Also brighter than the sun

I wrote this, for my friend and colleague Christy, two and half years ago. But it’s perfect also for my friend and colleague Pamela, who I’m remembering today.

Sometimes, in the midst of all our striving, longing, and reaching, our building of towers and the making of names for ourselves, it’s important to remember that one day we will, with certainty, lose it all.

Some of this will happen piece by piece. We’ll gradually say goodbye to people as they leave life. We’ll realise, perhaps suddenly, that their presence in the world touched our hearts and lit up our eyes. We’ll find out that their worth is beyond words.

And for all of us, the loss will also come entirely at once – maybe at a time when we least expect it, before we can even know it’s happening – when it is ‘I’ who is leaving and it is others who have to say goodbye.

Some of us take a long time to find all this out, holding our inner gifts back from the world until we’re sure the time is just right – a time that may never come.

But others seem to live with this understanding so fully in their hearts it’s as if nothing is withheld. They’ve discovered that the point of life is life itself, and that each of us is simply another expression of life’s beauty and wonder. And from this understanding flows their kindness, their generosity and their wisdom, so that they shine brighter than the sun.

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Better off knowing this

Behind all our attempts to manipulate and control the world so it’s just as we’d like it (and behind the pain, frustration, sorrow and disappointment that our inevitable failure brings), we’re just trying to find a way to feel safe and to feel at home. 

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

Then we’d set aside our mission to control what can’t be controlled. And we’d work on how to feel safe and at home in the world as it is – in this ever-changing, surprising, vast and mysterious life in which we find ourselves.

With thanks to Lizzie for pointing this out to me today.

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Ten factors that are more important than the productivity you’re measuring:

  1. Who you have around you
  2. and who you’re supporting
  3. What you’re paying attention to
  4. and what you’re denying, ignoring, or turning away from
  5. What you’ve dedicated yourself to
  6. and how big the questions are that you’re asking
  7. The extent to which you’re doing your work from fear
  8. and the extent to which you’re doing your work from love
  9. How open you’re prepared to be
  10. and whether you’re willing to care

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The slavery of freedom

How important it is to discover that often it’s our very fixation with freedom that most enslaves us.

We easily think that we’re most free when we can choose whatever we want, whenever we want. Or when we’re free of binding, lasting ties (anything we can’t get out of when we choose).

But one of the defining qualities of our humanity is our capacity to care, deeply, about things. Care always implies commitment, and always implies dedication. How much can we say we care about anything or anyone if we can leave them behind when the whim takes us?

It’s a paradox, for sure. Our freedom to be completely free holds us back from dedicating ourselves. And the very act of narrowing our options, of choosing what we’ll commit to and what we won’t, opens up the widest freedom to participate in the life that’s in front of us.

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Busyness and fear

Three basic human fears about what we do:

That what we’re doing doesn’t matter. That, quite probably, it’s meaningless.

That what we’re doing doesn’t help. That it doesn’t make a contribution to anyone.

That when we’re gone, all our efforts will amount to nothing.

Notice how it’s our busyness that has such amazing capacity to distract us from our fears, to numb us to them. And that it’s our busyness, precisely because it distracts us so well, that has such capacity to make our fears turn out to be true.

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Leaping onto the wire

You’re standing for the first time on the edge of a platform above a wide and deep canyon, harnessed, checked and secured to a zip wire that descends at a steep angle towards the forest floor below. Many people have gone before you. And yet you hesitate at the edge, feeling both the way this possibility calls to you, and the way it frightens you.

Can you distinguish your anxiety at this moment from your fear? They’re different, in important ways.

Fear is related to the threat to your safety, real or imagined. I’ll die here. The harness will undo. I’ll fall. I’ll go too fast. I won’t slow down in time. Something will go wrong. I’ll never be able to get back again.

Anxiety is related to your freedom to step into this possibility or to step back, and your knowledge that the choice is yours alone. I want to do this, but I don’t. I’ve never done this before. I won’t know how to feel. I won’t know how to be with what I do feel. I won’t be able to deal with how unfamiliar this is going to be, with being changed by the experience. I won’t know how to be with others when I’m done. I won’t know how to be myself. 

Every developmental opportunity in our lives is like this, when we find ourselves standing on the brink of a new opening, a deep, broad vista stretched out before us that we suspect will change us. And while fear can sometimes be addressed with competent support – someone who can show us the equipment, explain how everything works, point out the successful descents that came before, and give us the statistics – anxiety cannot be resolved in this way, because anxiety is to do with what it is to become the one who leaps.

