The hidden cost of hiding

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.

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Always incomplete

Friday night. The start of shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.

A time to put down everything – work, concerns about work, busyness – for a day of renewal, relationship, paying attention to the world through new eyes.

And yet here, sitting in the synagogue with my family, my body and mind are filled with the long list of tasks left open, opportunities not taken, calls not returned, emails not answered. There’s tension in my chest and stomach at all that is unfinished, all that is mine to do. My mind, barely attentive to what’s going on around me, reaches out in a wide, scattered, urgent arc – as if thinking it through over and again will resolve my difficulty. As if this is a way to complete what is uncompleted.

And then I remember that the day will come, and none of us knows how soon, when I will no longer be able to complete anything. And on that day too, the day that life is done, there will still be a long list of incomplete projects. Messages waiting. Conversations unfinished. Responsibilities unfulfilled.

I come to see that project I’ve taken up with my racing mind and thumping heart, the project of having it all neatly done, can never and will never be concluded. I am reminded that to be human is to live, in one way or another, as yet unwritten.

That it is time to let go.

Yes, there’s a time for urgently finishing whatever is at hand. And a time, a time we need, to set all that aside and to see the incompleteness of the world, and everyone, not as something that always needs fixing but as part of its strange, necessary and wonderful beauty.

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Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Words

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

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

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

That words matter.

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

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Why force isn’t power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ask and the answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Loving the mess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our mysterious inner worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s mine, what’s ours


We prolong our difficulties and our sense of separation from other people when we take our own suffering to be ours alone.

Yes, of course, your disappointment, your shame, your grief and your frustration are very particular. They show up in your body, in your life, in a way that’s not quite the same as for anyone else.

But, at the same time, it’s the case that disappointment, shame, grief and frustration are a universal part of the human condition, arising from the kind of body and evolutionary history we all share. And we’re disappointed, ashamed, grief-stricken and frustrated because we’re human.

In this way your shame is an expression of the shame that comes with being alive. As is your heartbreak, your rage, your confusion, your longing.

When we start to know our suffering as the suffering we feel less alone. But not only that. We find ourselves more understanding of the suffering of others and more willing to respond. And we find out that, however compelling are the stories of our aloneness, we’re all in this together.

Photograph by Justin Wise

All that has come before is preparation

If you were parachuted into your life from outside – into your life and body as it is today – you might start to see what’s there through new eyes.

Perhaps you’d be more immediately grateful for the people around you, for the love, support and attention they bring you that you had to do nothing to earn. And perhaps you’d see the difficulties in your life for what they are – difficulties to be worked with, rather than confirmations of your inadequacy.

Enormous possibilities and freedom to act might come from inhabiting this world in which you’re both supported and have problems towards which you can bring the fulness of your mind, body and heart.

Being parachuted into your life might put an end to self-pity, because you’d come to see how the body you inhabit has been training, practicing all these years building skills, strength and an understanding of the life it’s been living and the difficulties it’s been facing. Maybe you’d see that you are precisely the one best equipped to deal with the detail and intricacy of this particular life. And perhaps you’d discover a way to look honestly at your situation and the resolve to deal with it, step by patient step.

Maybe if you were parachuted into your very own life, you’d understand that everything that has happened to you – so far – is not a shameful failure but the exact preparation you need for living today, tomorrow, and for the years to come.

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Hubert Dreyfus 1929-2017

A treasured teacher of mine, Hubert Dreyfus, died this week.

I never met him in person. But his undergraduate course on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, given at the University of California at Berkeley and made available online, deeply inspired me.

Dreyfus was professor at Berkeley from 1968, after tenures at Brandeis and MIT, and was probably the most important interpreter of Heidegger we’ve known in the English language. He took what might otherwise be considered a confusing, marginal work and explained what he came to see through it with clarity, elegance, good humour and no shortage of critical thinking.

Through Dreyfus a deep and more humane understanding of what it is to be human has been made available to us. His work has had impact on many fields – medicine, therapy, education, anthropology, sociology, computer science and, I can say with gratitude, the particular field of coaching and adult development which has been a central project of my own life these last 12 years.

