Two resources you might find of support as we head deeper into these times of solitude, in which so much of what we’ve taken for granted is called into question.
The first, a conversation about joy and fear, and how we might keep including everything as the weeks unfold. From the ‘Turning Towards Life’ podcast I’ve been doing for two and a half years with my friend and colleague Lizzie Winn. You can find the video here, and the audio by searching for ‘Turning Towards Life’ on your favourite podcast app.
The second, a brilliantly clear, calm and illuminating documentary made by my brother David Wise, and his company Parable. In just under an hour it explains much about why it’s an act of care to keep ourselves physically distant from one another, exactly what’s meant by ‘self-isolation’, and how to take care of yourself right now. It’s beautifully filmed (and beauty really matters right now), and includes interviews with people who know, deeply, what they’re talking about. You may only be able to see this if you’re in the UK.
The world is, for all of us, a very narrow bridge, that we did not choose to walk. And the most important thing is not to amplify our fear. NACHMAN OF BRATSLAV
I’ve written about fear before, but as we enter into a very uncertain March 2020 all around the world, it seems it’s time to write about it again. I’m still very much working all of this out. It’s not all easy, by any means, and I don’t have answers to most of the questions I have about how to be in the world right now. But here’s where I am.
I’m deeply grateful to Norman Fischer, whose talk on this subject inspired what follows. In many places below I’ve drawn directly from Norman’s words, especially in the quoted sections, which have been so helpful to me. I hope they will be for you too.
On Being Afraid
We were already afraid before this began to happen. Fear itself is already endemic in our culture.
It’s here already because it sells things. It’s here already because, by it, we keep ourselves in our habitual patterns of distraction and avoidance. But it comes at a huge cost. It has us undermine ourselves again and again. When we’re had by our fear, when we’re caught up in it and the certainty of it, we live at odds with ourselves. We pretend that what we’ve become so afraid of isn’t happening, even when it is. Or we become certain that our fear is the world and turn away from our own wisdom, feeling further and further from ourselves and from one another.
Of course, indulging our fear seems so sensible. You don’t have to read very far into the statistics of the coronavirus situation [more on this below] to see that a vast tragedy is unfolding around us, that isn’t likely to go away before it’s had its fierce way with us, however much we wish it wouldn’t happen… at least not now… at least not to us.
I know what it’s like to be gripped by my fear, to be feel unable to get any distance from it. When the house is quiet and dark, and my children are sleeping, and I imagine how the world might be over the coming weeks and afterwards – indeed even as I write these words – feeding my fear seems the obvious things to do. And when I wake in the morning – if I have even slept – a night of amplifying my fear leaves me shaken and depleted, exhausted and tiny, and convinced more than anything of my loneliness and separateness and smallness.
But I don’t think we need to be afraid all the time. I don’t think we should be afraid all the time. There’s another way to practice in the midst of things. A way that starts with us admitting to our fear and confusion rather than denying it or being caught up in it. A way that isn’t distracting ourselves from the gravity of our situation, nor taking our fear so seriously that we exhaust ourselves and find ourselves in a despair that we can’t get out of. Neither of those extremes is going to help us.
Instead, we can begin by letting ourselves actually feel our fear for a while – properly making contact with it – even if it’s the last thing we want to do. We might have to stop rushing around if we want to make this possible. And in the quiet, truthful space in which we let ourselves feel our fear most fully, and in we feel our grief at how far the world is right now from how we want it to be, we can start to say:
I see you. But I am not you. You feel like the future, but you’re not actually the future. You’re an experience, that I am having in my body, right now.
This way we neither run from our fear, nor indulge it. We take up the practice of speaking with ourselves in new ways – in the ways a wise, kind and truthful friend would do. However strong our fear, however convincing, this clear-seeing part of us is also here if we look for it.
And it helps greatly to be able to speak from this part, to say to ourselves:
Yes, I am anxious. Yes, I am fearful. And right now, I feel completely desolate. And that is, indeed the truth.
I know that I will feel this way for a while. But it will last only a certain amount of time. It will not slow the spread of disease. It will not help my loved ones. It will not help me take good care of myself or other people. It will not improve anything at all about the situation.
In fact, if I keep on with this feeling longer than is absolutely necessary it will make things worse. The feeling of desolation is natural. I do not need to disrespect myself for feeling it. But it is extra.
And then, gradually, some space… and some contact with our willingness to meet life – fiercely, lovingly – just as it is. We start to be less convinced by the trance that fear has had us in, and remember that we can be of service. We remember that to be a human is to be a blessing.
But I cannot be this if I keep indulging my fear.
So I am just going to have to stop. And then turn back towards the world.
And when the future comes, with everything that it brings, it isn’t even the future. It always turns out to be the present when it happens, and we often discover that we can, indeed, meet it – however difficult or painful it is – in ways we did not imagine.
Background reading on COVID-19 I have spent a lot of time reading, seeing if could find a way through the voluminous news reporting, sound bites, political promises, and data, to find sources I trust which will help me understand what’s going on and where it might lead us.
Here’s what I’ve found, and what I’ve understood. I hope it will be of help.
