, always.

But when we experience our hearts as spilling over, when our cup is full, we so often try to make the cup bigger. As if, now we’re filled, it’s necessary to be filled up with more. The bigger the cup gets, the more it needs filling, and the less of the spilling over of gratitude and gratefulness we experience.

We replace a life of wonder with a life of grasping. A life of what’s here, with a life of what isn’t. And a life in which we know ourselves and the world as enough, with a life in which we’re always disappointed and despairing, and always wanting more.

I’m writing about this today because I notice how often I fall into this way of seeing the world. And it seems to me that my work, perhaps the work of many of us, is to teach ourselves again and again to cultivate in us that which can love the world just as it is. To remember how to be cups that can spill over in response to the world, right at the same time as we strive, in all the ways we do, for there to be more of whatever it is to which we’ve dedicated ourselves.

And what seems wonderful about all this to me is that the more grateful I can be at what is, the more capacity and energy I find in myself to make right what is not.

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Five narratives for leadership

Five narratives for leadership…

… a way to get liked, respected, or to get what I want (all variations on an idea that leadership is an opportunity to fulfil my needs)

… an application of expertise – being the person who knows what to do, reliably, so that other people can be told what to do too (leading by being ahead of others and having other people be like me)

… a way to make sure people are measurably productive at what we’ve decided is to be done – rewarding with bonuses and prizes, threatening by withholding them, cajoling, pressuring, motivating, engaging, punishing, cascading (all variations on a theme that leadership is about getting others to produce measurable efficiency and productivity)

… a way of inviting a new conversation – asking questions that nobody is asking, pointing into collective and individual blindspots, helping others say no as often as yes, welcoming truth and difference, enrolling in compelling stories or counter-stories that allow others to make meaning of what they’re doing and free themselves to take action, and in doing so become skilful at coordinating their actions with one another (leadership as laying out a space of possibility by the stories and conversations we weave)

… a way to help others marshal their efforts by meeting the realities of the world – learning how long things really take, going with the forces of life rather than fighting against them, finding out how to take care of ourselves so that we are resourceful and creative, giving up doing what’s familiar in favour of what’s needed now, working with the complexities and unpredictability of big systems rather than trying to pretend the world works like clockwork (leadership as a way of helping others ever more effectively and wisely bring their intentions to the world as it is)

… a way of taking up our responsibility towards life – responding with acuity and sensitivity to the unknown and unknowable, taking care of the cross-generational consequence and possibilities of our actions, helping others overcome their fear and frozenness so they can contribute, being wide awake and present in the midst of it all and inviting others to be the same, helping others deepen their understanding of life and flourish within it, nurturing what needs nurture and undoing what needs undoing, practicing radical kindness, acceptance and generosity (leadership as a spiritual path)

Are any of these what leadership is to you?

And what’s the consequence – for you, for others, for those who’ll come after you – of the narrative you’re currently choosing?

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Help, truthfulness, kindness

One of the questions I always ask my coaching clients is ‘who is in this with you?’

It’s a way of asking three questions at once –

  • Who’s helping you with this topic you’re working on?
  • Who sees you with enough truthfulness that they can support you in making corrections and adjustments as you go?
  • And who is prepared to see you with the kindness you need to find your own kindness towards yourself?

Help, truthfulness, kindness – three qualities in others that are a vital, life-giving force for us human beings.

We need people around us who’ll be this way if we’re going to flourish.

But so often the answer is ‘nobody‘. There’s nobody in this with me. I’m in this on my own. This is how it’s meant to be. 

We don’t see how crazily we’re trying to be super-heroes, hauling ourselves up in the world with our own muscular strength, propelling ourselves along with inner harshness, and pushing away the heartfelt attempts of others to support us. And that in living this way we live our struggles alone, even when surrounded by others.

It takes some softening and a large dose of letting go – of our own self-concepts and our attempts to control life – to let help, truthfulness and kindness in. But when we admit that we’re neither omnipotent, nor meant to be, we give ourselves our best chance of taking up our place in the web of support that’s around us. And it’s a necessary step if we’re going to play a part in our own flourishing, and quite possibly in the saving of our very lives.

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