Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so we often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Words

To be a human being is to live in a house of words.

Words that can move others into action, or sow seeds of doubt and confusion.
Words that can coordinate our efforts, or scatter us apart.
Words that can reveal hidden depths in the world, or cover them up.
Words that can build relationships, or undo them.
Words that can heal, or hurt.
Words that can bring our intentions into being, or our hide them away.
Words that are congruent with what matters, or words that twist or distort it.
Words that bring out the best in people, or words that stifle it.
Words that illuminate, or words that cast into shadow.
Words that bring life, or words that deaden.

In all of this, it helps us to remember that the human world is founded on words.

That words matter.

And that this brings huge responsibility and huge opportunity, in every moment, to address our human difficulties and possibilities through how we listen and how we talk.

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Why force isn’t power

Power and force are not the same, though we often confuse them.

Power: the enduring capacity to have your intentions realised in the world

Force: the ability to push, cajole, or threaten others to do as you wish

Power pays attention to nuance, relationships and timing. It draws upon the energy and commitment of others rather than stifling them. It enrols. It understands that much is not possible, and that much of what is possible is not possible now. It takes into account and relies upon the web of relationships of which it is part. It is patient and inclusive. It takes a long, wide view of the world.

Force is none of these. It demands. It is not willing to wait. It will use any means at its disposal to get a result – whether that is violence, the authority of hierarchy or position, or deception. It is of the moment alone. It has a narrow frame of reference. And it does what it does with little consideration of the cost.

As a result power, as I’m defining it here, feeds itself and the possibility of making an ever greater contribution. And force eats itself over time, undermining the very ground upon which it stands. Power is alive. Force is brittle and fragile.

Much of the time when we say that people are powerful, we really mean that they are adept at using force, because true power is rare, as is the mastery and sophistication required to exercise it.

And much of the time we keep on using force precisely because we have not yet understood the practical wisdom, subtlety and capacity to relate that power would really require of us.

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The ask and the answer

We can learn a lot by making distinctions between things. When we’re able to name differences – for example, between enlivening and deadening, generous and fickle, ethical and manipulative, truthful and untruthful – we make it possible to observe what would otherwise have been invisible to us, and take action on the basis of our observations.

Being able to distinguish between necessary and sufficient, for example, opens many avenues for moving beyond technical solutions to our problems and into what’s meaningful, principled and life-giving. The distinction between feedback and requests allows us to decide when we’re trying to help another person learn, and when we’re secretly trying to get something we want from them. And the distinction between when it’s time to exert ourselves and when it’s time to rest makes it possible for us to pay attention to the ongoing energy and flourishing of our lives in a way that’s not possible if every moment is just another moment taken, on not taken, for work.

But while distinctions are necessary, we can run into big trouble when we let them harden into dualisms – an either/or, is-or-is-not understanding of the world. Because dualisms introduce separation between things that are rarely actually separate. When I say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ I create a dualism that leaves no space for my wrongness, and for your rightness. When we harden into ‘I’m scared of speaking in public, but I love being by myself’ we leave no room for the parts of us that long to be heard by others. And whenever we make sweeping and certain judgements about others based on their gender, sexuality, politics, business practices, skin colour, preferences and commitments the dualism we create blunts our capacity to see anything else about them, and very little about our own complexities and contradictions.

Very often, if we’re not careful, our dualisms imprison us and our capacity to respond to the world. And, when we start to look at the deeper dualisms that seem self-evident, it’s not so clear that they are as solid as they seem, either.

Is it really the case that what I call ‘me’ is over here and that ‘you’ are fully, and only, over there? If we allow the dualism to soften we can ask deeper questions: What about the ways we’re always in the lives of the people we love, even when we’re not with them physically? Even when we’re no longer alive. And what about the trail of words, objects, influences, impacts we leave behind and around us? Can we really say, absolutely, that they’re not ‘me’? What compassion might arise when we start to see that ‘they’ are ‘me’ and that ‘I’ am ‘them’ in very many ways? And when we see that what we are sure is only in others – all that we despise, fear, reject – is also in ourselves?

Can we say for sure that there’s a thing called ‘work’ that’s separate from ‘life’ such that the two need to be balanced against one another? Is life really the absence of death? Is death, really, the absence of life? And can we say, with any absolute certainty, that we’re separate from what’s around us?

When our distinctions harden into dualisms we easily close ourselves off to learning, to curiosity, and to a direct encounter with the world. It’s a difficulty made harder for us because so much of our contemporary culture and education thrives on dualisms, on certainty, on knowing.

And for this reason making distinctions but letting our dualisms soften enough that we can call them into question is necessary work for all of us. It’s the work of not knowing. Or perhaps, better said, the work of letting our questions be more important than our answers.

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Loving the mess

The dishes need washing again.
The clothes, folding.
There’s dust on the shelves, again.
And the garden is getting overgrown.

It’s easy to complain about all this, to resent the repetitive cleaning-up that we have to do – of our houses, our workplaces, our relationships.

But isn’t our resentment really just an attempt to shield ourselves from the truth that the world is always falling apart, as are we?

This change is the unchangeable nature of things. The second law of thermodynamics guarantees it. And without it there could be no life, because a world without disintegration is a world without movement, a world without living process, a world without birth. We owe our lives to the mess.

So can we clean up what needs cleaning up in order to live and thrive, without hating the world for making us do it?

Can we see the seeds of our very existence in the dust? Can we know it as an essential property of the world that produced us?

And can we find it within ourselves to turn, hands-on, towards the sacred messiness of our lives and find some measure of joy and gratitude there instead of fighting, so hard, to be free of it?

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Our mysterious inner worlds

It’s probable that our conscious minds, the part we each so readily take to be ‘me’, is but a tiny sliver of light floating on a darker, more inscrutable background.

Deep in this mysterious substrate lie a host of automatic processes – monitoring, regulating, pulsing, analysing, stimulating, suppressing. We don’t have to do anything to make our hearts beat faster when we’re excited or scared. And breathing, while amenable to control by the conscious mind, just gets on with itself when we’re not looking.

Alongside the complex but more automatic processes are parts of us – equally hidden from our direct experience – with immense intelligence, capable of making sense, following through on goals and plans, directing us, holding us back, moving us forward. As Timothy D Wilson says in his book on this subject, we are in many ways strangers to ourselves, easily mistaking the reasons we do what we do and needing to pay careful attention – watching and observing ourselves as we would another person – if we are to have a chance of understanding our motives, preferences, habits and the mysterious movements of our minds and bodies.

All of this has particularly been on my mind in recent weeks during which the original intent of this project – a daily practice of writing and publishing on meaningful topics – has been so difficult to bring about. I’ve never consciously, purposefully given up on the idea but have found my mind and body in something of a revolt against it, holding me back, turning me away. Rather than pushing through (which is sometimes the most helpful thing to do with practices that are important in our lives) I have been treating this inner part as respectfully as I can, as if it has wisdom only dimly available to my conscious mind. In the space that’s emerged I have taken up other practices, of which daily swimming seems the most important and which has been an enormous gift which I will write about another time.

Today, for the first time this summer, I returned to open water swimming at the ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath. As I slipped into the water, something shifted profoundly within me. A returning sense of contact with the world, a realisation again of how indivisibly I am of the world rather than separate from it. There among the ducks and the dragonflies, with my hands invisible before me in the murky darkness, I found out again that I am not alone. And in the midst of this array of life, an enormous gratitude, a surging wish to be of service, and joy at the prospect of writing again.

And wonder at this mysterious something we human beings are, that can be awakened in surprising ways, or put to sleep, by the simple day-to-day choices and practices by which we live our lives.

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