When only practice will do

When we rely on events to change things in our organisations – an executive residential, a training day on relationships, a session on ‘difficult conversations’ – we’re treating ourselves as if we’re machines. A new part, some oil in the right place, installing a patch to the operating system – that’ll do it.

When we imagine ourselves this way, we set ourselves up for such disappointment. We pour our hearts and our good intentions into the event, thinking that this time it will do the trick, this time the upgrade will work. And we wonder why things the next day seem pretty much the way they were before.

We’d be so much more effective, and so much kinder to ourselves, if we understood that we are living processes, shaped all the time by the practices we take up and by the relationships that surround us. We’d know then that events can help us, for sure, but that it’s not the events themselves that bring about the change we seek as much as our relationship to them. We’d see that unless we’re prepared to use events as an invitation to practice – with all of the uncertainty, all the learning that’s involved, all the letting go that practice entails, and all of the times that our practice goes awry and we have to commit to begin again once more – we can rightly expect our events to do very little at all.

And this point – that practice goes awry – is probably the most important. We know, intuitively, that a two-day event exploring the piano doesn’t make any of us a competent pianist. We’d expect to have many subsequent days of struggle and difficulty, with steps forward and setbacks, before we’d feel proficient. Before real music would be possible we’d expect days when our practice sounded disjointed or discordant, and to play many wrong notes from which we’d gradually learn the right ones. We’d expect to need help, and time to reflect on what’s happening. And we’d expect to experiment and practice again and again for many weeks.

It’s the same for the work of building trust between colleagues, for learning how to get out of our endless busyness and rushing so we can think, and for finding how to work together effectively, and skilfully, and joyfully.

If we understood this, I think we’d expect a lot less of events and see a lot more possibility in ourselves and in each other. And we’d know that our very difficulties are the path, not a reason to be discouraged, not proof that we’re getting it wrong, and certainly not a reason nor an excuse to avoid the difficult, life giving and essential work of practicing together what we say we most want to bring about.

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Practice, not events

Between June 2011 and the following July I had three close encounters with death. Three life punctuating events brought about by sudden and unexpected changes within my body, each shocking and frightening, each a reminder of how fragile and unpredictable life can be.

As I recovered from each episode I expected – hoped – that I would in some way be profoundly different. I wanted so much to find myself more grateful, more accepting, more joyful of life’s many small blessings, less judgmental, less afraid, less irritated by small things, more kind, and more dedicated to being present and welcoming and loving with the people who matter to me.

But it didn’t work out so simply. I emerged from each experience blinking and shaken and grateful, and soon settled back into many of my familiar patterns.

Over time I’ve found myself thinking about this differently. What happens if I allow these experiences to inform the way I live rather than expecting them to change me? How can I, having encountered the possibility of death so closely, use my experience to commit fully and wisely and generously to life?

In taking on this question I’m finding out that the change I seek is a question of practice rather than of events. And that I am an ongoing process much more than I am a thing with enduring properties, an object that is a particular way. I live myself into being, day after day. I am always living myself into being by the very ways in which I live.

How I move, how much I take care of myself, how I express curiosity and interest in the world, how I speak and listen, how I sleep, how I sing and laugh, how I play and create, how I bind myself up in community, how I practice compassion and stillness, how I love, how I work – all these shape the life I am living and who I become, far more than the punctuating events themselves.

And this tells me so much about the mistaken ways in which I look for change in myself and in my relationships with others. When I mistake life for a thing I imagine an event of sufficient power will do it. An affecting conversation, a kiss, a show of force, a book with a revelatory idea in it, an illness, a windfall, a conference, an argument, the right gift, or a brush with death will fix things, in the same way that I might fix a dented metal bowl by attempting to knock it into shape. But when I know myself as a living, unfolding process, events take up their proper place as teachers rather than fixers, educating me about the ongoing practices by which I can take care of this one precious life.

The more I imagine events alone will do it, the more I set myself up for the despair and frustration that comes from relying on something that cannot help.

And the more I commit to the ongoing, long-term, diligent and patient practice of living in a way that brings life, the more genuine reason I have to hope.

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She should know

“My manager (or partner, child, colleague, best friend, client, customer) should know what to do. She should. And because of this, I’m not going to ask. I’m not going to tell her what I need, what I want, or what I see. I’m going to stay quiet. Why should I say anything? Because she should just know.”

Where does this get you – even if it’s true?

Can you think of any move more sure to rob you of your power, distance you, and deny you the very thing you want or need most – except, perhaps, your wish to remain frustrated, bitter, resentful and endlessly disappointed?

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A difficult time with choice

We have a difficult time with choice (or, at least, with choosing) because we have a difficult time with death.

Choosing always involves the death of what is not chosen. The death of a possibility. The death of a particular future that will, now, not be.

And because choosing requires us to face death, many of us would rather not choose at all.

And then we can only live a life that is never quite our own, because in the absence of our own choice everything is effectively being chosen for us. There’s no less death here – we’ve simply turned our face away from it.

But there is much less dignity, and much less responsibility.

Stepping into our lives means, inevitably, that we step also into the death of things.

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Necessary, essential, vital

Necessary, essential, vital – three words that we use interchangeably, but which have quite distinct meanings.

The necessary in a situation is the barest form of what’s needed, what we cannot do without. When we attend to what’s necessary we make sure that what we rely upon keeps going, that it does not fall apart.

What’s essential is to do with the essence of things – what is most true and particular to the situation at hand. There are many different ways of attending to what’s necessary, but attending to what’s essential in a situation calls on us bring exquisite sensitivity and a willingness to look and feel behind surface appearances. The essential requires saying no to many things in order to respond with beauty and precision to just what’s called for now and here.