What I appreciate most, though, about Hubert Dreyfus is the love of teaching and learning of which he was an expression. In the recordings of his 2007 lecture course (which, for quite some while, was among the most popular available on iTunes University) it’s clear that this was not a man who had settled on a rigid understanding of his field, nor someone who considered himself ‘done’. Even after 30 or so years of studying and teaching Heidegger’s work, the lectures show him questioning himself with both wonder and joy, revising his understanding as he goes, being honest about what still mystified him and – most importantly – learning from his students. In the lecture that I love the most a student’s question leads him to decides he’s misunderstood a central principle in Heidegger’s work for decades. Hearing him revise his understanding mid-lecture is simply thrilling to hear.

According to his colleague, Sean Kelly, Dreyfus was committed to the profoundly risky and courageous project of only teaching what he did not yet understand. He clearly saw that teaching and learning are not separate activities.  In his hands, as you’ll hear if you ever take the opportunity to listen or if you watch him in the lovely documentary Being in the World, teaching was an opportunity to bring all of himself and to invite us to bring all of ourselves to our endeavours too. It was an opportunity to be alive together.

So it’s no wonder that his lectures were often full to capacity. It’s rare in our culture to find a teacher who could combine such wisdom with such love, and who was so open to being changed and brought to life by his students and by the subject he was teaching.

Flowers from the darkness

What struck me most at Sunday’s Yom Hashoah ceremony was the way in which each of the survivors who spoke had committed themselves to life.

One woman, who’d entered Auschwitz as a teenager, had dedicated herself in adulthood to teaching young people about the dangers that come with ignorance of one another. Now nearing her 90s, she was fiery and warm and loving and energetic. It was clear how passionately and completely she’d taken up both living and being of service to a life much bigger than her own.

Another speaker described how being exemplars of love and kindness had become central for her parents during the time after the genocide, when they’d chosen to raise a new family in the long shadow of those dark years, still unable to speak of their shattering personal experiences and their grief at the deportation and murder of their two-year old daughter.

A dear friend of mine told me recently that the artist Roman Halter, himself a survivor, used to say to her how important it is to trust life – to turn towards life’s goodness and not lose ourselves in self-doubt and worry.

And Etty Hillesum, who wrote diaries first from her home in the Netherlands during the early years of the oppression and, later, from Westerbork transit camp (the holding camp for Dutch Jews on their way to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1943) wrote from the camp about her sense that ‘that one day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb.’

I write all of this in no judgement of the countless millions who lived and died in those times – and in other horrors – and were irreparably broken by the experience. Which of us could be sure we’d be any different? But I’m struck by our responsibility in the light of all this, and how easily we can confuse ourselves about the times we are living in. 

This moment in the early 21st century is full of uncertainty and many dangers, yes. But however bad we fear things are, and however frightened we get about it, we can and must learn from those who found in themselves a way to live, and to turn towards life, in the midst of the most unimaginable horror and its aftermath.

That they were able to plant flowers that grew from the darkness leaves us, who right now live in not nearly such dark times, with the responsibility to find a way to do the same.

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Remembering

In the Jewish world today it is Yom Hashoah, or the day of remembering the Holocaust.

Last night I joined a beautiful ceremony at the community which I call home. At one end of the room, a table filled with the shining light of tens of memorial candles. And in front of it, one by one, the testimonies of survivors and their families, woven together with prayers and with music composed by those who lived and died in the ghettoes and camps.

Already in the 1930s, one of the speakers who was a child survivor of Auschwitz reminded us, the seeds of dehumanisation were being planted in public discourse, and in law, in countries across Europe. By the time the genocide and its unspeakable horrors began in earnest there had been years of acclimatisation in language, and in speech, and in shifts in public culture. The Holocaust, as Marcus Zusak reminds us in his extraordinary novel The Book Thief, was built on words.

This year, perhaps more than any other I can remember, I was deeply moved by what I saw and heard. Something is cracking open within me. A certain turning away from the world, a well-practiced semblance of ‘being ok’ is dissolving. I felt, and feel, more open, more tender, more raw, more available, and more touched than I have done for a long time.

