About Justin Wise

Writer, co-founder of thirdspace coaching, organisation consultant, parent, educator, computer scientist, philosopher, musician, coach.

The Journey of the Wild Flower

In this episode of our ‘Turning Towards Life’ Project Lizzie and I talk about how attempts to turn away from the dark usually have the effect of turning us away from our own aliveness. We consider how we might start to see the unknowability of life as part of life’s essential condition, and how telling the truth about our own experience is a path towards embracing what we can’t change and flourishing in the midst of it.

Along the way we start to see how in the end, we can never really turn away from life – because we are, all of us, expressions of life – and how it’s our misunderstandings around this that cause us so much difficulty.

The journey of the wildflower

This morning I was stopped in my tracks
By the simple, exquisite beauty
Of a violet-petalled flower who had
Burst her way into bloom
Out of a crack in a concrete wall.

I wondered why I was so moved by her –
Why I felt such deep and instant friendship,
And I realised that she was beaming me
With the truth that
All growth starts in darkness.
That all beginnings are seemingly hopeless –
That it is impossible to imagine
The violet of a future petal
When all you know is the darkness
And hardness of the unknown.

And that this is how it is for us
When we are asked repeatedly by life
To turn towards the pain,
The sacredness,
The beauty,
The grief,
The constant endings
As well as the constant beginnings,
Without knowing how or why
Or even if we can bear any of it at all.

But here she was,
Blooming at me,
Telling me with every cell
To keep turning towards
The fire of the Sun.
To keep risking it,
To keep my petals open,
To know beyond the hardness of the concrete
Who I really am.

Sometimes it happens like this, you see;
A wildflower invites me all the way home
And I follow her.

Hollie Holden

We’re live each 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.

Convergent and Divergent

Convergent problems are the kind for which diligent, patient and repeated efforts produce answers we can trust. Many problems in mathematics, for example are convergent, as are the vast majority of engineering problems. Such problems are convergent because a suitable methodology and sufficient effort allow us to converge on a single, practical, true answer to the question at hand.

Convergent problems lend themselves to solution by technique and process. And once we know what to do with a convergent problem, we can repeat the technique and expect to find a reliable answer, every time.

Divergent problems are those for which, with diligent, patient and repeated efforts, we could expect to find many different answers. For example, in sentencing someone who has committed a crime, is justice or mercy more appropriate? Or, in the midst of many competing financial pressures, should we centralise our operation, seizing control of all the details, or should we decentralise, allowing the people with the most local expertise the opportunity to bring their own insights to bear? Is discipline or love more important in learning to do something well? Should we dedicate ourselves to conserving tradition, or supporting change? And in organising a society, is freedom to do what we each want most important, or responsibility to the wellbeing of others?

Divergent problems are divergent precisely because it is possible to hold so many different perspectives. The more we inquire – if we are prepared to do so with sincerity and rigour – the more possible responses we discover. And such problems are inherently the problems of living systems in general, and human circumstances in particular – circumstances in which our consciousness, values, commitments, cares and many interpretations enter the fray.

Divergent problems do not lend themselves to easy answers, to platitudes, or technique. Instead, divergent problems require us to make a transcendent move, in which we step out of the easy polarities of right or wrong, and good or bad. Such a move, which is clearly a developmental move in the sense that I have described previously, calls to the fore our capacity to live in the middle of polarities and complexity, uncertainty and fluidity. In the case of justice and mercy, this move might well be called wisdom. 

We run into enormous difficulty whenever we treat divergent problems as if they were convergent – as if there were some reliable process, however complex and sophisticated, by which to arrive at a correct answer. When we do this, we treat human situations as if they were mathematical or machine-like. And we strip ourselves of the possibility of cultivating discernment and genuine wisdom, reducing ourselves to rule-followers and automatons.

It can never be justice alone – for strict justice is harsh, and unforgiving, and has no concern for the particulars of a human life. And it can never be mercy alone – for mercy’s kindness without justice can be cruel and damaging to many in its wish to take care of the few. And it is never sufficient to say ‘well, it must be mercy and justice’ as if there were some simple, easy to understand combination or position between the two.

And all of this is why paying attention to development matters so much, because cultivating the capacity to respond with wisdom to the many divergent problems of our times must, surely, be an ethical responsibility for all of us.

Changing the path

We human beings are both path-makers and path-followers. Both are important, but it’s our innate capacity to follow paths that makes possible so much of what we are able to do, and gives it its character.

Notice this in your own home. How the door handle draws you to open the door, how the kitchen table is an invitation to sit, how the half-full fridge calls you to open its doors and find something to eat. Notice how a library is a place you find yourself hushed and reverential, how you push and shove to take up your place on a crowded train even though you would do this nowhere else, how you rise in unison to shout at a football game, how the words on the page guide you through the speech you are giving even when you’re not concentrating closely on them, how you quicken your step in a darkened alley, how you find yourself having driven for hours on a busy motorway without remembering what actions and choice any of the minutes entailed.

Our capacity to follow the paths laid out for us is no deficiency. That the paths support us in the background, and that we do not have to think about them, is what frees us for so much of what is creative and inventive in human life – including our capacity to design entirely new paths for ourselves and others.

To be human, then, is always in a large part to find ourselves shaped by what we find ourselves in the midst of.