And when we want to travel the wire, or start to see that we simply must do so, what we need most is not people who’ll push us over the edge, nor people who’ll try to pull us back to the familiar world that is no longer serving us, but those who’ll stay with us a while, peer with us into the opening, and explore what we see with compassion, curiosity and wonder until we’re ready to do the work for ourselves that nobody else can do.


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The Gift of Being Lost

Never forget this — you are trying to get lost.
Jose A Alcantra, Excerpts from A Field Guide to Getting Lost

You’re not the only one who’s lost. Though it probably looks like it most of the time.

Most people would do anything to hide that they can’t find the way either.

So much energy expended, sustaining the myth that we have it all together; that we have a clue what life is about in this weird, mysterious existence in which everything is always shifting, always falling apart.

The liberating step is not finding the way but discovering that there is no way to be found, or that we make the way by the way we walk it. Then, at last, we can live fully and courageously with our confusion and not be so burdened by it. And we can reach out to others, to help them do the same.

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Anxiety is different from fear, in that fear is always in some way about memy safety, my circumstances.

Fear comes and goes, but anxiety is nearly always with us. It isn’t personal. It comes from our very human capacity to choose, and from our ability to invent possible futures without knowing how they’ll work out. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells us, anxiety is the dizzying effect of our freedom, and the consequence of the boundlessness of our horizons.

When we deal with anxiety by trying to run from it, or by trying to numb it, or when we let ourselves be overcome by it (so that the anxious part of us is the only part that’s speaking), one of the consequences is disconnection from ourselves and from the possibilities that are calling. But when we treat it as a messenger we discover that anxiety is here to show us something we’ve been asleep to, something we’ve been avoiding, some way we’re holding on tight to that which ultimately cannot be held onto.

The difficult part, often, is knowing precisely what it is we’re avoiding, asleep to, or holding on to so tightly. And this is where we can often be helped so much by others who love us but who won’t rescue us. People who, instead of sending us back to sleep, will stand alongside us with compassion, truth, hope, and light as we discover what new way of being alive the anxiety, from which we so want to run, is calling us towards.

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Who can by stillness, little by little
make what is troubled grow clear?
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

So often, faced with a difficulty, a confusion, a blow to our expectations, we dive into activity. There must be a way, we tell ourselves, to resolve this. We have to do something.


So often this move into moving comes from fear. That we’ll be powerless. That we’ll be shown to be inadequate. That this event will change us, and we don’t want to be changed.

Such an anxious, frantic move is familiar habit for many of us in organisations, where motionlessness is seen as akin to death. And where the stillness it takes to clarify our troubles is considered an abdication of responsibility rather than an act of deep care and wisdom.

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As Mark Nepo points out, trying to bend the world to my own shape is not only exhausting and painful, it’s also ultimately self-defeating. The world is much too big, too mysterious, too deep to be shifted in this way. And it is an act of grandiosity – of trying to making myself into a god – to imagine that I can force life to be just the way I want it.

But this is not a cause for despair, because there is another way to meet the world. Instead of trying to make life like me, I can work on allowing myself to be like life. This means giving up trying to have the world be an imprint of my preferences and my wishes, and instead opening myself so I can include more and more of the world within me. In this way, development happens very naturally.

And the more of the world I can open to – the more people I can open to – the wider the possibility of responding to life not with frustration or resentment, but with acceptance, and grace, and wisdom and compassion. And there’s more of a possibility of also doing what’s really called for, rather than what would make me feel better, safer, or more self-satisfied.

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Frontiers. 3 years.

On Living and Working is 3 years old today.

Although the boundary between the end of year three and the start of year four is in some ways entirely arbitrary, it reminds me that we always find ourselves standing at a frontier of some sort. Whether we call it an anniversary, or a birthday, or just ‘today’, we’re deep in a conversation between what has come before and what comes next, between the known and the unknown. It’s what it is to be human.

At any frontier we have a profound choice, as Ursula K. Le Guin points out in her wonderful book of essays The Wave in the Mind. We can try to colonise the far side of the frontier with what’s known to us, imposing our already familiar way of being in the world onto it, forcing it to take on our own shape. Or we can be softer, more curious, allowing ourselves to be informed by the unknown, shaped by it, letting it be our teacher.