And what’s vital is to do with what has vitality, that which is life giving – not what’s merely necessary, nor even what’s only essential, but what will breathe life into ourselves, into others, and into the matter at hand.

Too often, by conflating these different meanings, we do our work (or live our lives) in a flat way – busily or dutifully doing what is necessary and no more. But how much that is artful, beautiful, dignified, life-giving and joyful we could bring about if we were to pay equal attention to the essence of things and the life of things – the essential and the vital – and to the essence and life of the people around us too.

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What a mess

What a mess.

It’s so cold in here.

It’s unfair that some of us are left out.

I have such a busy day today. It’s going to be hard to get everything done.

We’re never going to make that deadline at this rate.

It’s getting late. This has been going on far too long.

There’s something we’re not speaking about here.

How often we speak in this way – making a claim or judgement about the world – when what we really long for is somebody to do something.

In each of these examples the speaker holds back from the request they’re really wishing to make. Perhaps it feels safer this way. After all if you don’t actually ask then you don’t expose yourself quite as much. And you protect yourself from the discomfort of a potential ‘no’.

But speaking in this roundabout this way robs each of us of much of our power to have what’s important to us happen. And it casts others in the role of mind-readers. How much pain we cause ourselves and those around us in endless waiting and hoping that someone else will see we’re in need and know what action to take.

Making clear, explicit requests of others – and being open the response – is, for many of us, a huge step into a much bigger and much kinder world.

And the only way to really begin to enlist the support of others in what we really need and what we most care about.

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Over-reaching

A very dedicated and successful swimmer once told me that the way to extend your reach in strokes such as the crawl is first to over-reach. To add 5cm, practice extending by 10cm for a while. The over-stretch, she told me, teaches the body to settle into a new configuration so that, on relaxing again, your established stroke lands somewhere between where you started and what you reached for.

Over the coming days I want to see if I can point out some ways in which we’ve over-reached with the project that René Descartes started, and how we might restore to ourselves some measure of balance in which reason, with its power to cut through and generate truth, takes up its place alongside the no less important virtues of goodness and beauty in our organisations, our institutions, and our society.

I think this is important not only because we’ve used the sharp-sword of detached reason in places where it destroys rather than nurtures (I started to lay some of those out in this post), but because we’ve done ourselves a huge disservice in worshipping the cartesian method to the exclusion of all else. Whenever we’ve used it inappropriately – forcing it into places where it cannot help us, such as in our attempts to scientifically measure love, or meaning, or care, or art, or ethics – we’ve blunted it, confused it and diminished its power.

I can’t help but think that our misuse and misunderstanding of the methods of objective reason contribute to the spread of quack cures that look convincing because of their scientific-sounding language, to the many failed projects to measure and produce ‘engagement’ in our organisations, to our all-too-easy trust in the explanations given by our politicians, and to our obsession with education systems that train our children to score well in exams (and in easily measurable subjects) rather than develop wisdom and skilfulness in living.

Perhaps by being clearer about where objectivity helps us, and where it does not, we can cut through our confusion about reason itself. And this is important because just as we can’t flourish without goodness and beauty, we certainly can’t flourish without reason either.

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Subjective, Objective

René Descartes’ method gave us a way to find truth by making a clear distinction between subjectivity and objectivity.

Subjectivity, the particular way of looking at the world that is unique to each of us, is to be roundly distrusted because of the way it distorts understanding: introducing errors of judgement, errors of perspective, and the errors that come from being confused by our emotions, bodily sensations, commitments and desires.

Objectivity, the way of looking at the world that comes from dispassionately observing and measuring the properties of things, can be trusted – as long as careful observations are made and conclusions formed by the step-by-step application of tried and tested methods of reason and logic.

By restricting what we take to be true to that which can be found in the objective and logical realm, Descartes gave us a powerful way of establishing truths that had previously eluded us. No longer did we have to believe that flames go upwards because it is of the essential nature of fire to rise above other kinds of matter, and no longer did we have to believe that the sun and stars went around the earth because it is the essential nature of human beings to be the centre of things. We could observe, and test, and reason and conclude, establishing cause and effect relationships free from superstition and free from prejudice.

It was a world-changing shift of perspective that moved reason to the centre after centuries during which it had been in the margins. At the same time, it established mathematics and physics as the central sciences. Mathematics took up a particular specialness because of its power to explain and predict without recourse to any subjectivity or, indeed, any need to rely even upon the physical, objective world in order to do its work.

It’s hard for those of us who have grown up in the world ushered in by Descartes and his enlightenment contemporaries to see what a radical change this was, so schooled have we been in its assumptions and its way of looking at things. But we can see it in the way we go about science and proof, in the way we look for particular kinds of facts or measurements before we’ll take something as true, in the way we make ‘objective’ more important or valid than ‘subjective’, and in the explosion of science and technology in our era. There’s no doubt that our world would be radically different, and in so many ways vastly impoverished, without our having taken up reason as the central project of the last few hundred years.

But I think it’s worth asking questions about where we have taken Descartes’ project too far. We routinely rely on it to produce truth in fields where its methods and its insistence on discarding the subjective lead us to look in a narrow way and can direct us into all kinds of confusion. How we educate our children and ourselves, and about what, working together in organisations, pursuing what’s meaningful rather than what’s simply useful, being in relationship, loving others, community, art – each of these are among the fields where the subjective, where our experience of things, is central, and no recourse to a subjectivity-free objectivity can hope to show us much. And reason, while vital in establishing truth (I would not want to do without it!) cannot help us alone with two other important human projects – beauty and goodness – both of which are vital if we are to have flourishing and ethical institutions, politics, education and organisations.

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