It is all of this that exposes the limits of our individualistic understanding of people and their actions – an understanding we use to make sense of much of what happens in organisational life. For when we are sure that it is the individual who is the source of all actions and behaviour, we are blind to the paths that they find themselves in the midst of.

And as long as we concentrate only on getting individual people to change, or firing or changing our leaders until we get the ‘perfect’ right one, we miss the opportunity to work together to change or lay out the new paths which could help everyone.

Indeed, working to change the paths that lend themselves to whatever difficulty we wish to address may be the most important work we can do. And this always includes our developing – together – the skills and qualities that support us in being purposeful path-makers in the first place.

 

Three myths to give up on if we want to grow up

At the times when the world has shrunk to its smallest horizons, when I have been most despairing, desperate, or alone, or when I have found myself working and pushing much too hard, it usually turns out that I have been living in thrall to one or more protective myths about life that I have carried from childhood.

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

In this account I’m not really a person, while other people are. Others’ lives are complete in ways that mine is not. Other people know where they’re going, while I am lost. Other people made the right choices, while I stumbled. Other people aren’t as confused as I am. Other people don’t suffer as I do.

Underpinning this myth is a great deal of negative self-judgement, which fuels a sense of deflation, self-diminishment or self-pity. But it can equally be worn as a mask of grandiosity, in which I puff myself up with certainty and arrogance. Sometimes I bounce between the two poles, from deflation to grandiosity and back again.

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

Somehow I’m separate enough from the real world that death is not an issue for me in the way it is for others. It’s frightening but far-off, a rumour, something that happens to other people. Consequently, I need pay it little real attention. I can ignore what my body tells me, and what my heart tells me. I’m protected from seeing that my time is finite and that I have to decide in which relationship to life I wish to stand.

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

If I’m good enough, popular enough, loved enough, successful enough, recognised enough, powerful enough, rich enough, famous enough, caring enough… then I’ll be saved. Someone – one of the grown-ups in the world – will see me and, recognising my goodness, rescue me from my troubles

And then I won’t have to face them any more.

This myth keeps me working really hard. Sometimes it has me try to save others in the very same way that I am desperate to be saved.

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

Growing up calls on us to see how these myths of childhood keep us as children, and to find that the that the protection they offer is little protection at all:

Myth 1 is the myth of specialness. It boosts our self esteem by giving us a reason for all the difficulty we’re experiencing. And protects us from feeling the suffering of others by keeping us out of reciprocal relationship with them.

Myth 2 is the myth of no consequence. It saves us from the burden of having to choose, or face the outcomes of our choices.

Myth 3 is the myth of dependency. By rendering us helpless it keeps us from taking on the full responsibility (and possibility) of our own adulthood.

I think we cling onto these myths because, as well as the explanations they give us, we’re afraid that if we face the true situation of our lives (we’re not so special, we’ll die, there’s nobody to save us) then our troubles will be magnified. But, as with any turning away from the truth, they come at an enormous cost. In particular they keep both our dependency and our hopelessness going.

And when we can learn to see through them, we can also start to learn how to grow up. We can find that the world has much less to stand on than we thought, and that we nevertheless have enormous ability to stand. We can discover deep sources of hope, courage and compassion which which we had been out of touch. And as we allow ourselves to step out of hiding and into relationship, we can discover that our capacity to help others – and to be helped by them in return – is far greater than we could possibly have imagined.

Hey! I’m Talking to You!

In this episode, Lizzie and I talk about the inner ‘predator’ or ‘inner critic’ force that keeps us small and living – essentially – a life that’s not fully our own. We consider the kind of power that’s required from each of us to break free of this constraint so we can claim our own lives, and how this inner move is profoundly connected to our capacity to exercise power in healthy and life-giving ways in the world around us.

Along the way we consider how it’s only really possible to do this work in relationship with others (hence the importance of community, and the contribution of our profession of coaching), and we imagine a world in which the marketing messages that bombard us each day remind us of our dignity, goodness and nobility instead of trying to fuel the critic by showing us how we might ‘improve’ ourselves all the time.

Our source is Jose Enciso’s poem ‘I’m Talking to You!’, reproduced here with Jose’s permission.

You can find out more about Jose and his work on his website http://www.setthetruthfree.com

​I’m talking to you!

Long into the night
and still long to the dawn

Past the parade of losses
and betrayals of self
wrought of service to the wrong god.

Awoken from a fitful slumber
bathed in regret and remorse.
A protest profound arises
deep within my grief.
A holy howl
screaming at the thief.

Hey!  I’m talking to you!
Yes, you, in the corner,
slinking and smirking.

You, who kept me down all these years.

You, who gave me crumbs
and told me it was a life.

This is not my life!

This is insecurity,
apology,
I’m sorry if I offended thee.

This is grovel and hovel.
Bow down
that will keep you safe and sound.

You broke into my house
and rearranged all the furniture.
You stole my childhood
and made me a caricature.

Hey!  I’m talking to you!

I want my life back.
Not this check and double check,
doubt and re-doubt.

Me, the nice guy with no backbone.
Me, the nice guy who doesn’t even know if he wants Mexican or Chinese.
(mmm, I don’t know, what do you want?)
Me, the noble, beautiful, kind man
who only sees ugliness and embarrassment in your mirror.

