Enabling constraints

Often, our attachment to personal freedom becomes its own kind of slavery.

When we demand freedom with no bounds, our endless right to choose, it’s incredibly difficult to

enter into a relationship
make a promise we’ll have to keep
make a decision (because any decision closes off options)
publish a blog post, letter, report, book

Our demand that we keep everything open closes off the very possibility of taking many kinds of action. In this way freedom becomes its own kind of slavery, a trap disguised as liberation.

As a result it’s often only through willingly submitting ourselves to particular kinds of limitation that we find any kind of freedom at all. In order to

deeply commit to someone
take a stand on something that’s important
follow a path that takes dedication and focus

we have to discover that the truest freedom sometimes comes in the form of choosing, deliberately, to be bound by enabling constraints.

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What to Do When You’re Stuck

This week’s ‘Turning Towards Life’ conversation is now available here, on YouTube and on the turningtowards.life website. In this episode Lizzie and I talk together about stuckness – what it is, how our efforts to deny it or overcome it can end up being unhelpful, and the deep quality of welcome that’s required for stuckness to flower into whatever it is that it is an opening for. The source for our conversation, written by Lizzie, is below.

See you next week

Lizzie & Justin

We’re live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time. You can join our facebook group to watch live, view archives, and join in the growing community and conversation that’s happening around this project.

Stuck

What to do when you’re feeling completely stuck.

In all of our lives there are times when we feel stuck, paralysed or unable to shift a pattern or move forward. You know when you’re stuck because:

Your thinking is circular and you convince yourself of how bad things are or how there’s no way out.
You feel frustrated and even bored with the same old issue, person, circumstance or pattern.
You feel tension in your body, a compression of some kind that is nagging and underlying.
You’re unable to do anything to change this, it really does feel like you’re stuck, physically immobilised around whatever it is you’re facing.

I’ve discovered that being stuck is actually a huge invitation. You know there’s something more, something in the future that you just can’t get to – that there has to be something better than this stuck feeling of nothing moving, of not going anywhere.

And that’s because you are being invited deeper, and not forward. Forward is not what’s needed in this moment, but deepening, relaxing and seeing what the stuckness wants from you can be a graceful and conscious way through to whatever the gifts are that await you.

Being stuck, when we attend to it fully and stop trying to change it or avoid it, is a gift, a calling from inside of you to stop, go inwards, become intimate with this feeling inside and consciously relax into it to see what it wants.
You can even ask it some questions – Dear Stuck Feeling:

What is it that you want to say to me ?
Which part of my body can I relax a little more so I can get closer to you to really see what you are trying to communicate to me ?
How are you trying to serve me now ?
What am I denying or avoiding right now that would have you feel heard and seen ?

See where you get to. See what this stuck feeling wants to say. Treat it like a young child who is tugging on your skirt / trousers for some attention and a cuddle. Look into that child’s eyes and really, truly asks what would help, what the child needs, how you can attend to them.

 

Undoing the spiral

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

And this is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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The life beyond our narrow concerns

We’re taught to ask ourselves the question ‘What do I want to do with my life?’.

But we’re much less familiar with asking ‘What does my life want to do with me?’.

Asking this question requires us to see that there is a something called ‘my life’ that is beyond the usual narrow, more self-interested concerns that we hold.

Beyond ego, beyond all the conditioning that comes from our culture, and beyond our familiar preferences lies something that is always calling to us, if we can quieten ourselves and be still for long enough.

Responding to our lives in this way no longer means that things will definitely ‘work out’ for us in the way we’ve been taught. But it does offer the possibility of making a bigger contribution to life. One that goes far beyond what’s possible when we only look for ways to be liked, to be safe, and to know how things are going to work out.

Photography by Lior Solomons-Wise

The peril of having one story

The problem with being sure of your story – the one you have that explains to you who you are, who other people are, and what’s happening – is what is inevitably left out.

Your confusion, longing, terrified waking in the quiet hours of the night, your disorientation –

A sign that it’s all over, and that you’re lost?

An inevitable part of the human condition (experienced by many more of us than will ever let on)?

The birth-pangs of something new? Some new way of living, thinking and relating that is emerging into life?

Each story about what you’re experiencing leads to a different place, to different possibilities.

Each story calls on a different way of relating to yourself and others.

Each story is sustained by different practices (what you’re doing repeatedly in your actions, your thinking that keeps it going).