The colonising path seems so necessary and holds out the promise of freeing us from our fear. But it most often prolongs our anxiety, as it can never bring us what we ask of it. After a while it leaves us hardened and narrowed because it can only be achieved by shielding ourselves progressively from life’s influence, by insisting more and more that we have life our way and on our terms. At some point we find out that we can only appropriate the future in this way by doing violence to ourselves and others, as colonisers the world over have done to the cultures they destroyed or bent to their will.

The other path invites us to become students of the far side of the frontier, apprentices to its mystery. If we’ll allow the unknown to reach us, if we’ll inhabit our uncertainty and anxiety without running, if we’ll allow our love and our difficulty, our wonder and our confusion to touch us, and if we’ll let ourselves be porous and available to the events of our lives, we can start to find out that we are inevitably of life. And who knows what possibilities for a compassionate, wise participation in all of it that might bring?

In this liminal space between three years and four, between now and next, I can see that the second path is the necessary path. That it takes a lot of letting go of things held very tightly. A great deal of courage. And much, much kindness.

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Simple Gratitude

This morning, simple gratitude.

For friendship. For brushing my teeth, for cups of tea, for sunlight on the slanting roof. For a body that can feel love, and joy, and sadness. For music. And for the uncountable generations who came before whose whose very lives bequeathed all of this exquisite ordinariness to us.

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Learning how to learn

It’s becoming more clear to me, as I go about my work in the world of organisations, that so many of us have never learned how to learn.

We know how to find out about facts, yes, and models – we know how to do that. But knowing how to do the learning that changes us, up-ends us, opens up new possibilities for understanding, action and relationship? Or working with the many emotions and difficulties that come when we step into something new? What about understanding our inner worlds with enough discernment that we can catch on to the hidden commitments (to stay safe, to look good) that compete with our stated wishes? We’re generally not so skilled at that.

I’ve started to lay out over recent days how our societal commitment to detached understanding (the ‘cartesian’ world, our schooling) might be contributing to this. It’s important because an ability to learn is probably what we need most right now, as the world continues to shift and change around us.

The good news is that it is possible to learn how to learn. We can do it as adults. And we can certainly make it possible for our children, if only we’ll be brave enough.

To support you in getting started: three wonderful resources from people who have thought about this a lot:

1. Stop Stealing Dreams A downloadable, shareable pdf by Seth Godin

A passionate, provocative manifesto about education, about the industrial-scale uniformity so easily brought about by our education system, and packed with ideas about what we might do about it all. Soaring, inspiring reading – I think a must for any teacher, manager, leader, or parent. You can download it from Seth’s blog here, and you can watch Seth talk about it here.

2. Do Schools Kill Creativity? A TED talk by Ken Robinson

A moving and intelligently argued plea for an education system that nurtures creativity instead of constraining it. Filled with many arguments that apply equally to our universities, institutions and organisations.

3. Free to Learn A book by Peter Gray

The author, a distinguished developmental psychologist, draws on wide ranging and convincing research to argue why our way of thinking about education so often stifles real learning, and why we need to entrust children with steering their own learning and development if we want them to thrive in today’s world.

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How we learned not to trust ourselves

A recipe for learning not to trust ourselves:

Step 1 – Kindergarten: Play! Encourage freedom, creativity, feeling, and its expression. Explore the world through the immediacy of the body and senses. Make a mess. Hop and jump. Listen to stories. Tell them.

Step 2 – Infant school: Start to leave parts out. Sit down on the rug, or on your chair. Learn not to fidget, to pay attention, to respect others – necessary skills for life in our culture. Play, yes, but not too much now. Big school is coming.

Step 3 – Junior school: Keep still for many hours. Stop talking. The movement of bodies – an interruption. Play is only for prescribed times – not while we’re learning. It’s your job to pay attention always, regardless of how you feel, or what you care about. The adult world is coming.

Step 4 – Senior school: Learning is knowing facts or models in a way that’s increasingly detached from my first-hand experience. Do I care deeply about this subject? Does it move me? Can I connect it with my life? This, and other matters of the heart, are no longer so relevant, and rarely addressed in the classroom. The heart and the body – subjugated to the world of the analytical mind. The highest mark of educational achievement – that I learned to pass the exam, that I can produce what’s measurable.