I have given away too much.
I have lain down deep in despair.
I have – almost – given up hope.

But, you have not won yet.

Right now, I’m calling you out.

I am not ready to die
in a house decorated by someone else.

 -Jose Enciso

Lizzie Winn and I are live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time for the thirdspace coaching ‘Turning Towards Life‘ project. 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.

Practice, not events

Between June 2011 and the following July I had three close encounters with death. Three life punctuating events brought about by sudden and unexpected changes within my body, each shocking and frightening, each a reminder of how fragile and unpredictable life can be.

As I recovered from each episode I expected – hoped – that I would in some way be profoundly different. I wanted so much to find myself more grateful, more accepting, more joyful of life’s many small blessings, less judgmental, less afraid, less irritated by small things, more kind, and more dedicated to being present and welcoming and loving with the people who matter to me.

But it didn’t work out so simply. I emerged from each experience blinking and shaken and grateful, and soon settled back into many of my familiar patterns.

Over time I’ve found myself thinking about this differently. What happens if I allow these experiences to inform the way I live rather than expecting them to change me? How can I, having encountered the possibility of death so closely, use my experience to commit fully and wisely and generously to life?

In taking on this question I’m finding out that the change I seek is a question of practice rather than of events. And that I am an ongoing process much more than I am a thing with enduring properties, an object that is a particular way. I live myself into being, day after day. I am always living myself into being by the very ways in which I live.

How I move, how much I take care of myself, how I express curiosity and interest in the world, how I speak and listen, how I sleep, how I sing and laugh, how I play and create, how I bind myself up in community, how I practice compassion and stillness, how I love, how I work – all these shape the life I am living and who I become, far more than the punctuating events themselves.

And this tells me so much about the mistaken ways in which I look for change in myself and in my relationships with others. When I mistake life for a thing I imagine an event of sufficient power will do it. An affecting conversation, a kiss, a show of force, a book with a revelatory idea in it, an illness, a windfall, a conference, an argument, the right gift, or a brush with death will fix things, in the same way that I might fix a dented metal bowl by attempting to knock it into shape. But when I know myself as a living, unfolding process, events take up their proper place as teachers rather than fixers, educating me about the ongoing practices by which I can take care of this one precious life.

The more I imagine events alone will do it, the more I set myself up for the despair and frustration that comes from relying on something that cannot help.

And the more I commit to the ongoing, long-term, diligent and patient practice of living in a way that brings life, the more genuine reason I have to hope.

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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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Transforming Our Wounds

In our ‘Turning Towards Life‘ conversation of Sunday, 6th May 2018, Lizzie and I talked about what to do with the pain we experience in life. What does it take, we wondered, for us to work with all the ways we got wounded (inevitably) in a way that can be a gift to others and not a source of further wounding? And what does it take to accept how little control we have over life (and how much we want!) in a way that’s not a kind of giving up?

We also explore what it is to be intimate with our own experience, and to take responsibility in a way that acknowledges that while we have very little power over many things, we still have enormous power to shape how we respond.

The source is for our conversation is from the Jesuit writer and teacher Fr. Richard Rohr.

Transforming Our Pain

Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing: we must go down before we even know what up is. In terms of the ego, most religions teach in some way that all must “die before they die.” Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to both destabilize and reveal our arrogance, our separateness, and our lack of compassion. I define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” Suffering is the most effective way whereby humans learn to trust, allow, and give up control to Another Source. I wish there were a different answer, but Jesus reveals on the cross both the path and the price of full transformation into the divine.

When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering, human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity. I am afraid there are bitter and blaming people everywhere, both inside and outside of the church. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, and the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know how to deal with all this negativity. This is what we need to be “saved” from.

If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. The natural movement of the small self or ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again. Neuroscience now shows us that we attach to negativity “like Velcro” unless we intentionally develop another neural path like forgiveness or letting go”.

Transforming Our Pain – by Richard Rohr (taken from the Centre for Action and Contemplation daily emails).

https://cac.org/transforming-our-pain-2016-02-26/

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.

Decades

I started my 49th year of life this week. 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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Concentric Circles

Whereas development in children is easy to see, because of the obvious physiological changes that accompany it, our development as adults – if it happens – is more subtle, but no less profound.

One way of describing successive developmental stages is as a series of concentric circles. With each developmental shift the world we inhabit (the world of possibility, action ideas, responses) grows bigger, including rather than replacing the world in which we lived before. Another way of saying this is that we find ourselves inhabiting a world with bigger horizons than we had known. And along with that, usually, comes new language to describe our experience, new skills, and new ways of relating to others and everything.

In Robert Kegan’s language (and he is one of the most comprehensive, thoughtful, and grounded writers I know of on this topic) our development is always in some way a shift in subject-object relationships. Or, put more plainly, we come to a different understanding of what is me (subject) and what is in relationship to me (object). Often, we find that what we’d taken to be obviously ‘me’ is only a small part of what being ‘me’ really is – a shift in which we discover that ‘me’ actually includes more than we could have imagined before.

An example. In an earlier stage of our development we relate to our emotions as if they are a feature of the world, enveloping us like the air we breathe (and similarly invisible). We’re frustrated, and so it’s the world that is frustrating. We’re angry with another person, and conclude that they must be making us angry. We’re in love, joyful, and so the world is joyful. We feel despair and take it that the world is a despairing place.