Seth Godin on the statistics, how viruses spread, what it means for what’s likely to happen, and how we might relate to it
Bill Gates, who has been thinking about this for a long time, on the same
A very clear New York Times article, referenced by Seth, that explains why, at the stage we’re at with this virus (3rd March 2020) things can look very normal now but change very quickly
See what happens if instead of ‘I am afraid’, you say ‘Part of me is afraid’
If instead of ‘I am unsure’, ‘Part of me is unsure’
Instead of ‘I am angry’, ‘Part of me is angry’
By allowing yourself the understanding that you are a being of many parts, rather than a single, monolithic self, you open up these possibilities:
Firstly, coming to understand emotions as something you have rather than what defines you …
… It really is quite different to know yourself this way – there is much more agency in having rather than being had by what you feel.
Secondly, remembering that there are always parts of you that are feeling something different to what’s most apparent to you …
… parts that are settled when you’re experiencing anxiety, parts that love when you’re feeling irritated, parts that are courageous and able to take action when other parts of you are paralysed with fear.
And thirdly, discovering that the same is true of others …
… so that when you’re bewildered by her rage you can remember that there is still a part of her that is kindness; when you’re supporting him in his uncertainty you can call on the part of him that has clarity; and when you’re struggling with his self-centredness you can remember the part of him that still, even in the midst of all the difficulty, cares deeply about all of it.
We are rather less a single, unitary ‘I’ than a system or community of parts, each in relationship with one another. And it can be so very revealing, and practically useful, to get to know the parts – their intelligence, their blind-spots, and the very particular projects they’ve each taken up in our lives.
I’ve written before here about shame, a familiar background mood for me, as it is for so many people. It turns out that there are at least two parts of me that are actively involved in protecting me from shaming by others – one which pre-emptively shames me, and one which more directly defends me from shame. Each has its own form of good intention, and each often causes me difficulty.
The first part is an inner critic part. It’s so dedicated to me not being shamed by other people that it will frequently take pre-emptive action by shaming me itself. The logic is clear, and compelling: if I can be made to feel sufficient shame beforehand, then perhaps I’ll hold back from acting in a way that would cause others to shame me. It’s a simple exchange – the lesser pain of my own internally generated shame to protect against the more soul-searing shame that comes from the disapproval of other people.
This is the part which would have me hold back from speaking my mind, from becoming angry with other people, from showing too much love, from being a surprise or a disappointment or a bother or mystery. This is the part which, for years, held me back from dancing, having me be ashamed of myself even before I begin. It’s dedicated to forever scanning the horizon and keeping me within very tightly contained boundaries so as to avoid the kind of pain it knows I could, once, not tolerate. It is willing to exact quite a price in order to do this: the inner price of feeling some level of shame at all times, and the outer price of holding back what is, most truly, mine to bring.
The second part is a protector part. Should the antics of the inner critic fail, so that I actually get shamed by someone else, it throws itself into action. It’s not interested in waiting, nor does it have any time for curiosity or learning. What it most wants is the shame to go away. The protector part brings forward my defensiveness, my justifications, my denial. Insincere apologies, pretence, lengthy justifications for my actions, tuning out, disconnecting from people, freezing, abandoning my commitments, bending myself out of shape – all these are the order of the day for the protector part.
The protector part is also willing to pay a price to protect me from shame, most notably having me act at odds with myself, with a relationship I care about, or with my deepest, most sincere commitments.
And while both these parts have honourable and noble intentions, they are way out of date, having swung into action when I was very small and really needed some protection. They don’t take into account that I am an adult now, and that there is another part of me, more akin to the me-myself that exists over the entire span of my life, that no longer needs their help. This part, which could be called essence or self, is really quite able to be in the world alongside shame, and anger, and hate, and disappointment. It is vast enough, deep enough, alive enough, and quite strong enough to experience whatever comes its way. It is curious, open, timeless, and willing to learn.
Naming the parts has power. When I see that I am had by the inner critic or inner protector, I am increasingly able to ask them to relax, to step aside – to reassure them that I’m quite fine, whatever happens, and that I do not need them to protect me any more. And, in the space that this affords, I’m more able to step, willingly and without panic or rush, towards genuine relationship and inquiry, and into the world as it is rather than the world as smaller parts of me imagine it to be.
There are parts of us we know well – those that are in close – and parts of ourselves we know less well – the more hidden, invisible parts. Sometimes, simply giving a part its appropriate name allows us to see it and to interact with it more skilfully. The inner critic is one such part. Seeing it, naming it, entering into a different kind of relationship and conversation with it – all of these can be powerful moves in having it take up a more helpful and life-giving place in the constellation of entities each of us calls ‘I’.
But there are also parts of each of us that we have disowned or split off and that we barely see as part of ourselves at all. These may be parts of ourselves that we dislike, or judge, or abhor. Or they can parts we long for, but do not feel are available or appropriate for us. But parts of us they are, and since we can’t bear to identify our experience of them with ourselves, we readily project them into others.
So often, when we find ourselves disliking other people, when we get irritated by them, feel judgment or scorn or disdain or even hate towards them, we’re seeing in them what we most dislike or scorn or are irritated about in ourselves. A simple way of saying this is that what we encounter in them reminds us so strongly of what we’re trying to get away from in ourselves, that we try get away from it in them too.
The very same process can also be in play with those we are drawn to, admire, or put on a pedestal. In this case perhaps we’re seeing in the other, first, a reminder of split-off parts of ourselves that we deeply long to be reunited with but do not consciously know as our own. We feel drawn to the other person, or good about ourselves around them, precisely because of the feeling of wholeness and re-unification it brings about it in us.
Perhaps it becomes obvious when described this way that the work for us to do with people who irritate us is not to try to change them (which in any case does not address the primary source of our irritation or anger or frustration) but to find out what it is about ourselves that we dislike so much and work with some effort and diligence to understand, turn towards, and accept it.