When we follow a path that progressively leaves out parts of ourselves, it should come as no surprise that we have a hard time trusting the parts we’ve abandoned. Our hearts: how we tell what matters to us. And our bodies: the means by which we relate, create, explore, encounter, move the world. And it might explain how we’ve convinced ourselves that models, frameworks, and techniques are a substitute for a real, live, scary, exhilarating, fierce, risky and life-giving engagement with ourselves in the pursuit of the work that matters to us.

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Questioning our stories

Given that we are the only creatures (that we know of) that can tell stories about ourselves;

and given that we live bound up in the stories we tell;

and given that stories of any kind can be more or less truthful, more or less kind, more or less generous, more or less creative, more or less freeing of our enormous potential…

… given all of this, don’t we have a profound responsibility to question the stories we were handed? To not just take things ‘as they are’?

And to actively find – and consciously live by – the most truthful, kind, generous, creative, possibility-freeing stories about ourselves, about others, and about life that we can?

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Learning again how to trust ourselves

Rene Descartes’ method for discovering what’s true starts with a bold and radical move – distrust everything until it can be proven. It’s not hard to see how powerful a way this is to cut through superstition and confusion. By starting from first principles, and using step-by-step logic, he gives us a way to prove things for ourselves, doing away with our need to rely on anyone else’s claims.

In order to make the method work, it’s necessary to start with one thing that can be assumed to be true without proof – and for Descartes it was that he was thinking. Hence cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’. The one thing I can be sure of is that I’m thinking, because here I am, thinking it! And in this move, he both makes his method possible and sets up the condition of our society ever since.

Without this we may never have lifted ourselves beyond the confusion of Descartes’ times. But when we take Cartesianism to be the only way to relate to the world (a project at which our education system is very effective) we quickly become estranged from ourselves. Our bodies, emotions, our subjective experience, and the experience of others are all to be doubted, or considered irrelevant. Even the existence of others is something we can no longer take for granted without proof (and conclusively proving this everyday, common-sense aspect of our experience turns out to be extraordinarily difficult in the Cartesian paradigm). Though we often don’t know it, we’re deeply educated in and profoundly conditioned by the Cartesian principle that thinking is paramount and that everything else is to be distrusted.

The consequence? We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.

We don’t know how to trust what’s true in the senses of our bodies (we’ve often barely learned how to pay attention to this at all). We don’t trust the felt-sense of situations, and we don’t know how to tell what action to action take when we feel distorted, disjointed, incongruent, afraid. We don’t trust what we love. And we don’t know how to listen deeply to the longing and song of our hearts.

We’ve become experts at distancing ourselves from ourselves. And because we can’t feel what’s happening to us we launch ourselves into many projects – in our work and in our private lives – that harm us, and harm others, and harm the planet. We justify our actions, if we’re prepared to justify them at all, as ‘reason’ or ‘business’ or ‘productivity’ or ‘best practice’ or ‘getting ahead’.

We need the cold, sharp blade of the Cartesian method as much as we ever did. But if we want to create lives and a world in which we can thrive, a world which brings about wisdom and beauty as well as truth, it’s time to learn how to feel things again. And it’s time to teach ourselves and our children once more about the discernment and understanding of the world that comes not just from the sharpness of our minds, but from the intelligence of our bodies and the sensitivity of our hearts.

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Learn with me – April, May and September

Three opportunities coming up in London in coming months, for those of you nearby or those who can travel here.

On Sunday April 17th, the latest Coaching Round Table run by me alongside the wise and growing faculty at thirdspace, the organisation I founded to bring a deep and integrating kind of learning to organisations, communities and our wider society. In the morning, an introduction to integral coaching, and in the afternoon a programme on mindful self-compassion with our friends Kate Fismer and Justin Haroun from the University of Westminster’s Centre for Resilience.

On May 4th-5th, Coaching to Excellence, our two-day introduction to the principles and practice of integral development coaching – open to everyone who’s interested in finding deeper, more inclusive and holistic approaches to supporting development in ourselves and in others. Led by me with my colleague and friend Janeena Sims.

And September 19th-21st, Integral Development Coaching Principles – a three-day course led by James Flaherty (founder of New Ventures West and author of ‘Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others’) and me, for coaches and consultants who’d like to add a deep, rigorous, compassionate developmental angle to their work.

It’s incredibly exciting to get the opportunity to teach the work I love, so much of which is expressed in what I have been writing here for the past three years.

And I hope some of you will choose to join us – what a joy to get to share all of this with you in person.

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