In this way of being an adult the world, and we, are indistinguishable from the mood we are feeling. In this stage we’re subject to our emotions. It is almost as if, instead of having emotions we are being had by them. We can’t see that they might have something to do with us.

When the subject-object shift in our development comes we start to see that emotions are something we have. We’re able to say that we’re feeling anger about this or that, and feeling joy about something else or at some other moment. We see that although our despair or love seems all consuming it’s not the world that is despairing or lovely but a feature of our relating to it that has it be that way for us. We can understand too, maybe for the first time, that others really do often feel quite different from us – that we can feel anger about something while somebody else, quite legitimately and truthfully, feels joy. It’s not until our relationship to our emotions move from having us (being subject) to being something that we have (an object) that all this becomes apparent to us.

Concentric circles, widening, as we inhabit the world in a new way.

When emotions are object rather than subject many other possibilities open to us. We can question our feelings for their accuracy and appropriateness, rather than be swept up in them. We can open to the different experience of others, instead of insisting that they feel the same. We can start to wonder about our own relationship to our emotions in a way that simply was not possible when they were part of the invisible background that had us:

What is this emotion about?
What draws me more towards some emotions than others?
How is it that I’m participating in keeping sadness going, or joy, or longing, or despair, or frustration, or resentment?
What can I learn about others’ worlds in all of this?

Indeed, it’s only when such a developmental shift happens that we really start to understand that other people inhabit worlds that are related to, but not quite the same as, our own. The world, which we were previously subject to – the world that had us – seems much more like something we have or are at least participating in. And it’s from here that a deeper understanding of, and compassion for, others can grow.

Cultivating such shifts matters because, as perhaps you can see, a world in which we fully experience emotions as something we have rather than something we are had by is a world in which we have much more freedom to act. And a world in which we are less imprisoned by what seems – so obviously – beyond us.

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Because Even the Word ‘Obstacle’ is an Obstacle

In this episode of ‘Turning Towards Life’ Lizzie and I talk about how our stories about what’s happening can get in the way of our bringing ourselves fully into life. We consider how the very way in which we make sense of ourselves as ‘having to get somewhere’ with obstacles in our path that need to be overcome can throw us into an interpretation of life that’s riddled with fear, resentment, and comparison. We wonder together what it would be to ‘swim past obstacles without grudges or memory’ and to understand life as an unfolding story that changes itself in each moment and with each action – and what new possibilities for freedom and contribution that can bring.

Our source is the poem ‘Because Even the World Obstacle is and Obstacle’ by Alison Luterman, reproduced with permission from the author. You can find out more about Alison at www.alisonluterman.net

“Because Even the Word Obstacle is an Obstacle” by Alison Luterman

Try to love everything that gets in your way:
The Chinese women in flowered bathing caps
murmuring together in Mandarin doing leg exercises in your lane
while you execute thirty-six furious laps,
one for every item on your to-do list.
The heavy-bellied man who goes thrashing through the water
like a horse with a harpoon stuck in its side and
whose breathless tsunamis rock you from your course.
Teachers all. Learn to be small
and swim past obstacles like a minnow,
without grudges or memory. Dart
toward your goal, sperm to egg. Thinking, Obstacle,
is another obstacle. Try to love the teenage girl
lounging against the ladder, showing off her new tattoo:
Cette vie est la mienne, This life is mine,
in thick blue-black letters on her ivory instep.
Be glad she’ll have that to look at the rest of her life, and
keep going. Swim by an uncle
in the lane next to yours who is teaching his nephew
how to hold his breath underwater,
even though kids aren’t supposed
to be in the pool at this hour. Someday,
years from now, this boy
who is kicking and flailing in the exact place
you want to touch and turn
may be a young man at a wedding on a boat,
raising his champagne glass in a toast
when a huge wave hits, washing everyone overboard.
He’ll come up coughing and spitting like he is now,
but he’ll come up like a cork,
alive. So your moment
of impatience must bow in service to the larger story,
because if something is in your way, it is
going your way, the way
of all beings: toward darkness, toward light.

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Soul Food

In this episode Lizzie and I read and talk about ‘Soul Food’, a chapter of the ‘The Way and the Power of the Way‘ by Ursula Le Guin.

Together we explore the ways in which certainty can make us rigid and closed to the world and to one another, how we try (unsuccessfully) to make the world and others into our own image (a huge part of the societal struggles we’re in at this time in history), and how the simple act of learning to load the dishwasher together can be a path towards the kind of humility and openness that’s life giving and makes for profound and responsive relationship. Along the way we come to a new understanding of what the name of our coaching company ‘thirdspace‘ might mean, and how coaching can be a way of helping ourselves and others open ever more fully to life.

Here’s the source for our conversation:

Soul Food

Everybody on earth knowing
that beauty is beautiful
makes ugliness.

Everybody knowing
that goodness is good
makes wickedness.

For being and non being
arise together;
hard and easy
complete each other;
long and short shape each other;
high and low
depend on each other;
note and voice
make the music together;
before and after
follow each other.

That’s why the wise soul
does without doing,
teaches without talking.

The things of this world
exist, they are;
you can’t refuse them.