And with people we love and admire the inner work for us to do is much the same if we want to love and admire them for who they are rather than because a hole or an emptiness or a longing gets filled when we’re around them.
Then, we can find, it’s more and more possible to be around a wider range of people with openness and warmth and genuine regard. And it’s also more possible to be close and compassionate with those we love most, who are so often the very people with whom we have the most difficulty because it’s in them we find parts of ourselves most readily reflected.
How should we approach the unknown? How should we orient ourselves to the inevitable unpredictability of the world – life’s way of going life’s way whether we like it or not? Should we despair at our lack of control? Be terrified of all the bad things that will happen? Should we retreat into a small, cosy space where we can spin the illusion of safety? Give up on doing anything because we are so small and the world is so big?
Nachman of Bratslav, a Rabbi and spiritual leader who lived in what is now Ukraine in the late 18th and early 19th century – and a great inspiration for me – taught that:
The world is, for all of us, a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is not to make ourselves afraid at all.
There is no escaping it. Our lives unavoidably carry us on the narrowest of scaffolds above a mystery that we cannot fathom. We come from somewhere we do not understand, and are heading to somewhere we cannot know. And there is nothing, really nothing, that can catch us.
But rather than face this, it often seems easier to try to hide from it. We feed our cynicism, despair and terror, and that of others. We try to imagine ourselves out of our situation by distracting ourselves, sleepwalking through, numbing ourselves in a fog of comfortableness that blunts our contact with the world.
And so we have a choice. Will we make attempts to avoid our situation by avoiding our lives? Or could we learn, even when we feel afraid, not tofeed our fear? Could we live a life in which we intentionally practice taking a step into the fierce uncertainty of life, and then another step and another step, trusting that each step will take us, who knows where, but somewhere?
It is our willingness to learn to trust the very narrow bridge on which we walk that can allow us to enter into our lives. This very learning to trust in life is, for many of us, a call to a kind of self-transformation, of loosening the boundaries of who we’ve take ourselves to be, of knowing ourselves and our lives in the context of a far wider horizon than we’ve seen so far. It offers the possibility that we might discover a basic goodness to existence itself which, precisely when we face our vulnerability to it, can hold us.
In 1986, when he was a prisoner playwrite in communist Czechoslovakia, the future Czech President Vaclav Havel wrote this:
‘Hope is not prediction of the future. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
In other words, hope – even when we can be far from sure about how things will turn out – is a kind of trust. But it’s not the naïve trust of optimism, which promises that everything will be fine or that we will be saved, and nor is it the naïve mistrust of pessimism, which promises that everything will be ruined. It’s trust in something else. It is first trust in our own capacity to respond to the world with creativity and dignity, whatever happens, and second it is trust in a deeper kind of goodness in the order of things.
When we face the most difficult of circumstances, or are most worried about the future, it’s the presence of both kinds of trust that supports the possibility to take action. The first, the trust in our own capacities, so that we have the energy and determination to move forward and the second, the trust in which we partner ourselves with existence itself, so that we can keep going even when things might not turn out well for us personally, or when something is going to take a generation or more to change.
The philosophers Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores teach that trust – between people, between us and the world – is not a given but something we make every time our trust is broken, shattered, compromised and then we take purposeful actions to repair and to restore it. Trust and hope, in other words, aren’t a given, and they aren’t made by attempts to keep ourselves safe and away from the world’s unpredictability and uncontrollability. They are made by our full-on engagement with life – by how we choose to bring ourselves not only to life’s joys but to its troubles and dangers. Trust is made by our learning that life won’t simply go our way but, nevertheless, here we are.
And so, of course, to the end of Nachman of Bratslav’s phrase. The most important thing, he says, is not to feed our fear. Not ‘don’t feel fear’ but don’t feed it. We all walk a very narrow bridge between two ends that we cannot know, and we could, really, fall at any moment. And the most important thing, as long as we are able, is to keep walking.
I am reposting this today, because two very dear friends – fiercely loving people – took the care to point out to me some ways I’ve been hiding what I can bring to the world. Most of us are hiding, at least some of the time, and although there are necessary protective and restorative gifts in hiding until it is our turn, it’s easy to hide when it is actually our turn to step up, to speak out, to see something or someone that nobody else is seeing, and to respond with all the humanity and care we can muster.
So this is my offering to all of us who are still hiding when we shouldn’t be, and my encouragement – to all of us – to do what’s called for in these changing, shifting times when we need, so very much, everyone to make their gifts available.
It’s easy for us to hide in plain sight.
We hide in our busyness and in our distraction.
We hide by saying only part of what’s true, and withholding the rest.
We hide by leaving parts of us out – our courage, our vulnerability, our truthfulness.
We hide by throwing ourselves into our work,
and thereby saving ourselves from showing up outside it.
And we hide by throwing ourselves away from our work,
and saving ourselves from showing up within it.
We hide in our addictions, in numbing ourselves, in scrolling the facebook feed.
We hide in pretending to be happy, when inside we’re crying.
We hide in our self-importance, and in overdoing our smallness.
We hide behind rules and regulation, policy and procedure.
And we hide in meetings through our silence and compliance.
We hide by shutting down our hearts in the face of the suffering of others.
We hide by stifling our ideas and holding back what only we can say.
We hide in our pursuit of money and status.
We hide ourselves in looking good and avoiding shame.
And we hide by refusing to ask for help when we need it.
