Blessings and Curses

At every moment in life, you can choose whether to be a blessing or a curse to others.

How you open the door to her when she comes come, how you reach across for him when you wake, how you speak when you order your coffee, how you move through a crowded train, how you are with a crying child, how you put out the bins.

How you answer the phone, how you begin a meeting with your pressured and anxious team, how you write the next email, how you announce your intentions, how you respond when you’re hurt, how you listen to the request of a lost stranger.

The capacity to bless will have its seeds in your capacity to bless yourself, which always means welcoming yourself and what you’re experiencing rather than denying it, raging against it, or judging yourself for it.

Will you turn towards that of you which loves without dismissing, or denigrating, or criticising it for its impracticality?

Will you turn towards your fear and acknowledge how afraid you are with dignity, rather than pretending it isn’t true?

Many of the curses in the world arise from our denying our own very basic, vulnerable, mysterious, confusing humanity. Much of that comes from being afraid and pretending that we’re not – a curse upon ourselves which curses others as we go. And many blessings come from the discovery that this one, brief, precious life simply won’t go exactly how we want it.

Of course, it’s rarely as simple as just ‘deciding’ to bless as we go. Too much of us has been shaped by years of habit for that. But the good news is that the capacity to bless – which is given to all of us – grows with practice. And that you can start today.

Photo Credit: photographer padawan *(xava du) via Compfight cc

When hiding anxiety only fuels it

A story about the trouble caused when we can’t talk about shame and anxiety in organisational life:

A global retailer struggling to meet the expectations of the markets, brings in a new measurement system for its stores, with more than sixty targets to meet.

A daily ratings table of stores is published internally, naming those meeting the targets and those falling short. It’s described as a logical move to increase performance in difficult times. And at the same time, it allows the board to deny the anxiety they’re feeling: “we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve responded in a clear and rational manner to market conditions”.

Meanwhile, the ratings system has very effectively pushed the anxiety onto the store managers, where even respected, skilful, long-serving managers are reduced to a daily jostle for the top few spots. Unable or unwilling to challenge the system itself (after all, it’s apparently a rational response to the current difficulty), they start to put pressure on their department heads for the daily delivery of the targets. And, unable to start a conversation about how all of this feels to everybody, the department heads – fearful of being shamed – look for whatever they can do to hit their targets.

This is where the real trouble begins.

Because in the face of unnamable anxiety and the unbearable threat of shame, even respected, diligent department heads start to look for ways to game the system.

Numbers are fiddled. Statistics reinterpreted. Orders are left piling up in the warehouse because nobody can keep up with the new standards for shelf layout. Items in the store are relabelled so that products look like they’re available when the mystery shopper team comes around. Staff members are taken off other important duties to work on the tills when queue-length is measured, but the queues are allowed to reach enormous and frustrating lengths at other times.

The target numbers are, frequently, met – aside from for those few unfortunate store managers who aren’t wily enough to play the system – but standards drop relentlessly across the group and customers start to take their business elsewhere.

Public shame, skilfully dealt with. Skilful gaming of the system, denied. The organisation becomes a system for avoiding anxiety rather than serving customers. Nobody talking about it – “it’ll open a can of worms”.

You can see this same drama played out in hospitals, whole health systems, schools, retailers, service industries, transport, government, with huge and debilitating effect.

And in most places nobody’s talking about what’s really going on, because we’ve made mood undiscussable.

If we’re going to deal with all of this – and we must – we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that organisations are always made up of people, and people are always caught up in moods that shape what can be seen and what’s possible. Our insistence on understanding people as detached, strictly rational parts of a well-oiled machine is not doing anything to address these difficulties.

And without the courage to do this, we’re going to condemn ourselves to a future of looking good while we undo our best and most important efforts.

Photo Credit: Bernardo Ramonfaur via Compfight cc

Losing it

This morning, after swimming, I overhear a conversation between two men who are sitting by the water. One has lost his sunglasses on an earlier swim and is quite distressed.

‘They were expensive. Armani.’ he says. ‘I paid a lot of money for them. And they are the third pair I’ve lost this summer’.

He is too agitated to be present with his friend who, after some minutes of listening, says ‘You seem really shaken up by this, too shaken up even to really be interested that I’m here with you. You’re saying the same thing, over and over again. But,’ and here he pauses, ‘tell me something. Did you enjoy having them? Did they bring you pleasure? Because although you’ve now lost them, for a while you did have them too’.

For a while, you did have them.

And at that moment it occurs to me that this is true for everything, and for all of us. We wail and fret about what we lose, and rightly, because our loss is so often a source of suffering for us. But we will all lose our sunglasses, eventually, just as we will lose all our possessions, our friendships, our bodies, and everything we know.

And because losing is terrible and difficult to bear, we can spend our lives fretting about what’s yet to lose, and clinging madly to it, or becoming consumed with longing or remorse for what we’ve lost.

And all the while forgetting that, for a time, we did have all of this, and missing the wonder that there is anything at all – sunglasses, friendships, work, life – worth having enough that its loss matters to us in the first place.

Photo Credit: RachelH_ via Compfight cc

Dissolving

This summer I have taken up wild swimming, in the beautiful and tranquil swimming ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath.

It has been quite a practice in releasing myself into the unknown. The water is cold and murky and deep. It’s impossible to see more than a few centimetres below the surface, and so entering is an exercise in letting go, in welcoming what’s here, in giving up control.

Once in the cool water, eye-line level with that of the ducks and birds that frequent the pond, I notice how quickly any sense of inner pressure subsides. There is really nothing to do here, nowhere to get to, and I start to see how much my own inner life is still dominated by assessments that are often invisible to me.

Am I doing well enough? Being responsible enough? Getting enough done? Taking enough care? Being smart enough? Kind enough? Successful enough? 

I notice how often I feel sad, or deflated or frustrated because of an inner judgement that I’m falling short. And how often I rely on an equal and opposite assessment – that I did something well – in order to feel joy, or satisfaction or that I have anything to offer.

But here, in the coolness and stillness of the water, I am struck by my inner quietness and expansiveness. Held in a body of water that is vast and calm I am vast and calm too, my sense of separateness from the physical world dissolving as standards and self-assessment dissolve.

For a while I am the water itself, the trees, the birds and the sky. For a while I just am, and my beauty and value is the simple fact of being alive. And for a while I am reminded that I am not my assessments, even if I often live, quite unaware of it, as if they are what is most true.