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Thirdspace supports people to recognise their goodness and power, helping them bring their whole selves to the world. Find us at www.wearethirdspace.org

The view from here isn’t the only view

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.

Photograph by Justin Wise

The Ask and the Answer

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

Being able to distinguish between necessary and sufficient, for example, opens many avenues for moving beyond technical solutions to our problems and into what’s meaningful, principled and life-giving. The distinction between feedback and 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.

Photo Credit: Barbara.K Flickr via Compfightcc

When we think we’re unbreakable

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 should be able to do, we make things worse.

Much 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 is a Verb

Photo by David Mao on Unsplash

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 being loved. 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.

Love, Hate, Inner, Outer

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It increasingly occurs to me

That my relationship to the parts of the world

(most significantly, others)

Is most often a reflection

Of my relationship to parts of myself.

 

And that until I learn how to give up

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 Hokusai as its inspiration.

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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

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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‘.

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You can find the whole project over at www.turningtowards.life, and also as a podcast on all the major podcast platforms.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Famous

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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.

As Simon Seligman so beautifully writes, in response to those lines:

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.

Photo by Laura Wielo on Unsplash

 

 

Fear and Practice

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.

And, if you missed them, we’ve also talked in the past couple of weeks about the moment-to-moment choices between possibility and fear (in Episode 81, Two Paths), and about the problems being too certain about things can bring us (in Episode 80, The Place Where We Are Right).

You can catch up with all the conversations in that project over at turningtowards.life, and you can also find all our conversations on YouTube, and as a podcast on AppleGoogle and Spotify

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

The mystery of Time and Death

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.

Photo by Harry Sandhu on Unsplash