And every moment of our hiding robs us, and the world,
of wonders that only we can bring,
from seeing that only we can see,
and from words,
perhaps the most necessary words,
that only we can say.
I slip into the silky dark waters of the swimming pond on London’s Hampstead Heath, on a misty October morning. The water is bracingly cold and it takes me a few strokes to catch my breath. But I’m in and it’s like swimming in the earth itself, immersed, cradled, held by the planet that gave me birth and will one day take me back again.
In the inky water, in moments, the feeling of separateness I carry with me everywhere unravels and with it, I stop being afraid.
The strong and convincing feeling of separateness is, for many of us, one of the unquestioned givens of life. It’s rooted first in the way our bodies are separated from one another by the physical rupture of our birth, after which what seems to be ‘me’ ends where our skin meets air. It’s reinforced strongly in the culture of individualism and detachment in which we live. And although there is truth to it – we each follow a course through life that in many ways is ours alone – our sense of being separate fuels much of our fear, and our grasping, and our loneliness. Because as well as wanting autonomy we long to be held, and met and seen, in ways that our commitment to otherness from the world can’t address.
This is what I remember most fully, every time I enter the water. I am water, earth, air and sky. My earth-made body has already charted a course from infancy to adulthood that is shared by every human that ever lived long enough to do so, and will age and eventually die of its own accord. It is a body which was gifted to me by billions of ancestors without my say-so; a body which has contours, shapes, organs, possibilities and preferences I did not choose, that come from this giant endeavour which we call ‘being human’. I remember again that the separate self that seems so obvious to me is also an expression of something that dwarfs me, includes me, and brings me forth, vast in time and mystery and breadth. And that it is such a relief, and such a joy, to have found a reliable way to remember myself this way.
In the very last room of Olafur Eliasson’s beautiful exhibition (on at the Tate Modern in London until January) there is a pin-board spanning one entire wall. It is perhaps 50 feet long, and is filled with articles, clippings, images and notes that inspire Eliasson’s work. I’ve been spending some time there over the last few weeks, in the room of notes, letting the ideas and observations that are collected there sink into me, work on me, change me.
It’s been far from easy to do this. I can see that I am deeply affected, as so many of us are, by the narrative of productivity, of ever-more, of perpetual motion that permeates our culture. We are taught never, really to stop and look, to be still enough until the world can reach us, unless of course our stopping is for the sake of having more energy to get going again. We learn to be afraid of being unproductive, of open-ended, undirected time, of letting ourselves off the hook. We measure ourselves, relentlessly, by comparison with what-has-not-yet-been-done.
And although our ceaseless movement comes from fear, it serves perhaps as an attempt to protect us from bigger fears – the fear that we may not be totally in control (we’re not), the fear that we might be vulnerable (we are), the fear that things will happen that we didn’t choose and didn’t want (they will), and the fear that we’ll lose what we’re so desperately pursuing. We move without stop because we’ve been taught to, but also because it does something for us. The tragedy is that this frantic way doesn’t resolve or deal with what we’re afraid of. It just has us find ourselves further from the one life that we get to lead.
As I sit quietly in the room of notes I notice how much of this I feel. I can feel my being afraid. I can feel the push of my own inner criticism as it berates me for being here, for slowing down, for slacking, for being self-centred, for irresponsibility. I can feel shame, guilt, comparison, urgency, and a fizzing, clenching movement in my chest, shoulders and back. All of it cries ‘get moving’, ‘get out of here’.
But I stay. I breathe, and breathe, letting myself open and settle on each breath. What a miracle breath is. I let myself feel my feelings all the way through. After a while, I see that my fear and urgency is something that I am doing, not something that is happening to me. It’s a strategy, a habit, a way of trying to keep myself on familiar ground. And when I see that it’s something I’m doing, I get to see how much of my experience can be like this – not just what’s ‘arising’ but a way I’m actively committed to fleeing from contact with my actual life.
In the middle of the pin-board I see an except from some work by Claire Petitmengin (more on her work here). She writes:
I consider the loss of contact with our lived experience as the main root of the malaise that affects our society … We become blind to the very texture of our experience … cutting ourselves off from what is closest, most intimate to us. We become blind to the very texture of our experience. In particular, we live in the illusion of a rigid separation between an inner and an outside world, between ‘me’ and ‘you’, between body and mind, between seeing, hearing, touching and tasting.
We spend considerable energy trying to maintain these frontiers, which we consider essential to our survival.
In the rare moments when our tensions dissipate, these rigid boundaries fade, opening up a vast space. We can sometimes have a glimpse of this … One day there is a book, a song, an encounter, or a special light in the morning through the foliage, and suddenly you surrender, you lay down your arms. Recovering contact with this tender dimension is a huge relief. When we are less on the defensive, less anxious to protect our borders, we become more loving. We regain our integrity, our dignity.
Claire Petitmengin From: Open House, Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2018
And I come to see why I am here in this gallery. I am here to find a way to relax some of my frontiers, to surrender, to lay down my arms. Art can do that for us. Words can do it. Other people can do it. And we can do it for ourselves, with some courage, and some kindness, and if we’ll let ourselves.
In these times when we’re walking around like coiled springs, when we see disaster around every corner, when we wonder if we’ll have a future – or if our children will have a future, Petitmengin’s words remind us that practicing letting life is no abdication of care, no unearned luxury, but a vital discipline in returning ourselves and one another to the dignity and capacity we’re all called to bring.
The story you tell about this time in your life isn’t the only story. And the vantage point from which you’re looking is not the only vantage point.