To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim;
to do the work and let it go;
for just letting it go
is what makes it stay.

Ursula LeGuin – from ‘Tao Te Ching: The Way and The Power of The Way

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.

Part of ourselves

How easily, how readily, we see in others – we project onto others – what we don’t want to see about our own lives. And how easily our projections turn others into an enemy to be corrected, scorned, hated or feared.

How easily we end up enslaving ourselves with all this. We lock ourselves into battles in the outer world, when what we want to correct, what we hold in contempt, what we need most to be reconciled with is actually part of ourselves.

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Declaring Meaning

When we find out how much of the world is made up – by us – it’s tempting to pull everything apart. We pull apart institutions – because we see how groundless their authority is. We pull apart politics – because as we see more into the ordinary lives of our politicians we discover that they are ordinary and flawed like us, and we no longer have reason to simplistically trust either their intentions or their abilities. We pull apart relationships – because we don’t feel any reason to commit, beyond our moment-to-moment likes and dislikes. And we pull apart beliefs and practices that can bind us together.

This step – using reason to see through what we’d taken to be unquestionably true is in so many ways a necessary developmental step for each of us and for our society. Indeed, it’s the step that allowed us to discover science and its methods of rigorous, grounded inquiry. And it made it possible to undo the divine right of kings to rule over us, and to bring about democracy.

But it’s also so easily the route to nihilism: the move to render everything meaningless, everything pointless, everything disposable as we discover that the structures and stories and roles we used to trust were made up by other people. And, as the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche warned us, this ends up with us tearing meaning apart too, as we find out that what meaning we encountered in the world was only there because other people declared it anyway.

And so the next step important after undoing it all is to find out that it’s also within our power to put things back together, to declare meaning for ourselves. To find out that there are many kinds of truth, including those that take into account goodness and beauty as well as just reason. That out of the fragments of what we have taken apart, we can still choose practices, people, relationships, stories, commitments and vows to live by that invest life with purposefulness, care, and dignity.  And that this is possible, and necessary, in every sphere of life – in work, home, community and politics – specifically because we’ve found out that without it there is so little for us to stand on.

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Better off knowing this

Behind all our attempts to manipulate and control the world so it’s just as we’d like it (and behind the pain, frustration, sorrow and disappointment that our inevitable failure brings), we’re just trying to find a way to feel safe and to feel at home.

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

Then we’d set aside our mission to control what can’t be controlled. And we’d work on how to feel safe and at home in the world as it is – in this ever-changing, surprising, vast and mysterious life in which we find ourselves.

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The Paradox of Change

On Sunday 15th March 2018 Lizzie and I talked about The Paradox of Change, inspired by a passage from Lawrence Kushner’s book ‘God Was in this Place and I,i Did Not Know‘. It’s a tricky and important subject we’re taking on here – how it is that our very efforts to change so easily end up being what imprisons us; how it’s the very effort to be a particular way that constricts and narrows the wider flow of creative life that we all, in the end, are; and how a kind of surrender is often called for if we’re to step into life fully, a letting life through rather than a trying to get life into a particular shape.

Here’s the source for our conversation:

The paradox of change

Not until we recognise our bondage can we begin to move toward freedom.

It is a paradox. Change begins not by trying to change. And what you imagine you must do in order to change yourself is often the very force that keeps you precisely the way you are. How else can you explain the years and decades of your own foiled plans for growth and broken resolutions. Consumed by an apparent passion to be “other” than who you are, you try to be who you are not, but in so doing succeed only in being a person who is trying to be other than who you are. Thus the goal […] is self-discovery—the discovery not of another self but of one’s true self. Beneath all the layers of wanting to be different, self-dissatisfaction, pretence, charade, and denial is a self. This self is a living dynamic force within everyone. And if you could remain still long enough here, now, in this very place, you would discover who you are. And by discovering who you are, you would at last be free to discover who you yet also might be.

You can be who you are, or you can pretend to be who you are not. If you choose the latter (as most of us have done since adolescence), an infinite variety of self-deceptions lie before you. You can pretend to be wise when you are ignorant, weak when you are strong, courageous when you are timid, confident when you are unsure. There is no end to the list. But remember this: none of these pretensions, no matter how noble, appropriate, or convincing, will fashion genuine change. They will instead require increasingly greater amounts of energy and enmesh you in increasingly complicated nets of deception. Or you can cease pretending to be someone you are not and discover at this moment who you are. Who am I writing these words? Who are you reading them?

Lawrence Kushner, from God Was in this Place and I,i Did Not Know

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.

Identity and Integrity

On Sunday, 8th April 2018, Lizzie and I talked on ‘Turning Towards Life‘ about identity and integrity, inspired by a passage in Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teacha wonderful book for anyone – teacher or not – who wants to bring themselves to their work and life with integrity and depth.

Parker Palmer begins his book with the claim that ‘good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher’ – and we agree. It’s an orientation that underpins how we approach the teaching of coaching in our Professional Coaching Course, and the practice of coaching itself. It’s also true of being a parent, a creator of any sort, a participant in community, and a leader. It also relates wholly to what it’s like to be on the journey of a conscious person who pays attention to life, and who holds relationships with others at the heart of their enquiry. And this turns out to belong centrally in the lives of good teachers and educators of all kinds.

We’re live each 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.

