Habit and flexibility

Once we see that it’s our everyday practices, and the stories that accompany them, that shape who we are (through the gradual bodily formation of habit and familiarity) many new paths can open up.

You can start to see how the inner and outer sigh you make when you see the sister who frustrates you reinforces your very sense that no progress can be made in your relationship. You’re an audience to your own sigh – the world shows up in a particular way in the light of it – and so is she. Each sigh sets out a narrow path for a particular kind of repetitive interaction that is reassuringly familiar even as it’s reassuringly frustrating. And once you see this, you can perhaps start to practice something else – a smile, or an embrace, or a simple and true expression of how you’re actually feeling which invites an equally truthful response from her.

Perhaps you can see that your repeated practice of criticising people (yourself, those close to you) invites a world in which nobody is ever enough, and there’s always something to fix. And that along with this practice comes a kind of vigilance in you and others, a way of constantly scanning the world to see what’s missing or what might be criticised, which has you on edge, and afraid, and pessimistic about what’s possible. And once you see this, perhaps you can start to practice something other than a judgement. A welcome, for example, or a breath that relaxes the tightness in your chest and the clenching of your jaw. Or a spoken appreciation of what’s good, and of value, and to be cherished here.

When we get too convinced by the familiarity produced by our existing practices, when we misunderstand the momentum of our habits as proof that we are such and such a way, we close off profound possibilities for ourselves and others – possibilities that come from our enormous capacity for flexibility, for attunement to the world, for generosity and compassion, and for creative and nuanced response.

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The Path

I’m reading, and loving, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s ‘The Path‘, a book about how ancient Chinese philosophy can help us understand ourselves and live our lives more fully. It’s concise, clear, and beautifully written. And, at the heart of it, is an important and wonderful idea from Confucius (echoed in the contemporary world by Martin Heidegger among others): that we largely become who we are through our everyday actions.

This apparently simple claim has some extraordinary consequences.

The first is that there is not so much of a fixed way that each of us is. When I say ‘you know me, I hate being around company, I don’t know what to do in a crowd’ and then repeatedly take myself off to be on my own, I’m actively building myself into someone who is more skilful being with myself than being with others. I’m also becoming someone who knows myself in a particularly narrow way. I get to be the kind of person I am through the accretion of thousands upon thousands of actions, both internal and external, and the stories I tell about those actions, bringing some parts of me into view and pushing other parts towards the margins.

For Confucius this is an important ethical issue. My story about myself – that I am a particular way – is much too small, leaving out as it does all those aspects of me (less known, and perhaps less tolerated by me) that can be quite skilful at social relating and which, with purposeful cultivation, could help me live a life which has more connection with people and a greater possibility of moment-to-moment care for others around me.

The second consequence is that there is a profound and quite pragmatic developmental path to follow, one which can open up wide possibility, and that is the path of practice. Repeated, well-chosen practice – in my example above, the practice of being with and being attuned to others – not only builds skilfulness but allows me to rehearse a different kind of relationship to myself and to life than the one I’m used to. By choosing practice carefully I can gradually find out what it is like to be a social person as well as a solitary person, and cultivate those parts of me which (simply by being human) are quite able to be present with and take care of others.

The point made so beautifully by ‘The Path’ is that in a culture dominated by the detached world-view of Cartesianism, which privileges thinking and theorising about things over the day-to-day doing of things, we’ve largely forgotten the value of simple, everyday practices and rituals as a support for living well. And we’ve forgotten how they can widen our horizons, build our capacity to respond more fully to life’s inevitable unpredictability, and help us take care more skilfully of life’s needs.

 

The restorative possibilities of practice

It’s been a full few weeks, more full than I expected, and I have found it difficult to write. Any practice can be like this, crowded out by what seem to be the demands of the moment. And I notice, each time that I let a practice that’s important to me slip, how easy it is to take up the story that I’m someone who used to write consistently. And sometimes, that’s the simple truth.

