Poetry of the Storm

storm

Yes, there might well be a storm brewing. An economic storm. A social storm. A storm which will call on us to rethink ourselves, to undo ideas and categories we’ve become attached to. A storm that will at times have us be afraid. That will sometimes throw us apart from one another and at other times bring us in close.

We’re probably already in the storm.

In one way or another we’ve always been in it, even when life seemed calmer, more straightforward. Even when we were turned in the other direction.

It’s easy to understand the upending energy of the storm as an entirely negative or malevolent force. But as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in The Man Watching, the more turbulent and uncertain times in our lives are precisely when our concepts and sense of ourselves are most open to being reconfigured. In the storm, that which we thought had a solid name can become un-named, and from here we can find better names – more accurate, more compassionate, more useful – for what’s around us. And in learning that we are not omnipotent, in some sense by being defeated by the storm, there’s the possibility that we emerge limping but strengthened, more in touch with our essential qualities, capacities and inherent goodness.

Mary Oliver’s poem Hurricane concurs. When we find we can’t control the world any longer (could we ever?) it can feel as if the leaves are being stripped from the trees, as if all we know is bending. The back of the hand to everything. But it’s so often the case that if we turn towards what needs doing, if we turn towards one another, and if we tend to things, then the leaf-stripped trees push out their tiny buds even in the wrong season. They may look ‘like telephone poles’, as Oliver says, but they really don’t care. And after the leaves come blossoms. For some things there are no wrong seasons.

We can get so afraid facing the unknown not because we don’t know what will happen but because we are secretly sure we do know what will happen. The world will be worse. We will be unable to cope. That’s an under-interpretation of current events right when creative over-interpretation is called for. When we’re sure how things will go, and paralysed by our certainty, we need abundance of stories about what the future might hold and who we could be in it.

And Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems are a wonderful place to start.

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Part of the path

There’s no doubt that I wish it hadn’t happened this way.

I wish we hadn’t voted to leave the European Union; that the public debate had not been so filled with fear, and lies, and near-lies, and evasions; that we did not live in a society sliding into such deep and despairing inequality. I wish that there were less mistrust, suspicion, and denigration of the other in others, and of the other in ourselves. I wish we were not stepping out of institutions and structures that keep us in relationship with others, that require mutuality and compromise and, most of all, talking together. I wish we’d found a way of working out what to do that was more generous and expressed bigger commitments than only trying to get what we want.

I wish I felt more confident and less afraid than I do today.

But I’m also discovering that the part of me that is afraid doesn’t only become so about political upheaval and all of its unknown consequences. It’s afraid when projects I initiate don’t go so well, when others get angry or bring conflict my way, when it looks like I’m not getting loved in the way it expects, and when there’s a risk I may get shamed or embarrassed. It’s afraid when I lose my umbrella, when I forget an appointment, when I’m running late, and when I’ve sent an email that might upset someone. It wishes, beyond anything else, to be able to control the world so that nothing bad can ever happen.

When I engage with the world by trying to control it, my fear so easily becomes terror because it’s a patently impossible project. I lose contact with my own resourcefulness. I lose contact with the support and generosity of others. I quickly forget myself and my capacity to contribute. I feel alone and helpless. I spin. I know many people feel like this today however they voted in yesterday’s referendum.

I also know that when I give up trying to control that which can’t be controlled, so much more becomes possible. My fear right-sizes itself. I get to see that while there are things to be afraid of there are also reasons for hope – in our own capacity, in the capacity of others, in the relationships we make – that are quite distinct from how things turn out. I see that there are things to be done. Listening and speaking, holding and thinking and inventing and contributing. And I see the possibility that this situation, however it turns out to be, and however tricky, has the possibility of bringing out from us the generosity and compassion and wisdom that’s always possible for us human beings.

And for all these reasons, while I am afraid I am also hopeful, and seeing what I can do to treat the many obstacles ahead as part of the path.

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Glorious

Our glorious, exhilarating, revolutionary Coaching to Excellence programme – a two-day programme on working compassionately and wisely with ourselves and others to lessen difficulty and to step in more fully to our lives – is running again in July. I’ll be there, teaching, in London July 18-19.