Here’s our source for this conversation:

Identity and Integrity
by Parker Palmer, from ‘The Courage to Teach

By identity I mean an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute my life converge in the mystery of self: my genetic make-up, the nature of the man and woman who gave me life, the culture in which I was raised, people who have sustained me and people who have done me harm, the good and ill I have done to others and myself, the experience of love and suffering – and much , much more. In the midst of that complex field, identity is a moving intersection of the inner and outer forces that make me who I am, convening in the irreducible mystery of being human.

By integrity I mean whatever wholeness I am able to find within that nexus as its vectors form and re-form the pattern of my life. Integrity requires that I discern what is integral to my selfhood, what fits and what does not – and that I choose life giving ways of relating to the forces that converge within me: do I welcome them or fear them, embrace them or reject them, move with them or against them ? By choosing integrity, I become more whole, but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means becoming more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am.

Identity and integrity are not the granite from which fictional heroes are hewn. They are subtle dimensions of the complex, demanding and life long process of self-discovery. Identity lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death.

Taking responsibility for our stories

Given that we are the only creatures (that we know of) that can tell stories about ourselves;

and given that we live totally, inescapably in the stories we tell;

and given that stories of any kind can be more or less truthful, more or less kind, more or less generous, more or less creative, more or less freeing of our enormous potential…

… given all of this, don’t we have a profound responsibility to question the stories we were handed? To not just take things ‘as they are’?

And to actively find – and consciously live by – the most truthful, kind, generous, creative, possibility-freeing stories about ourselves, about others, and about life that we can?

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Yes to what?

Many of us will say yes to anything.

If you observe closely for a while, you’ll discover that this is effectively a yes to nothing. Wrung out and over-extended, you find yourself in a half-hearted, resentful relationship with others and eventually with life itself. And although it might look to you like you’re only trying to help, it turns out that you’re serving your own sense of being needed more than really helping anyone.

The antidote to all of this is neither giving up nor retreating from the world. It’s finding a genuine, wholehearted yes which allows you to discriminate; a yes that goes beyond looking good, getting ahead, or feeling better about yourself; a yes which allows you to genuinely serve; a yes that at last allows some things to be more important than others.

Commit to a yes that comes from your deepest principles, your integrity, and your heartfelt longing to contribute to something bigger than yourself, and you’ll find that a new form of clarity emerges. Now it’s possible to respond with discernment, to say yes over and over again in a way that serves everything and everybody. To care for yourself and for others. And to say no, to what was never yours to do in the first place.

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This is your assignment. Focus.

On Sunday, 1st April 2018, Lizzie and Justin talked about making art, and about responding to the darkness and messiness of the world (and ourselves) with hope and transparency. Along the way we talk about fear, the way we keep ourselves stuck by trying to have it all together, and the importance of communities in which every part of us can feel welcomed. The entire episode is a call to the kind of hope expressed by Vaclav Havel – a hope that’s not dependent upon things getting better, but which comes from knowing that, even if our efforts fail, we have the capacities and qualities we need to improve things.

The book Lizzie talks about in this episode is Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.

The source for our conversation is from writer Courtney Martin and artist Wendy McNaughton. It’s reproduced in full above in a wonderful image that can be ordered as a poster – a reminder to us all of the necessary, life-giving and transforming power that comes from making art. You can read more about the source over at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings.

We’re live each 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.

Image Credit: Wendy MacNaughton and Courtney E. Martin

 

Giving Up What No Longer Works

On Sunday, 25th March 2018, as part of our ‘Turning Towards Life‘ project, Lizzie Winn and I talked about ‘Giving up what no longer works’, focussing on the topic of sacrifice and generosity. What, we wondered, makes the difference between an act of generosity (or a life of generosity) that diminishes and burns us up, and a life in which we are nourished as we go? And what might be our part, our responsibility, in having life be that way when it’s possible, so that giver, receiver and gift are all an expression of life?

The source is for our conversation is from the poet, philosopher and teacher Mark Nepo.

Giving Up What No Longer Works

from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo

Burning your way to centre
is the loneliest fire of all.
You’ll know you have arrived
when nothing else will burn.

At first this sounds rather somber, but from Moses to Buddha to Jesus, the deepest among us have all shown that living is a process of constantly paring down until we carry only what is essential.

It is the same in the human journey as in the natural world. As the centre grows stronger, what once was protective turns into a covering, like a tree bark or snake skin, that is now in the way, and, sooner or later, we as spirits growing in bodies are faced with burning old skins, like rags on sticks, to light our way as we move deeper and deeper into the inner world, where the forces of God make us one.

When faced with the need to keep going inward, we are confronted with a very difficult kind of life choice: like carving up your grandmother’s table for firewood to keep your loved ones warm, or leaving a job that has been safe and fulfilling in order to feel vital again, or burning an old familiar sense of self because it’s gotten so thick you can’t feel the rain.

In truth, always needing to stay immediate by removing what is no longer real is the working inner definition of sacrifice – giving up with reverence and compassion what no longer works in order to stay close to what is sacred.

— Mark Nepo, from The Book of Awakening

We’re live each 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.

Our stories about our feelings

When you feel emptiness, what do you do?