Looking forwards, it might seem clear that you’re on the way to a great success, or an inevitable defeat. Maybe it looks like life is all sorted: you’ve arrived and there is not much more for you to do. Or perhaps, from the depths of your confusion, it appears that you’re lost and can never find your way back.
Life is so much bigger than each of us, and so much more mysterious, that any story you have is at best partial. Looking back, what feels now like inevitable defeat may turn out to be a time of building strength: the strength you’ll need to break out of the constraints that have been holding you back. What feels like being crushed by life could be the birth pangs of a new beginning. Maybe the solidity of your success so far turns out to be everything that will be taken from you.
As Cheryl Strayed writes to her despairing younger self in Tiny Beautiful Things, it can turn out that “the useless days will add up to something”, that “these things are your becoming.”
Everything changes. Nothing is ever just what it seems. And though you may feel sure you’ve understood your life, remember that it’s very difficult to see which are the important parts, and quite why they’re important, while you’re still in them.
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 requestsallows 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 mywrongness, 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.
For a long while, we think we’re unbreakable. We convince ourselves that what we’re doing – how we’re working, how we’re living – has no impact on us, really.
And for a while, as we try to do more, our level of stress goes up and our performance (or capacity to do what we’re intending) goes up too. We conclude that the move to make when things aren’t working out the way we intend is to push harder. And, for a while, it brings us exactly what we’re looking for.
But only for a while.
There comes a point where, for each of us, the body’s capacity begins to fray. It loses its ability to renew itself, to retain its coherence, to store energy and regenerate. Beyond this breakdown point, more effort not only results in less capacity, but in the breakdown of bodily systems themselves. We get exhausted. We get ill. Our bodies show us what we have been committed to hiding from ourselves.
All too often, right at this moment where rest, recuperation, support and self-care are the only way back, we conclude that our dropping performance is because we’re not doing enough. And as we scramble to address the shortfall between what we’re ableto do and what we think we shouldbe able to do, we make things worse.
This is no trivial matter. Study after study has established the link between sustained stress and heart attacks and other serious and life threatening illnesses. And yet in so much of work, and our lives, we act as if we’re invincible, even when the signs are right in front of us that we’re not.
It’s time we took our bodies seriously. And it’s time we considered rest, renewal, and support from others as a fundamental requirement to do anything well. Not an optional extra. Not a nice-to-have. And not some silly distraction from the ‘real work’ of business, or leadership, or parenting, or making a contribution.
Love isn’t a feeling, though there are many feelings that come with love – joy, longing, delight, anguish, frustration, heartbreak. And when we take love to be a feeling we rob ourselves of any agency when it comes to loving. The feeling has gone we say. I don’t love him any more.
”But, as the psychologist Erich Fromm teaches us, “Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?”
When we start to see love as a verb, we are given the possibility and responsibility of loving free of our demands that we must feel a particular way. And, in doing so, we allow ourselves the possibility of loving not to get something, but as a gift to match the gift we receive by beingloved. This is the path that allows us to love strangers we have never met before, people who are wildly different from us, and to love those close-in without needing proof of our lovability in return.
It may be that this path – loving as a verb – is what will eventually help us humans take care of those who we cast out, and those parts of ourselves that cast out also.
Lizzie Winn and I take up exactly this topic in this week’s Turning Towards Life, titled ‘They Just Look Like Love‘. In it we talk about Erich Fromm, and a wonderful quote from Stephen R Covey, and about the magical properties of simple practices for loving one another (like making a morning cup of tea for the person you live with who for whom you don’t feel love). And we begin with an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s new book ‘Cinderella Liberator’.
You can also catch our prior episode, ‘Walking Away During Supper‘, in which we talk about men and women, our stories about what men are supposed to be, and how the choices both men and women make about how to be men ripple out through our families, workplaces and community.
Hating, despising, fearing and judging my interior world
I can expect to have a tricky time
Loving the outer world, in which I live every day,
As fully as I could.
Justin Wise, June 2015
We’ve been having a productive time with the ‘Turning Towards Life’ project, continuing to take up questions about how each of ourselves might bring ourselves most fully and truthfully to our lives. Perhaps most pertinent to the question ‘how do I give up judging and splitting apart my inner world?’ that’s addressed by the poem above, is our episode ‘Hokusai Says‘, which takes the work of the Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusaias its inspiration.
We have also considered the possibilities for our encounter with life and with one another are born when we cross the thin divide between ‘image’ and ‘realness’ in ‘The Call to Live Everything‘
And, one of my favourites, what happens when we start taking ourselves just a little bit less seriously, and start to look at ourselves as if from a distance, in ‘One Thing Among Many‘.
You can find the whole project over at www.turningtowards.life, and also as a podcast on all the major podcast platforms.
I sit in the darkness, watching my daughter and her friends singing, dancing and performing with such joy and exuberance in a local musical production, and right when I could release myself into joy and wonder a dark, coiled-upon itself part of me claws repeatedly – ‘You should be able to do that’, it says.
On a gloriously sunny May Thursday, I’m hosting a conversation about leadership with a group of thoughtful, principled people who run a large hospital. Right when I could be at my most curious, open and available, there’s a part of me that tells tugs, hard – ‘You should be better at this’, it says, ‘You should be like them.’
In my living room, a long afternoon of freedom available to me, I’m reading Robert McFarlane’s beautiful book ‘Underland’, and I find myself checking the time again and again. ‘You shouldn’t be here’, it says and, more perniciously, its tendrils of shame that I haven’t published a book, that I don’t know what to say, that I’m not famous, slip through the gaps in my thoughts and wrap themselves around my heart.