We’d love you to join us.

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Messiness

We like to think we’re over messiness. Done with it.

That the world – our families, the organisations we work in, found, lead – can be ordered by the sharpness of our reason, by the power of our technology, by our sophistication, categorisation, and strength.

That all disorderliness will be excised. That the world will bend to meet our will. That change – in ourselves, in others – will happen on our schedule, to our specifications. Like the world is a machine. Like we are too.

And when it does not happen – when the mess of it all seeps between the lines, bulges out around the edges of our spreadsheets and to-do lists, whips the corners of our carefully planned timetables and calendars, unravels our hard-planned goals – we think someone must be to blame.

We blame others, fuelling our frustration that they don’t get it, won’t get with the programme, won’t make themselves into the image we have for them.

We blame ourselves, turning the blade of self-doubt and of self-criticism. If the world can’t be kept to order then we must not be trying hard enough. So we redouble our efforts – the inner wheel of perfectionism, the outer wheel of agitation. We tighten the armour across our hearts another notch. And we feel our bodies grip as the mess spills out behind us, just when we’re not looking.

And what we’ve missed in all this is that messiness is inevitable. Messiness is the underpinning of the world. Messiness is life’s sacred heart. Messiness is the only way this crazy mix of quarks and protons, atoms and molecules, people and conversations, firing neurons and imagination, poetry, pulsing blood, falling rain, money, children being born, ethernets, tumbling rising markets, music, dust, pencils, love and egg-shells can be.

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Stepping In Podcast

I’m excited to announce that my friends and colleagues at New Ventures West have launched a new podcast today.

Stepping In is an inquiry into life’s biggest challenges with one of the oldest and most distinguished coaching schools in the world. In a spirit of curiosity, compassion, and honesty, we delve into how Integral Development Coaching can address some of the most pressing issues we face as individuals, as communities, and as stewards of our planet. We’ll explore what it takes to develop the sensitivity and capacity required to live and thrive in an increasingly complex world.”

The first episode, ‘The Importance of the Body‘ with Ken Kirby, is available today on the New Ventures West website and on iTunes.

More episodes will follow, and will in all likelihood include my own which addresses how our early origins shape us, and how philosophy can be a vital, living force in helping us to work productively with our own and others’ development.

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On Aliveness

Important questions for any of us who care about our work:

  • Do the daily practices and rituals of my workplace cultivate aliveness and soul in me? In others? Or do they stifle life and squash the soul? (hint: it’s often our attempts to control that squash the very aliveness we need).
  • If they stifle, am I really prepared to live with the consequences of work that’s forgotten how to live? Really?
  • If I’m not willing to live with this, what am I going to do about it? What will I stop? What will I ask others to stop? What practices will I invent and initiate – even as an experiment – that could have things be different?
  • And am I ready to take the risky and vital step of leading… of being someone who treats this as with at least as much dedication as I show to our productivity, or to how much money we make?

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Leaving

I’ve been in Majorca this week with my family. As I walk down the cool stairs of our villa for the last time, that familiar feeling comes. A twist in my gut, a pain and a longing, a knowing that I may well never visit here again. It’s quite possibly another in life’s inevitable series of goodbyes.

It’s tempting to resolve the feeling by booking, right away, to come back. And it’s possible that we’ll choose to do that. But let me not act out of a wish to avoid losses and leavings. Let me at least have this be part of the continued practice of learning to let go – with dignity and humility.

Because, in the end, it’s letting go gracefully when I most want to hold on – to places, experiences, the people I love – that I am most going to need. And it’s letting go that life will unquestioningly, with no malice, before long and repeatedly, call on all of us to do.

Organisational Ritual

Of course, our organisations are filled with rituals, though they can easily serve to split us apart from ourselves rather than connecting us up with one another and with our more courageous, contributory parts.

There’s the ritual of annual performance appraisal, which so often puts us in contact with our inner critic and our fear, inviting us in a defensive relationship with whoever we’re appraising or who is appraising us.

There’s the ritual of the meeting that everyone said ‘yes’ to but nobody wanted to attend, in which we gain access to the part of ourselves that denies what we’re really feeling and puts on a brave face.