And none of them is ever the whole story.

Part of the practice of a life fully lived – and leadership well done – is the practice of finding new ways of telling what we’re sure we’ve already understood.

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That I would be good

Sometimes we need a simple reminder that behind all our judgements, our self-distrust, our striving to be different from who we are, our perfectionism, our living our lives as a giant and unending self-improvement project, is a basic goodness that we all share. A basic goodness that we quickly forget.

This is a topic Alanis Morissette clearly knows about from the inside. Perhaps, today, this song might be just what you were longing to remember.

When we don’t listen to the response

As well as missing out ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at great cost to ourselves and others, we can fall into familiar ways of interpreting what others say when we ask for support.

Some of us habitually interpret a yes from someone else as if it were no – leading to endless checking and rechecking, micro-managing and over-supervising, or just doing it ourselves. It erodes trust and soon leads to the people who might have once said a genuine yes holding back.

Others habitually take no to mean yes – forcing or cajoling those around us into begrudgingly or resentfully doing what we’ve asked. This also undoes trust, undermining commitment and the genuine willingness to be of assistance.

We make the same mistake with counter-offers, assuming when the other person offers to do something a little different from what we’ve asked that they mean either no, or that their objections are petty and to be ignored.

This is important because when requests, and their responses, are handled with genuineness and attention it’s possible to build deep bonds of understanding, fluid, generous support – vital in any relationship, family, or team. And when we wilfully misunderstand what is being said we quickly undo all of this.

The antidote to our habitual misunderstanding? Learning to listen to what the other person is actually saying rather than to the familiarity of our own inner story.

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We don’t do introspection

“We don’t do introspection”, they said to me. “None of this fluffy, self-indulgent, navel-gazing here”, they continued. “We do action.”

Of course. If you’re going to lead as they were, in a global organisation, then right action is critical. But what they meant by “we don’t do introspection” was “we aren’t prepared to look at ourselves”.

If they had an inkling, and most of us do not, of how much their actions were being shaped, out of their view, by

their personal preferences,
by their fears,
by years of habit,
by their avoidance of reminders of childhood experiences (mostly shame),
by the expectations their parents handed them,
by their inner critic,
by their longing to be appreciated, liked, respected, feared, in control

then they would perhaps have taken introspection or some rigorous self-observation more seriously. They would have been brave enough not just to look at their actions, but to look upstream at what was giving rise to them.

But they didn’t.

They had asked for help because they’d been amazingly effective in taking action – action that had landed them and their organisation in deep trouble.

And now they were trying to get out, with the same excuses, and by doing more of what had got them into difficulty in the first place.

Crazy, and sadly all too common.

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Anxiety and fear aren’t the same

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same.

It’s important to see this, because they lead to different places. Anxiety – felt, allowed and responded to – can be an invitation into a new way of relating to the world. But fear so often leads us into actions that cut us off from ourselves, and from others, and from what’s called for.

It’s David Steindl-Rast who makes this distinction in his wonderful interview with Krista Tippett at On Being.

Anxiety, he says, is the feeling of being pressed-in by the world. It comes from the linguistic root anguere meaning ‘choke’ or ‘squeeze’. The first experience of it in our lives, the primal experience of anxiety, is that of being born. We all enter the world through a very uncomfortable occurence in which we are squeezed and pushed and all there is to do is go along with it. In a very real sense going with the experience is what makes it possible to be born into life in the first place.

And though we’re born through an experience of anxiety, Steindl-Rast tells us, at that moment we do it fearlessly. Because fear is exactly what comes when we resist feeling anxiety, when we try to deny it or push it away. Anxiety can bring us into birth, while fear – our denial, our resistance to what we’re experiencing – is a different move altogether: life-destroying, a totally different direction for our minds and bodies to take.

“And that is why”, he says, “anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.”

And what, he says, makes the biggest difference between anxiety and fear is learning to trust – trusting life, trusting the capacity of our own hearts, trusting others.

We live in times that give many of us good cause for anxiety. But instead of collapsing and narrowing ourselves with fear we can choose to feel, and choose to practice trust. One step, and another step. And perhaps this way we can allow to be born in us a capacity to respond to our difficulties without turning away, and a greater ability to live without choking off our own lives or the lives of others.