But, this week, I’m in a position to set aside much of what has been pressing on me these past months, and already I feel more spaciousness in my heart, a renewed sense of aliveness in my body, and my mind is quieter too. I’m less convinced by stories about who I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing. These are stories which, I see from this vantage point, have me brace myself, grit my teeth and push harder, often long before I’ve caught on to what’s happening. I see how easy it is to be carried along by it all, as if hurled by a swelling tide until I no longer remember that I’m swept up in anything and life becomes an invisible whirling torrent of things to do and places to be. It should be of little surprise to me (though it often is) that in the midst of all that my body has tightened up, my heart more rigid, my mind filled with barely visible oughts and shoulds, judgements and obligations and disappointments.

In the space that this week is offering me, I’m reminded not only how easy it is to let go of regular practice, but also precisely how much such practice can support me. Writing, drawing, meditation, walking, playing music, kick-boxing and prayer are all ways I get to rehearse, repeatedly, a relationship with the world that’s full of life, and full of expression, full of connection to others, and full of welcome for all of it – even the greatest difficulties. And this, I’m starting to see more clearly, is the very point of practice – that over time, done again and again, it allows us to experience life as if parts of ourselves that are more often marginalised, abandoned or simply forgotten have come home again.

So I’m grateful for this week, in which I can practice remembering that there are many ways to be in the world, in which I have a chance to recover something of what’s been out of view, and in which I have the opportunity to dedicate myself anew to practices – including writing here – that are often so life giving not only to me but also to those whose lives my presence affects.

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A conversation

What is the truth that must be spoken that you’ve holding back? From whom? For how long?

Can you tell who your withholding serves? Are you sure that you’re protecting anyone apart from yourself? And if you’re only protecting yourself, what from?

What healing would speaking bring? What new possibility?

This then is courage: the conversation you offer as a gift to another even when you’re afraid of how it might turn out for you.

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Purposeful / Purposive

Purposeful – the projects we’re committed to that we know we’re committed to. That which we feel we have chosen.

Purposive – the projects we’re committed to that we don’t know we’ve chosen, and which show up in our actions more than they show up in our minds.

Our being human is an inevitable mix of purposeful and purposive, and much of our difficulty comes from the conflicts between the two. When I’ve purposefully chosen to be a kind and loving parent, for example, at the same time as having a purposive commitment to being right, or never being criticised. Or when I’ve purposefully chosen to lead others in a way that’s wise and inclusive, alongside a purposive commitment to looking good, or being seen as perfect, or being in control.

The trouble with our purposive commitments is their invisibility to us, which so often means we take them not to exist. But it’s these very commitments that others often see most clearly.

And it’s in uncovering what’s purposive for us, through careful observation and through the loving support of others, that we have a chance of freeing ourselves up to do what we intend. And a chance of undoing the silent battle with ourselves that causes us and others so much suffering, and which has us hold back so much of what we’re here to do.

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Wading together

The kind of tiredness that tells us we don’t want to be here isn’t just a private, personal matter.

How many meetings have you been in when it seems like everyone is tired in this way, but nobody is saying? And how many times have you pushed on, resigned to the pointlessness of the conversation, determined to keep going in the hope that it will help it be over more quickly?

Over a decade ago, before I knew how to work with any of this productively, I was in just such a meeting. On a hot July morning, around a kitchen table, we made a decision to commit the company I co-founded to a multi-year project that would require all of our energy and most of our remaining resources. What I remember most was how the conversation felt – like walking through hot, sticky treacle, or wading through mud. Speaking was difficult, listening was harder, and mustering a ‘yes’ for what we were deciding to do, harder still. And what made it most difficult was the sense that others in the room were experiencing the same heavy tiredness but keeping it quiet. It doesn’t surprise me that the project didn’t work out well.

What I came to see sometime afterwards was how powerful it could have been for any of us to say what we were experiencing, to ask ‘how does it feel, right now, to be having this conversation?’, and then to be curious about the response. We might quickly have learned about the reservations many of us had, about how we were trying to hide them in order to avoid conflict, and about how much life was missing from this particular project that might have been expressed – productively, willingly – in another.

Tiredness like this in a meeting can very often show us that we’re avoiding something, or trying to make a commitment that’s not sincere. And if we’d known this – and acted upon it rather than pretending all was ok – we might have given ourselves a chance to dedicate our efforts over the following two years towards a project that really mattered to us, one that would have brought our our fullest, most whole-hearted commitment and with it, inevitably, our most generous, creative response.