There’s the ritual of the project presentation, with its deck of powerpoint slides that can be designed to inspire questions and curiosity but are often designed to dampen down life and keep everybody safe.

And there’s the ritual of goal-setting, which we can use to cover up how anxious we feel about how little control we really have, and which puts us in contact with the parts of us that reassure ourselves and others about what we don’t believe to be true.

I wonder at what we could we create if we were to more often and more purposefully invent enlivening organisational rituals rather than sleepwalking into ones which deaden. And if we designed our rituals to reconnect us daily with a sense of truthfulness, wonder, responsibility and connectedness to one another, and to remind us of the part we could yet play in this vast and unpredictable world.

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On Ritual

“As an archaeologist, my father always used to talk about the origins of language, of communication, being around a fire. When you think of that in relation to a theatre you realise that the audience is exactly the same scale as a sustainable human community from prehistory onwards, whether of 100 people or of 10,000. We become part of a collective imagining, we laugh at the same things, we find we are not alone. It’s why religion and theatre are so closely entwined. Priests know how to put on a good show. They understand that we all need rituals, patterns.”
Simon McBurney, Playwright and Theatre Director

We’ve largely forgotten the power and importance of ritual. Perhaps because we’ve conflated ritual with religion, and taken religion to be superstition, something we ought to be over by now in a society founded on science and reason. Or maybe we have a hard time seeing what ritual can do in a cause-and-effect way. If we can’t make a straight line from the doing of a ritual to a measurable improvement in something, we dismiss it as a distraction from the important work of getting things done.

Maybe. I think these are our public stories, the stories of so many organisations and the story of so much marketing (where buying and consuming products and services becomes the new ritual to replace all others). But in our private spaces and in our quieter moments I think many of us long for the redemptive, grounding, relationship-shifting power of ritual. I agree with Simon McBurney that we need ritual to help us rediscover an orientation to life and to one another that can be more nourishing and more whole than the spun-apart, face-it-alone, get-ahead narrative that undergirds so much of our lives.

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh make the point eloquently when they describe how rituals allow us to rehearse a different relationship with life and with other people. In one example they outline the ritual qualities of hide-and-seek, which switches the usual order around, allowing the hiding adult to play at being vulnerable and small and the seeking child to rehearse being commanding, giant-sized, and powerful. Everyone knows that it is a game – games and play themselves are powerful rituals – and this is the very point. It’s the ‘constructed’ nature of the ritual that gives it its power to upend things and give us a first-hand experience of parts of ourselves that we might not usually encounter so easily. Vulnerability in the commanding adult. Power in the vulnerable child. And a reconfigured relationship between both.

I’ve long related to the rituals of my own Jewish tradition in this way, less as a matter of ‘belief’ but as practices honed and deepened over generations which, if carried out with intent, are very powerful invitations into a new standing with life. I know that when I pause with my family on a Friday night to say shabbat blessings over candle flames and sweet wine, I’m momentarily put back in contact with the part of myself that marvels at the existence of others, at the wonder of light, and at the good fortune of having food to eat and somewhere warm and dry that can shelter us. For a short while we share together in that aspect of us that can be grateful for all this, that knows that many people go short of their basic needs, that understands how small we are in a vast universe that we did not create, and that sees how little direct control we have over any of it coming our way.

Of course, once the ritual is ended, we return to the messiness and complexity of our lives. We find ourselves feeling separate from one another again, perhaps a little afraid at the state of the world rather than grateful, and maybe overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life rather than awash with wonder and awe. To expect anything different would be to misunderstand the nature of ritual. Because rituals are not talismans or magic spells, capable of changing reality in an instant, or shifting our bodies and minds in a simplistic way. When understood this way, they inevitably appear shaky and ultimately a disappointment. Rather they are practices. And if done with the right intention and sufficient attention they teach us, as we enact them repetitively over time, what it is to be in the world and be with one another in a deeper and more attuned way.

Good rituals, so sorely missing in our culture, reintroduce us to that which is out of view, and that which we have left out, and in this way they can be profoundly transformative, deeply healing, and powerfully developmental.

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