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How experiments open a new world

If it’s our everyday habits of thinking, action and relationship that keep the world as it is (and they do), then it’s experimentation that has the greatest chance of opening a new world with greater space for us to move in. And when the old world is no longer working out, or bringing suffering, we could all do with a way to open to a new kind of freedom.

This is the topic that Lizzie and I took up in yesterday’s Turning Towards Life conversation, which you can watch here.

Turning Towards Life is itself a big experiment for us, and is opening up new ways of talking, making sense, and building community. This week we grew to over 500 members. We’d be thrilled for you to join us, which you can do over at turningtowards.life

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Your glorious ordinariness

There’s a certain harshness in wanting change, transformation, improvement all the time.

Does it arise from feeling ashamed at how things are? At ourselves?

A response to the gnawing of the inner critic – its demand that we do better every day?

Today, can you allow yourself to know your glorious ordinariness? And the wonder of a messy, incomplete, everyday life? To feel the simple weight of the dishes as you wash them? To marvel that you can breathe, move, experience? To gaze into the eyes of your glorious, ordinary loved ones?

There’s much to be said for turning our attention away, some of the time, from what we imagine needs to happen and into the exquisite texture of what is here already.

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Tight spirals

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

We lead this way. We relate this way.

This is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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Cell walls

Human beings are not infinitely extensible.

We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.

First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.

Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.

‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.

We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.

A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.

And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.

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Being our home

A meditation for those days when we feel small, abandoned, or on the outside of our lives.

Bless these feet that carry me by day and by night.
Bless these hands that touch, sense, and bring the world towards me.
Bless these lungs, transforming air into life on every breath,
and bless this heart, for the continued heritage of all hearts
since the first broke into the stillness.

Bless this mouth, that can say what only I can say.
Bless this body for love, joy, grief, rage, despair and hope.
Bless this ‘I’ for incompleteness.
Bless this mind that discerns, wonders, confuses
and occasionally makes sense of the chaos.

Bless the uncountable mistakes, accidents, chances and failures
that keep life going and delivered me to this moment.

I do not know, really, what is mine to do.
But I do know that I am here,
along with so many others.

So bless the here-ness of me, and may it be my offering,
My thanks, my home.

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A new home for ‘Turning Towards Life’

The ‘Turning Towards Life’ project that Lizzie Winn and I began last year has now reached 15 weeks and almost 500 members. It has been an enormous joy to engage in such life-giving conversation with Lizzie each week and to hear from the many of you who watch and comment that it is been both meaningful and inspiring.

I’m thrilled to announce that as well as the members-only facebook group (where you can watch live, see earlier conversations, and join the conversation) the project now has its own public home at turningtowards.life

There you can find all the archived conversations, share them with others, and find ways to join in the community that’s growing around this work.

I will still post a link to each week’s conversation here. We’ll be glad if you choose to join us, either by watching the archive or being with us live on Sunday mornings at 9am UK.

Follow these links to see the talks from the last three weeks:

Episode 13 – How to Know When You’re Wounded

Episode 14 – Advice from the Dying to the Living

Episode 15 – Turning Our Lives Into a Celebration

And more at turningtowards.life

On Angst

Perhaps uniquely among living creatures, we have the capacity to sense beyond the particular details of the situation in which we’re living. We can see its limits, and perhaps more importantly we can see our limits. We can understand that there’s a ceiling to our power and capacity, that our time is finite, that the future is unknowable, that our understanding is small, and that much of what we depend upon is way more fragile than we’ll ever admit.

There’s a special word for the feeling this evokes – angst.

We mostly experience angst as a feeling of absence, because in coming up against the limits of our world, and the limits of our understanding, we quickly conclude that something is missing and that we must be responsible for it. We feel that we ought to change things, make them better, fix them up. We feel our inadequacy in doing so.

And so we build cultures, organisations and lives in such a way as to shore us up against experiencing angst. We imagine that if we don’t have to feel this way – perhaps if we don’t feel too much at all – then we can assure ourselves that everything will be just fine.

Of course, in the end this doesn’t work out, because behind all our busy activity, our habitual routines, and our constant affirmations that we’re doing ok, angst is still making itself felt. In a way our efforts make it more apparent, because living in such a way as to avoid angst means making our world small and tightly sealed. The feeling that we’re deceiving ourselves and imprisoning ourselves and that there is some bigger way of living becomes even more present, even as we try to hide it.

Running away from angst, it turns out, amplifies it and robs it of its biggest possibilities.

The way through this?