Reach for something to eat?
Turn on the TV?
Pick up the free paper on the train?
Hide away in sorrow and resignation?
Zone out?
Lash out at your colleagues or your family?
Find someone to blame?

What’s the story you’re telling about what this feeling means that has you act in this way?

We’re so quick to tell stories about what we’re feeling. This feeling is something to be fixed, a sign I’ve done something wrong, proof my life is heading nowhere – or that it’s heading somewhere. It’s because of you, it’s because of my parents, it’s to be avoided at all costs, it’s precisely the thing I need to feel in order to know myself and be ok.

But our familiar, habitual stories about our feelings can imprison us in smaller worlds than we deserve.

There’s always another story you can tell.

Maybe the emptiness is because you’re tired. Or you’re under attack from your inner critic. Maybe it’s pointing you towards something essentially true about all of our existence – that everything is changing all the time and there’s not so much for us to stand on.

Or maybe you’re feeling it because you’ve forgotten something important – your essential aliveness, the deep roots of your history and biology, all that supports you moment to moment.

Each of these stories points to a different course of action. Same feeling, different response. Sleep perhaps, or an act of self remembering (creating art, meditation, poetry, music, prayer, beauty, touch).

Or maybe what to do with what you’re feeling is simply to allow it to be for a while, no correction or compensation required. And no story either. Let it do its thing and watch as it eventually, inevitably, and with no apparent help from you, changes you and turns itself into something else.

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A Ritual to Read to Each Other

In this episode of ‘Turning Towards Life’ from Sunday, 18th March 2018, Lizzie and I talk about William Stafford’s extraordinary poem ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other‘. We consider how easy it is to miss one another, even in the midst of conversation, and the damage that can come from our so-easy falling into ‘being right’. Along the way we explore how our early life experiences can blind us to what’s happening now, and the importance of trusting the deep underlying goodness of people (including ourselves) if we’re to find our way into right relationship.

We’re live each Sunday morning at 9am UK time. You can see archives of all our previous conversations at turningtowards.life and join our facebook group to watch live, view archives, and join in the growing community and conversation that’s happening around this project.

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When the conversation dies, what do you do?

When the conversation you are having dies, what do you do?

Conversations die when you tune out of them, when you stop tracking your truthfulness about your experience, when you fall back on tired routines that mean little but keep you feeling safe, when you say what you think is expected rather than what’s real, when you slip into jargon and abstract concepts, when you tell lies – even small ones – about yourself, and about others.

When the conversation dies, what do you do?

Many of us, I think, keep going as if nothing had happened.

Occasionally, this is bound to happen.

But repeated again and again, over hours, days, months, years – our diminished, fossilised conversations in turn diminish us and our relationships.

Much of the corporate world seems to have made an art out of the dead conversation. Families, people who were once lovers, and whole organisations slip quietly into deadness without even noticing. Bringing the conversation back to life seems too risky, too vulnerable.

The consequence?

Feeling safe.

And becoming ghosts.

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Stimulus and Response

I love Dan Pink’s RSA talk on our mistaken assumptions about what makes good work possible.

The subtitle of his talk could be ‘Don’t think you can manipulate people into making their most genuine contribution’.

Paying bonuses for performance, argues Pink, works out only in very particular situations. Promise to reward people more for performing a mindless mechanical task, and often, yes, they’ll find the wherewithal to do it better, or faster.

But make bonuses the reason to do work that requires care, thoughtfulness, or imagination – especially if that’s your primary method of engaging them – and you’re most likely to see poorer results.

I don’t think this should surprise us. We know pretty quickly when we’re being manipulated and it often makes us cynical and resentful.

The very idea that bonuses would increase performance arises from the still-influential work of the behaviourist psychologists of the last century. They argued that the inner experience of human beings is irrelevant, and that we can decide what to do by looking just at outer stimulus and response patterns.

In many organisations we’re still caught up in the simplistic understanding of people that the behaviourists inspired. The consequence? The design of management practice based on the reward and punishment responses of animals such as rats.

But we’re human beings, with rich inner worlds that cannot be ignored just because they’re hard to measure. We are brought to life by meaning, belonging, contribution and creativity. We’re not machines, nor do we contribute any of our higher human faculties in response to a straightforwardly manipulative stimulus such as a bonus.

When we’re treated  – or treat ourselves – as if we’re something less than the complex, meaning-seeking beings that we are, it should be no surprise that we – and our work – are diminished.

Pay people enough to have the issue of money be off the table, argues Pink. And then you need to ask deeper questions.

Here’s the animation from his talk, with thanks to Geraldine for introducing it to me.

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Life’s incompleteness

There are millions of books that you’ll never read.
Millions of films you’ll never see.
Places you’ll never go to.
People you’ll never meet.
Experiences you’ll never have.

Do you chase after what’s unattainable with resentment and frustration, raging against life’s limits? Or open in gratitude at life’s richness?

Here’s George Steiner with a beautiful account of the move from fear to wonder on this very question, involving a fascinating story of the discovery and reburial of thousands of terracotta Chinese warriors.

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The Clearing

In our ‘Turning Towards Life‘ conversation of 11th March 2018, Lizzie and I talk about what it is to drop our defendedness enough, to open enough, that we can be a ‘clearing’ space for mutual integrity, perhaps even in the midst of our biggest difficulties.