I’m grateful for this because, as I listened to the accounts of the people speaking with us, I was reminded once again how our turning away, our avoidance of life, is not so far from our capacity to dehumanise, to blind ourselves to the sacredness of the other, and to absolve ourselves of the responsibilities that come with our own goodness. And when we turn that way, collectively, it’s not as hard as we might think to turn towards the shallow rewards of exercising power over others, bringing back into the centre our apparently bottomless capacity for cruelty, disdain, destruction and death.

In this time when fear seems to have such a grip on the world, in Europe and the US in particular, I hope that remembering what’s come before can help us find out what we’re avoiding paying attention in us and around us. And I hope it can help us remember our own goodness, compassion and capacity to be of service – all of which are vital in steering a course together that points us towards life.

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Ritual and culture

Our rituals give us an opportunity to rehearse a different kind of relationship to ourselves and to others than those in which we ordinarily find ourselves.

This is exactly what we’re doing with the ritual of a formal meeting where we take up assigned positions (chair, participants, etc) and give ourselves new ways of speaking with one another that are distinct from everyday conversation. It’s what we’re up to with the ritual of work appraisal conversations, which are intended to usher in a new kind of frankness and attentiveness than is usually present. It’s in the ritual of the restaurant, where the form and setting gives us, from the moment we enter, a set of understandings, commitments and actions shared with both other diners and with the staff. And it is, of course, present in all religious rituals when performed with due attention, which call us for a moment into a fresh relationship with the universe, or creation, or the rest of the living world.

The more we practice a ritual – especially if it’s one practiced with others – the more we develop the imagination and skilfulness to live in this new relationship in the midst of our ordinary lives.

It is for this reason that among the most powerful ways we have available to shift a culture – in a relationship, in a family, in an organisation – is to imagine and then diligently practice new rituals.

And by naming them as such, by declaring that they are ritual, we can help ourselves step in and be less overcome our inevitable resistance, our anxiety, at trying on new, unfamiliar and much needed ways of being together.

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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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Investing ritual with meaning

Of course, any of our rituals, even those already laden with meaning and significance in their structure and content, can be approached with cynicism, detachment and avoidance. It’s true of prayer, of meditation, and of the various rituals we have for loving our children, our partners, our friends.

Whether to invest our rituals with presence, aliveness, contact, wonder and truth; or whether to use them as a way to go to sleep our lives really is, to a large extent, something we each get to choose.

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Reimagining Ritual

We human beings need rituals, and we create them everywhere. We have rituals for getting up in the morning, rituals for brushing our teeth, rituals for making breakfast, rituals for leaving the house, rituals for speaking to our families, rituals for paying the bills. And our organisational life is brimming with them – rituals for checking our emails, and rituals for responding to them; rituals for interviewing, hiring and promotion; rituals for the presentation of documents and proposals; and rituals for meetings.

Each ritual, whether private or public, gives us a stable form for our actions and relationships – a way of navigating without having to reinvent ourselves again and again. But each is far more than just a repetition of particular behaviour. A ritual – with its particular structure and pace, style and mood, and with the specific roles taken up by those engaging in it – brings out and rehearses a kind of relationship with life and with one another. And the more we perform it, the more habitual and familiar that style of relating becomes for us.

This, in itself, can be a fascinating area for study. Who am I being when breakfast is a coffee grabbed on the run from a street vendor on the way to the train? And who would I be if I made time to prepare food for myself with care and attention, and with enough time to eat? Who are we being when we gather in the meeting room, rehearsing the familiar pretence that we’ve read the agenda already and checking for emails under the table? And who would we be if we set our devices and papers aside, looked one another in the eye and talked about something really important until we were done?

We don’t have to continue simply enacting the rituals we’ve inherited in a thoughtless way. We could make a start by understanding that even the existing rituals with which we’re familiar are fertile ground for reimagining – and that there are many interpretations available which could bring us into more truthful, engaged and alive relationships with ourselves and those around us.

We could sometimes take up the ritual of travel from place to place as a way of cultivating wonder at the world. We could reinterpret the rituals of getting up in the morning as a way of bringing out exquisite care for ourselves and those closest to us. We could take on our rituals for spending money as an opportunity for cultivating sacredness rather than running afraid or getting just want we want. And we could even take up the ritual of meetings as an opportunity to build welcome, truth and openness rather than as a way of reminding ourselves who’s in charge, how busy everyone is, and how in control of things we are.