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When tiredness speaks

Let yourself listen to what your body has to say.

For it surely has something to say. Honour its wisdom, even if you can’t yet tell what it is.

Start with tiredness. The tiredness that suddenly sweeps over you in a meeting, in a conversation, on walking into a room, when an argument begins, when you’re not getting your way.

What kind of tiredness is this? Surely not the late-at-night tiredness, the not-enough-sleep tiredness.

But maybe the tiredness of bending yourself out of shape, the tiredness of fear, the tiredness of goals that aren’t sincere and commitments that aren’t genuine, the tiredness of saying yes when you mean no, and no when you mean yes.

And maybe the tiredness that your body brings you when it needs to point out that, despite what you’re telling yourself, here is not where you genuinely want to be.

With thanks to Jonny

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What’s needed

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
David W Orr

This morning I simply want to share this with you, a quote from David Orr, who thinks and writes deeply about design as the primary activity of human beings, and about how the way in which we think about design profoundly affects our engagement with the wider world of which we’re a part, how we educate ourselves and our children, and how we live.

I’m so glad to have come across his work for the first time this week, particularly as what he says here expresses so clearly what I’ve become committed to in the coaching work that I do, what I’m teaching when I teach others to be coaches, and what the organisation development projects I get involved in are really for.

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Grasping

The way we go about our work, the way we manage others, the way we lead and the way we follow can so easily be an attempt to get seen in a particular light.

We often can’t tell how hard we’re trying to have it be this way – how our late nights are an effort to be seen as diligent, how our saying ‘yes’ to everything is a project to be seen as caring, how our perfectionism is an attempt to be seen as perfect, how our desperation for promotion is an attempt to be seen as valuable. And we rarely see how our moods and bodies are part of our efforting – the crashing disappointment when someone dislikes the presentation we’ve slaved over for a week, the deflation when another person doesn’t give us just the right kind of praise (just the right length, just the right temperature), the momentary flash of delight at a bonus.

When we work from this grabbing, needy place – and in particular when we lead or manage others from here – we’re not responding to the world so much as trying to fill a hole in ourselves that we don’t know how to fill. And there are many problems with this. It’s an endless project, doomed to remain unfinished, and to draw from us ever more energy and attention. No amount of praise of the right kind will do it, and no amount of being seen as being perfect will resolve the feeling that something is missing – because there is always the next moment, and the next, and the next when it can all fall apart. And it turns us away from others and from what’s called for as it calls us towards our own neediness.

The route through is not to find a way to fill the emptiness or to give up our longing for love or perfection, but to learn that the hole never really needed filling – to open our hand and find it already full. It is truly a lifetime’s work to discover that everything we need is right here – that we are already perfect, and already love, simply by being alive. And the discovery that nothing needs to be done, paradoxically, frees us up to stop grasping and instead do exactly what is most called for.

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A life without troubles

It’s tempting to try and live a life without troubles. After all, it’s what we’ve been promised by endless advertising, by fairytales and by the myth of our own omnipotence.

In difficulty? There’s a product that promises to heal your ills, grant you happiness, soothe your pain. Sometimes we think that we’d find it, if only we were more together, more intelligent, richer, had a different job or a different partner, lived in a different country, were born to different parents.

But life isn’t shaped that way. It’s complex, mysterious, chaotic and surprising, whatever your circumstances. And whether you deny it or not you have to live as a biological creature in a physical world in which death cohabits with life, illness with vitality, wounds with healing, loss with love.

So the question is not how to live without trouble, because the only way to do that is to deny life itself (and that itself brings no end of difficulty). Instead, you might ask again and again how to live fully in the world. You might look for ways to live with wisdom, and not make things more complicated than they are already.

It might take giving up fighting the way things are, and instead turning at last towards life that you actually have.

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A conversation for clarification

Between the moment one person asks and the other responds comes a necessary but often neglected step – a conversation between both of you to determine what’s actually being asked for.