On the tube, in the shower, watching a film, holding my loved ones and, more than anywhere else, in the dark of the night, the endless voice of comparison keeps speaking its poison. Its promise is alluring enough – salvation. If I’m equal to or better than the ideas it has about me, or the people it measures me against, I’ll be saved. Once I’m well known enough, or have made a world-changing contribution, I’ll be safe. If I make sure never to annoy anyone else, or disappoint them, if I keep up an image of gentleness or responsibility, everything will be OK.
As my dear friend and colleague Lizzie Winn says, all of this has us ‘pretzel ourselves’ into ever more distortions. And as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us in her poem Famous, there’s a more straightforward way to be in the world, one filled with dignity and aliveness which recognises the uniqueness of the being we already are,
… famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do
It may seem like a paradox, but it’s often when we give up our crazed attempts to be what we’re not that we have the greatest chance of flourishing and unfolding fully into what we are. It’s when, as Lizzie says, we can inhabit our qualities wholeheartedly, that we find the deep reserves of kindness or courage, wisdom or attentiveness, that allow us to meet the world.
Naomi Shihab Nye shows us early in her poem that all our attempts to save ourselves by holding ourselves in the grip of a comparison (such as with fame) are inevitably doomed by the transience of everything:
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
‘We are but a moment, and all around us nature and time, and the silence that came before us, are unfolding as they must. And so our voice, our moment, can only speak for itself, now, as we find it, and should let go of any hope that we will silence the silence.
It is always there, it should always be there, and without it we would not be able to hear our own voice anyway, just as light has no meaning without the dark. The silence does not need us to confer upon it any meaning or purpose; it knows it will inherit the earth.
We get to dance within and upon it for our span; it allows (indulges?!) us in this, and lets us witter on as if we were in control. But the water will close over our heads, the gravestone will be subsumed into the earth, and our one job is to accept and embrace both our living span, and its end, in time.’
Our one job – to accept and embrace both our living and its end. I know when I can do this, I can sit in the dark and watch my daughter, and let myself be overcome by joy and love and sheer wonder that she is here. I can work with a group of very capable leaders with curiosity and openness and truthfulness, without holding back and without closing down. I can love and speak and listen and create without holding onto a myth of safety or salvation. I can much more readily give up the demand for safe passage and instead participate, turning towards life with a whole-heartedness and playfulness that’s robbed from me when I’m caught in comparison with how I am supposed to be, or how things are supposed to be. I stop pretzeling myself to try to get life to go my way.
The poem, Lizzie and Simon’s wonderful words, and everything I’ve expressed here came from conversations in and around the Turning Towards Life project. You can hear the episode that includes Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, and much else, on our website here, and on our podcast.
I’m coming to see that of the three primary fear responses available to human bodies (fight, flight, and freeze), it’s freeze that’s the most habitual for me. Like many people who share a similar personality structure to me, the presence of fear or despair in the world is easily an opportunity to tune out, to dissociate, and to disappear in the midst of life. And this week, with ongoing news about the state of the earth’s climate, with the attacks in Sri Lanka, and with the ongoing presence of an energetic xenophobia in our politics, there has been ample fuel for the kind of asleep-in-the-midst-of-things that it is so easy for me to fall into.
All of this is one reason why I’m grateful for the increasing role of practice in my life. As I’ve written before, when I remember to live a life of practice – swimming, writing, contribution to community, meditation, Jewish practices, walking, music, intentional conversation – I feel more spaciousness in my heart, a renewed sense of aliveness in my body, and my mind is quieter too. I’m less convinced by stories about who I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing. Without practice it is easy for me to be swept up in my habits of absence, as if hurled by a swelling tide until I no longer remember that I’m swept up in anything and life becomes an invisible whirling torrent of fear and falling short and things to do and places to be. It should be of little surprise to me (though it often is) that in the midst of all that my body has tightened up, my heart more rigid, my mind filled with barely visible oughts and shoulds, judgements and obligations and disappointments.
It’s practice that allows me to rehearse, repeatedly, a relationship with the world that’s full of life, and full of expression, full of connection to others, and full of welcome for all of it – even the greatest difficulties. And this, I’m starting to see more clearly, is the very point of practice – that over time, done again and again, it allows us to experience life as if parts of ourselves that are more often marginalised, abandoned or simply forgotten have come home again.
I’m particularly grateful today for the poem Thanks by W S Merwin, which points to the restorative possibilities of giving thanks, practicing gratitude, right in the middle of the darkness. It’s what I’ve needed these past weeks, and the conversation that Lizzie and I had as part of this week’s Episode 82 of Turning Towards Life (another restorative practice for me) explores it in depth.
I wrote the first words of ‘On Living and Working’ six years ago today, drinking tea and sitting on a high stool in the cafe window of London’s Wellcome Collection, a museum exploring the intersection of life, the body, science, and culture.
As I finished the first post a call came in to say that my father-in-law had died.
We drove to his home that evening, curving our way through the rush-hour traffic, and sat in the kitchen drinking more tea and preparing ourselves to enter the small ante-room where he had spent the last weeks of his life.
The dead are so incredibly, shockingly still.