 

The time it takes

In recent days I have been studying my relationship with time, and how much trouble it can bring me. Most often there is not enough time. And I become sure of this as I become sure of all the poor choices I have made, all the hours I have wasted.

Sometimes, if I’ll quiet myself and look afresh, I’ll see the questionable construct upon which all this stands. It starts with “there’s something wrong” and includes “there’s something wrong with me“. It assumes that time is inevitably in short supply – that whatever I have done can never be enough. It assumes that enough is not, in fact, possible. And that I must use whatever time I have left in an impossible game of catch up, an attempt to atone for my mistakes, to redeem uncountable time already squandered.

But what if it is the case that things just take the time they take? That trees take the time they take to grow? That the sun takes the time it takes to rise? That it takes the time it takes for human beings to live?

What if we were to live lives in which we learned to trust in time, to befriend it, rather than run from it as if it were an enemy, or something to be grabbed at with desperate hands? What if we learned to savour time, like we might a good wine?

And what if sometimes we trusted that we, and the work of our hands when attended to with diligence, attention and care, grow at a pace that is quite natural and not ours to control?

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Too short, too precious

Life is too precious, and too important for us to believe the stories of our own unworthiness, to plead that we have a special kind of suffering unknown to anyone else, to wallow in shame at our incompleteness, our falling short, our confusion, our lostness.

Yes, let’s feel it all, but let’s not take it to be the only truth about our situation. Because life is too short for us to wait until we feel better before we begin.

Let’s allow ourselves to look at life with childlike eyes that see again the wonder in things, and that live it all, fiercely and passionately. Let’s learn to drop our defences, to give it all away, and use our experiences, all of our joys and all of our sorrows, as a channel for aliveness.

Life is too short, too precious, and too important for us to waste our time doing anything else.

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Renewal

On Living and Working is four years old today.

When I started, on a warm April afternoon in 2013, I had no idea of the possibilities that writing here would open. I have learned much about myself, and about what I care about, by putting thoughts and questions into words, and making them available in the public domain. And I have started enriching conversations with people from many parts of the world who have contacted me in response to what I’ve written. It has been an enormous gift to be part of what a project like this can make possible.

Today I’m particularly aware of how dependent I am on the support of other people in having all of this happen. From people close-in: my friends, family and colleagues who offer advice and feedback and sometimes have searching questions to ask about what I’m saying. From those of you read, reply, comment and share with others. From those who have taught me, and those who have written the books and blogs, articles and lectures, podcasts and films that have inspired much of what’s here. From the countless others who designed, manufactured, shipped, sold, connected and maintain the technologies upon which we rely to communicate with one another so widely and effortlessly. And from all those who guided, raised, fed, clothed, paid and otherwise cared for all of these people in the ever-widening circles of support that surround us.

Many of us live in a culture that pays inordinate attention to individual achievement. It can lead us into narrow kind of self-obsession that in turn becomes a sense of entitlement – a belief that the world owes us a particular kind of life, and a particular kind of recognition for our efforts, as if what we do is solely the produce of our own hands, hearts and minds. Today, on the fourth anniversary of this piece of work, it seems to me that we have it the wrong way around.

I am, we all are, truly indebted to a vast network of living interactions upon which we absolutely depend. A network that holds us, nourishes us, and makes what we do possible, always – and which we did nothing to earn. In a world so obviously filled with troubles, it is nothing short of a miracle that such support unfolds around us and renews itself minute by minute with such unerring grace.

 

Helping ourselves, and others, learn to live

What if we gave up the idea that anyone else can have easy answers about how to live our lives? What would happen if we took up the project of cultivating our curiosity, our openness to life, our sense of wonder at ourselves and others?

What could be if we started to look for the ways we keep ourselves running in habitual, tiny circles, avoiding and hiding so that we don’t have to experience that which we don’t want to experience?

What could be if we could find practices – daily ways of living and cultivating ourselves – that bring us more fully into contact with the possibilities around us, with our own bodies and hearts, with the people with whom we’re in relationship, and with our lives?

What would it be to do this for ourselves? And what would it be to become more skilful at helping others do that too?