I know it sounds obvious when said this way but how often do you take the time to talk and listen before you say ‘yes’ (which most of us are conditioned to do) or ‘no’?

Without this conversation for clarification, it’s so easy to launch into a project that’s:

  • not wanted (those three pressured and frantic days writing a financial report when all that was needed was a single paragraph summary)
  • not yours to do (the hours you spent trying to understand the figures when there’s someone else who could do it in a half hour)
  • not something you were ever really prepared to do (and now you have to find a way to wriggle out of it, or delay, or pretend you’re busy, or make excuses)

Hierarchical relationships at work make this more difficult, of course. Perhaps you avoid the conversation because you don’t want to look like you don’t know, or like you’re unsure, or like you’re anything less than fully committed. And then there’s navigating feelings of uncertainty, or fear, or shame.

But how can a yes be a yes, or a no be a no, unless you understand what it is you’re saying yes or no to? And how much precious effort and time gets wasted on the ‘yes’ that was yes to the wrong thing or never really meant at all?

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Decades

I start my 47th year of life today. Around 160 years ago (less than four of my current life spans laid end-to-end) a full third of my contemporaries would already have reached the end of their lives, and less than half of us could have expected to live beyond our late 50s (see source [1] below).

Today, at least in the UK, two-thirds of us will live into our late seventies and many into our eighties. What a blessing, if we’ll choose to appreciate it while we can. And what possibilities, if we’ll find a way to use our chances of vastly extended life in service of those around us and those yet to come.

Readers of my work here will know of my interest in ongoing adult development, which takes place through marked increases in our capacity to make sense of the world, to inhabit longer time horizons (knowing ourselves as inheritors of a deep past and contributors towards a long future), to be less ‘had’ by impulsivity and narcissism, to understand the world of others, to exercise more autonomy, and to take action in systems and contexts which are bigger than our own immediate concerns [2].

Such development is very natural, if the opportunities come our way and if we’re courageous enough and have enough support to take them. But it is quite different from the rote-learning, keeping up appearances, and getting ahead that so many of us are taught at school and in our workplaces. It typically requires facing into difficulty rather than turning away, welcoming back the parts of ourselves that we’ve disowned, failing and falling and getting back up again. It’s not served by looking good, or knowing the facts, or keeping it all together, or learning just what’s comfortable and familiar, or comparing ourselves with others.

And it’s probably the most important work we can do with the gift of these extra decades, if we’re lucky enough to have them. Because the world faces challenges of a complexity our ordinary way of speaking, thinking, acting and relating to one another are often ill-equipped to face. And perhaps we have been given these decades – through the long slow evolution of human beings as a species – precisely so that we can work on the problems our shorter-lived ancestors never got the chance to tackle.

References:

[1] Modal Age at Death: Mortality Trends in England and Wales 1841-2010, monograph available for download here
[2] In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan and Changing on the Job, Jennifer Garvey Berger

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Cracks

As we come to know quite how brief and how fragile our lives are, the less sense it makes to hold anything back.

Will we miss this precious chance to bring ourselves; our lives; the fullness of our pounding hearts? Will we withhold from life what is ours to bring? Will we mute our aliveness by repetition, by staying safe, by what’s expected, by going to sleep?

We can be sure of this: each of us is a unique intersection, a horizon between what is and what can be that will never be repeated.

But if only it were as easy as saying ‘don’t hold back’. If only there was not so much we must undo so that life can shine through. The habits of our bodies: halting; rigid; curling in; puffing up; tensing; defending us from whatever we’ve decided we must not feel. The emotions that catch us in their grip: anger; shame; fear. And our habits of mind: all the ways we pity ourselves, and all the ways we’re sure that life’s unfairness is only happening ‘to me’.

But undo we must, and undo we can, if we’ll dedicate ourselves, if we’ll find support, if we’ll put in the effort, if we’ll let ourselves feel our heartbreak, if we’ll welcome what we’ve pushed away, if we’ll be patient, if we’ll allow ourselves to let go.

And as we undo, as what we held so tightly slowly breaks apart and as life starts to flow through us, we find that it’s true what they say: it really is the cracks that let the light in.

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