In the absence of the ongoing micro-movements that animate even someone who is sleeping, in the absence of breath, there is a perfect, uncanny silence. And it is the absence that reveals just how alive it is to be living. No flutter of the eyelids, no flexing of fingers or toes, no gentle rise and fall of the chest, none of the tiny cues that a person is present that I find my own eyes searching for. Just silence, and an absolute stillness like the stillness of stone, but strange and unsettling and sacred and exquisite and perfectly, unarguably real.
In the jarring realness of absence, in this space where his warmth and movement and presence had been only hours before, I am brought into a fresh encounter with life’s unlikeliness, its strangeness, its fierce beauty, its transience. I am thrown back into life by my contact with not-life.
And I see how often I forget that I am actually alive. How readily I act as if I am not fully here: deadening myself and numbing myself and absenting myself and distracting myself. As if finding myself living in this brief shining flash of consciousness is too much to bear. Or as if I will always be alive.
But here in this quiet room I see that one day I too will be this still, as will everyone else I love, and everyone else they love, and everyone else they know. And another day, in the unimaginably far-off future that will still come too soon, everything will fall into stillness and this grand experiment that we call life will itself be over.
Somewhere I always know this. But when it fades into the background, when I am ‘had by’ this knowledge, its shadowy presence can easily act as an encouragement to go to sleep, to exist as if some of me or all of me is already dead. It’s simpler that way, quieter. Apparently. And though living this way actually scares the hell out of me, the fear loops back on itself, fuelling and feeding the addictive numbness with its guileful promise of safety.
So it’s better to know the truth directly, I think. To keep reminding ourselves how different we are, even in our most humdrum everydayness, from absence.
To be human is to live in this dance between remembering and forgetting ourselves, being awake and asleep, being present-in-life and dead-to-life. At least, that’s how my life seems to be. But there are practices of presence, and remembering, and truthfulness that we can take up if we so choose – practices of art and body, movement and song, contact and attention that can help us return to the intense realness of life when we have lost our way. We can choose to stare directly into the unbearably bright light of our own ending so that we have a chance of being here, right here, while we are actually here. To be like fierce angels, heralding the sunrise. To be alive, before it’s too late.
On this 6th anniversary I’m grateful for words and language, for writing and speaking and those of you who read and listen to the many forms this project has taken since it began. And I’m feeling grateful for Sidney, my father-in-law, for all that his way of being showed me, his way of singing and hoping his way through, and for all that he taught me in his leaving.
The latest conversation in our ‘Turning Towards Life’ series is here. In ‘The Path of Beyond and Beneath‘ we ask what we can do, when we get wounded, to stay in a relationship with others that’s dignified and respectful of everyone’s humanity? It’s a question pertinent both to our personal relationships and to our troubled, fractious conversations about the big issues of our times.
I’m thrilled to announce that ‘Turning Towards Life’ is now available as a podcast on Apple, Google, and Spotify.
In our latest episode we talk about the mystery of time and death. We consider together two different ways that we turn away from the reality of time – either by tuning out from the fleeting nature of things and the urgency of our response, or by eating up time in a panicked flurry of frantic activity. Somewhere between the two, we discover, is a way in which we can meet time more directly, more lovingly, and in a more responsive way – and in a way that helps us both decide what matters and invest our activities with mattering.
Along the way we talk about the changes that time brings, in our bodies and the bodies of others; the mystery of where time ‘goes’ when it has ‘gone’, and we bring to mind those we have known and have loved who are no longer with us and find out that they are still present, in time, even though they are no longer here. And it occurs to us that this is the nature not only of people but of all moments that continually arise, disappear, and yet travel with us.
Here’s a double-bill of ‘Turning Towards Life‘ conversations about entering fully into life, without holding back.
In ‘Life While You Wait‘ Lizzie and I explore what it might be to enter into the vast mystery of life with an attitude of welcome. What happens, we wonder, when we meet ‘what is’ with an open heart, and when we drop our demands that life somehow bend itself exactly to our will? Along the way we consider the ways in which life is an ongoing invitation to improvise, and how we might relate to the circumstances that come our way as an opportunity to participate rather than as a justification for our resentment or flight.
And in ‘Let Us Begin the Journey Home‘ we return to a poem by Rumi that calls to these confusing and complex times. We explore together what can happen as we soften ourselves so that life, in its bigger sense, can reach us. What are the possibilities, we wonder, in seeing that we each take to be ‘me’ or ‘us’ or ‘life’ is always something of a misunderstanding? And if we open to a more expansive story that frees us, at least somewhat, from our grasping and our aloneness?
Perhaps, we find, there’s a way that we can find ourselves deep in the midst of the sacred ordinariness of life, ready to contribute and participate without being so convinced of our smallness, separateness or fear. We recorded this conversation the midst of week of great political uncertainty here in the UK as a way of finding and remembering, together, how much more than this is always present, even though we so easily forget.
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 ourselves and others – an understanding we use to make sense of so much of what happens in our lives. 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 we find ourselves in the midst of, and the possibility that we might lay out other paths as a way of supporting ourselves. And we tend to over-emphasise the role of individual will-power as a way to resolve things or change things.
And as long as we concentrate only on getting ourselves to change, or to muster up more ‘will’, we miss the opportunity to work together to change or lay out the new paths which could help us.
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.
Waiting until you know for sure what’s going to happen – where people are involved – means waiting for ever.
With machines, it’s easy. With sufficient understanding of mechanics you can often predict exactly what’s going to happen. Cause and effect, straightforward to establish.
But human situations are nothing like that, even though we pretend to ourselves that they might be.
Take a meeting, for example.
Should you speak up about what’s on your mind? Now? Later? What effect will it have on your colleagues? On the decision to be made?