We explore the kinds of conversations and relationships that are possible from there, why it’s difficult and – at the same time – very natural, and the practices that can support us in more often being able to find the required depth and spaciousness in the midst of things. The source for this week’s conversation is written by Lizzie:

The Clearing

As I get more honest
Less defended
More open to another’s reality
As they share from where only they can

As I cultivate willing acceptance in the moment
Including more and more
(Even things that I thought
Were unacceptable)

As I fuel my curiosity with
open eyes and an open heart
My clearing appears for
The content of my life to
Be held within it

(And others are invited into the clearing
For the content of their life
To be held within it also)

— Lizzie Winn

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.

Heaven and Hell

In the The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales written by my friend Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is “Heaven and Hell”, a gorgeous story for children and adults about how our interpretations and practices are constantly shaping the world around us.

In the story, an elderly woman named Ariella is given a tour of each of two possible after-lives. Hell, to her surprise, is an elegant palace nestling in beautiful gardens. Tables are set with delicious food and everyone is gathered for a feast. But as Ariella looks closely she sees that they are all frail, desperate, and starving. Their arms are held straight by long splints and because of this they are unable to bend their elbows to bring food to their mouths.

Hell is a beautiful paradise filled with longing, sadness, meanness and misery.

Isn’t much of the world this way?

Heaven, even more surprisingly, looks exactly the same. Same palace, same food, same splints. But here everyone is well fed, and happy. The difference? The residents of heaven know about kindness, and have learned to feed one another. The very same physical situation with a change in narrative and different practices brings forth a radically different world.

It’s so easy for us to imagine that the world we inhabit is fixed, solid. We come to believe that we are a certain way, and the world is a certain way too. But it’s more accurate to say that we’re always making the world together through our interpretations and actions – what’s ‘real’ about the human world is much more fluid than at first it might seem.

And of course the worlds we bring into being in turn change us. The narcissistic, individualistic, cynical world brought about by the residents of hell keeps their meanness and their resentment going, and their starvation. And the world brought about by the residents of heaven amplifies their kindness.

When we head off the possibility of change by claiming the world is, simply, “the way it is”, or when we say “but in the real world this could never happen”, we need to understand that we are active participants in having the world stay fixed in its current configuration. The world is never only the way it appears. And that ought to be a reason for great hope for our families, organisations and society. And a call for our vigorous action on behalf of an improved future for all of us.

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What the storm is all about

When you’re in the midst of a storm in life – some difficulty, confusion, fear, or uncertainty – it’s easy to imagine that something must have gone terribly wrong.

After all, aren’t you meant to be successful? Aren’t you meant to be on top of life? Aren’t you meant to be in control? To have it all figured out by now?

And if you’re in trouble isn’t it clear that it’s your fault?

The narrative of personal striving and personal success that so many of us have taken up as the benchmark for our lives doesn’t help here. It’s too individualistic, too solitary. It assumes you have infinite power to shape your life. And that your success or failure, your happiness or your despair are down to you alone. It’s not a big enough story to account for the kind of difficulty you’re in, to account for being a participant in a world that is so mysterious and so much bigger than you are.

No, there’s a bigger, more generous account of finding yourself in life’s storm that goes far beyond blame and fault, far beyond success and failure. Haruki Murakami has found the words to express it beautifully and clearly, in his Kafka On The Shore:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts.

Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you.

This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step…”

But the storm will pass, he assures us, and once it is over:

“You won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over.

But one thing is certain.

When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.

That’s what this storm’s all about.”

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Beyond What Goes Wrong

In this episode from 4th March 2018 Lizzie and I talk about what’s beyond ‘what goes wrong’. We discuss how we might see, when we’re in the midst of difficulty, that’s it’s really part of us that’s caught up in the difficulty. And, even though we often know ourselves most readily as this part (which gives our lives familiarity, a role to play, something to do), to be human is also to be a kind of depth that’s beyond the immediacy of our experience, however troubling or delightful that experience is to us.

Along the way we encounter the possibility that one path to more fully inhabiting our lives comes from being with others who can know and welcome our depth and, in turn, learning the gift of recognising the depth in others as we find it in ourselves.

The source is for our conversation is from the poet, philosopher and teacher Mark Nepo.

Beyond What Goes Wrong

With each passing [and passage], there is a further wearing away of the layers or coverings that obscure our essential selves. And so, as we say “goodbye” again and again, we feel thinner, narrower more naked, more transparent, more vulnerable in a palpable, holy way.
— Elesa Commerse

When in the middle of difficulty, it’s easy to paint the whole world as difficult. When in pain, it’s easy to construct a worldview of pain. When lonely, it’s easy to subscribe to an alienating philosophy of existence. Then we spend hours and even years seeking to confirm the difficult existence we know. Or we rebound the other way, insisting on a much lighter, giving world, if we could only transcend the difficulties that surround us. Life has taught me that neither extreme is helpful, though I’ve spent many good hours lingering in each. Instead, I think we’re asked to face what we’re given, no matter how difficult, and to accept that life is always more than the moment we find ourselves in. In every instance, there’s the truth of what we’re going through and the resource of a larger, more enduring truth that’s always present beyond what goes wrong.

Ultimately, it’s the enduring truth that helps us through.

— Mark Nepo, from Things That Join The Sea and The Sky

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

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