Firstly, giving up the idealised notion of an angst-free future. Angst is, it seems, built in to the human condition and comes as a consequence of our capacity to see beyond ourselves. And so there can be no world in which angst is fully absent.

Secondly seeing angst not as a terrible something to be avoided, but as an invitation, a reminder of the truth of our situation, which is that the world is much bigger, more mysterious, and more possibility-filled than we can usually imagine. And that even though there’s really nothing to stand on, there’s much that we can trust.

Angst is then not a signal to hide away, but a reminder of the uniqueness of our human situation. And a call to step more fully into life.

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The right time to hope

There are a million ways to be. But we hold on tightly to the way of being that is most familiar to us – the one each of us thinks is who we are.

And so when we’re in trouble – or stressed, or feeling held back by the world or by ourselves, when we’re longing, wishing, wanting, despairing – we tend to do more of what we already know to do. What we always do.

Even when it hurts us.

Even when by doing this, we keep the world the same as it has been for so long.

We choose familiarity over our own growth, because familiarity seems to save us from risk. At least we know the world when it’s this size, this shape.

At least we won’t be surprised.

And, because of this, just when our habit is to rush to do something, it’s often just the right time to wait. When we’re certain we have to be certain, the right time to be curious. When we’re most familiar with holding back, it can be the time to act. When we’re sure we have to be strong, the right time to be vulnerable. When we’re most ready to judge can be time to suspend judgement. When we’re most harsh on ourselves it’s the time, instead, to be exquisitely kind.

And, when we’re most despairing, it’s often just the right time to hope.

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Things to think

Some things to think that might help us do what we’re really here to do:

We’re here and so soon we’re gone.

In comparison to geological and even to historical time our individual lives are the briefest flash of energy and vitality, and then we’re done. For most of us it’s true also that our lives are the briefest flash in our own personal experience – done way before we’re ready.

We’re living longer than anyone previously in history.

Which, if we’re willing to seize the chance and to take our own development seriously, might just give us the time to develop the intelligence, sensitivity, and breadth of vision to solve the problems we’ve made for ourselves.

We’re going to have to get way more intentional about our development than we are now if we want this to happen.

The world was here long before each of us arrived, and will be here long after we’ve left it.

Seeing ourselves as part of something much bigger in this way can help us give up our self-aggrandisement and also our self-obsession, both of which keep our concerns and our lives in very narrow bounds.

And maybe we can find out how much more there is than living a life in which we get comfortable or which is oriented first around our own likes and dislikes. Instead, seeing ourselves as the inheritors and custodians of a world can support us in having our lives serve everyone who’ll come after us.

There’s nobody coming to save us.

Many of us secretly wish for the moment we’ll get rescued from all our difficulty and all our worries – by a parent, a lottery win, a leader, a messiah. Our longing has us place wishful thinking above meaningful action. Let’s give this up and imagine that we are the ones sent to do what saving can be done.

Each of us is an expression of life itself.

In the our disorientation and our confusion, it can help to see how each of us, all of us, are an expression of life doing what life does – experimenting, learning, and responding.

Seeing ourselves this way opens a huge opportunity to take responsibility. And perhaps to trust ourselves enough that we can participate in our lives rather than fight against them.

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A luminous garment

We’ve allowed ourselves to become obsessed by youth.

The way this has shaped our public lives is quite easy to see, from the relentless focus on youthful beauty in our media to the cruelty of causal ageism in the workplace.

What’s harder to see is how it is affecting the narratives we have about ourselves.

We see all the ways that growing old is a falling apart, an endless series of losses, a disintegration. And so we try to stave it off, denying what is happening to us. As we grow older and as the time remaining to us diminishes, we become diminished in our own eyes. In this way we rob ourselves and others of our dignity.

But here is an account of ageing from the Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, which points to a different possibility:

All the days of a person’s life are laid out above,
one by one they come soaring into this world…
If a person leaving the world merits,
he comes into those days of his life,
they become a luminous garment.

Such a different way of looking, this – our inevitable, inescapable ageing as a gathering and weaving of the days of our lives into a single luminous garment. We wear the sum of all we have been and done in our bodies, on our faces, in our entire way of being in the world.

This gives us growing older as an integration, a chance to unify ourselves, turning towards the shadow parts that we pushed away when we were younger.

And it invites us to give up our dependence upon looking good or being liked, so that we can have our ageing usher us into the fullness of our humanity.

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