You cannot know for sure.
Whatever insight you have about the situation can only ever be partial. You can’t know what’s going on for others. You can’t know what they are thinking of saying. And you can’t know – even if you know them well – how they will respond to your speaking.
You have to act knowing that you’re speaking into an unknowable situation. And that speaking up will, in all likelihood, change something, at the very least for you.
But staying quiet is an act too, changing things no less than speaking up. So you have no choice but to be an actor, whatever you do, and however much you pretend it is not the case.
We get ourselves into trouble when we forget all of this. We imagine that we can only act when we are able to predict the outcomes of our actions. Or we blame and judge ourselves and others when things don’t turn out the way we expected.
And all the while we’re holding back our contribution, our insight, our knowledge, our creativity, our unique perspective because we’ve set ourselves standards of understanding that were never – could never be – reached.
Meanwhile, the Turning Towards Life project continues to dive deep into big questions of human living. If you haven’t joined us yet, I invite you to explore this week’s conversations and the growing archive on the links below. Over the past 74 weeks we’ve explored some fascinating topics that can contribute to a more full engagement with the joys and difficulties of being a person.
Last week, in ‘The Seven of Pentacles‘, we talked about seeing through the stories we have about life that have us either be too small (and which have us give up) or too big (when we demand that the world goes just our way); what it is to see that most of life doesn’t unfold in a ’cause and effect’ way; patience; participation in life as a way of meeting life; and ‘living as if you liked yourself’ – finding our goodness in the midst of everything that happens.
This week, in ‘The Abandoned Parts of Ourselves‘, we talk about adult development, about the loyalties to particular ways of doing things that we enter into during childhood, and about what it is to find ourselves free – to a greater or lesser extent – to pursue what is increasingly ‘ours’ to do in the world. Along the way we grapple with the many kinds of orthodoxy that shape us throughout life – family, religious, societal – and explore together how we might turn our loyalties to them into a bigger kind of loyalty which takes in life itself. We end with a consideration of the support and community that can help us find a life that feels true and real and which can joyfully welcome the parts of us that our loyalties – up until now – have had us turn away from.
This week – how to live in the middle of life’s mystery without being swallowed by fear, or losing touch with ourselves, how to have our lives be informed by the depth and imagination of our sleeping dreams, and what it is to find a way to be a gift back to the life that is a gift to us. Our source this week is by the poet David Whyte.
Because we are story-telling beings, we humans have a million ways of avoiding being present to what is right in front of us – people, projects, possibilities, suffering – and what is within us – thoughts, feelings, and the sensations and wisdom arising in our bodies.
We so easily spin stories, throw ourselves into guilt and reminiscence about the past, worry about and try to anticipate the future. And while each of these have their place, they so easily distract us from what we’re most directly in the midst of.
Missing what and who is here robs us of the opportunity to experience life in its richness as we go.
More importantly for everyone else, it denies us the opportunity to bring ourselves at our fullest. Because in our distraction, we respond not to the needs of the moment, but to the needs of our fear, or to our wish to not have to face the world as it is.
Our deepest possibilities for connection and contribution are muted – whenever here is not where we are, and now is not what we’re responding to.
This week we take up the topic of fear, and how our avoidance of it can shrink our lives. We consider together what it takes to live in an ever larger world of both meaning and contribution, and how that nearly always calls on us to move towards what we’re most afraid of.
As we go we talk about the ways in which fear draws us away from our capacity to respond to what’s actually happening now, the kindness to ourselves that’s required to work with all of this, the perils of living in a narrative of ‘self-improvement’, how it is that our fears are also a kind of loyalty to something that matters or mattered, and the ‘leaving home’ that’s required to find a new and more spacious home in which we can live.
For some time I’ve been publishing the full posts – videos and writing – from the Turning Towards Life project here on ‘On Living and Working’. As an experiment, this week, here are simply the links to the two most recent conversations. You can find the full text and videos on the other end of the link and, always, at turningtowards.life
I hope you enjoy these. They were both rich, deep, joyful conversations which have generated a lot of conversation over in our free-to-join facebook group which is always the first home for this project, and where the videos are streamed live every Sunday.
This week, the urgency of belonging to the world, inspired by a poem by Mary Oliver, who died this week. Lizzie and Justin talk about the power of ongoing practices to shape the world; the many ways in which we’re taught that we’re in some way separate from things, and what we might do about that; what it is to feel safe, even when life is risky; and the gifts that we make to others when we find it in ourselves to write, or teach, or speak – in one way or another to make art.
The Fourth Sign Of The Zodiac (Part 3)
by Mary Oliver
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Our conversation for this week begins with a piece by John O’Donohue, from his beautiful book ‘Anam Cara‘.
True listening is worship
It is lovely to have the gift of hearing. It is said that deafness is worse than blindness, because you are isolated in an inner world of terrible silence. Even though you can see people and the world around you, to be outside the reach of sound and the human voice is very lonely. There is a very important distinction to be made between listening and hearing. Sometimes we listen to things, but we never hear them. True listening brings us in touch even with that which is unsaid and unsayable. Sometimes the most important thresholds of mystery are places of silence.
To be genuinely spiritual is to have great respect for the possibilities and presence of silence. Martin Heidegger says that true listening is worship. When you listen with your soul, you come into rhythm and unity with the music of the universe.
Through friendship and love, you learn to attune yourself to the silence, to the thresholds of mystery where your life enters the life of your beloved and their life enters yours.