I’m thrilled to be leading our regular two-day Coaching to Excellence programmes in London in May and July, in which we’ll get into all these questions together.

A place from which to relate to the world

Moods.

A distraction? An interruption to our dispassionate, rational, critical faculties? Out of place in work? At home? Best ignored? Even better suppressed?

No.

A mood is a place from which we relate to the world.

Moods are disclosive: they actively show the world to us, bringing forward some aspects so that they can be seen, and having others recede into the background.

And it’s important that we pay attention to them because there is no dispassionate, uninvolved place from which to relate to the world. There is no ‘mood-free’ way to be which would show us everything all in one go, at least in everyday life.

A mood of love: the object of your love (a person, an idea, a project) fills the world you experience. You find yourself turning towards it or them again and again in your thoughts and activities. For a while, the world revolves around this, and you get to see that which is inspiring, thrilling, life-giving about them.

A mood of frustration: when there’s something that matters to you that you can’t get to happen. Once again, that something figures centrally in the world for as long as you’re frustrated. Everything seems to point towards this something that matters, to contribute to your sense of being thwarted.

A mood of fear: brings forward that which is or seems threatening to us or to that which we care about, and has everything else fade away, so that we can take focussed action.

A mood of boredom: has everything fade into the background. Nothing seems important enough, stirring enough, exciting enough to move you.

A mood of resentment: has the person or situation you’re resentful about become central, and reveals to you the myriad ways you might take revenge, get your own back, or otherwise cause hurt.

A mood of gratitude: shines a light on the unlikeliness of your presence in the world, how little you had to do to end up surrounded by people, objects, possessions, possibilities. Illuminates the extraordinariness of the everyday.

Rather than being errors in perception, moods are always a way of attuning to aspects of the world that we might not otherwise pay attention to. Each mood functions to reveal the world in particular ways, showing us that which a different mood would conceal. And mostly this isn’t apparent, because for the most part moods are in the background, invisible. They’re like the air we breathe, omnipresent, necessary, and transparent.

So being able to tell what mood you’re in is a huge opening. It will show you what possibilities you might be missing, or how it is that there seem no possibilities at all. It will tell you much about what you really care about, because moods always arise from our cares, values and commitments. It will show you how what seems central right now, and what incidental, is only one way to look at things.

As you learn to cultivate different moods from the ones you’re most used to – for example gratitude where there was resentment – you’ll have revealed to you much that you never really saw before. You may discover that the world and other people are never simply this way or that, and perhaps even open up the possibility that they’re something else completely from how you’re used to relating to them. And this is a necessary step for any of us who want to bring ourselves fully to the world and to open up rich new avenues for relationship, possibility, and action.

Left Out

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Conversations frequently left out of the discourse of professional life:

What you’re feeling – a potential source of enormous insight and connection to others

What you care about – especially if different from those around you

Your history – the story of everything and everyone that brought you to this moment, the discoveries and losses and experiences that have shaped you

Your weirdness – the unique artfulness and way of seeing that comes from you being you

Your imagination – your capacity to invent beyond the bounds of convention, the energy for life which stirs you to break out of the ways you’re held in

Your longing – the life and world you’re in the midst of bringing forth

We shut them out with excuses. They’re ‘soft’ subjects, while business is ‘hard’. They’ll open a pandora’s box or a can of worms. This is a work-place, not a therapy session.

We lose so much when we continue to exclude the passions and possibility of the human heart from so many of our endeavours. And it damages us too, because before long we reduce ourselves and others to shadows of ourselves, inoculated by our cynicism against demonstrating care for much that is of genuinely enduring value to human life. Is this really the way you and your colleagues began your journey into the life of work? Can you even remember?

That work should be this way was sold to us by the early industrialists who needed scores of people in their factories to button down, fit themselves in, and stay in line. They appropriated the language of rationalism and science to fashion people into tools, cogs, and components so they could build their great money making machines. And we bought it, continuing a pernicious myth that shallows our relationships and possibility.

The world faces many difficulties right now, and addressing them is going to take all the generosity, wisdom and heartfelt commitment we can muster. Do we really intend to keep on working to shut that out from the world?

Feels just like me

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That familiar feeling again. She said “You’ve let me down” and something dropped in your belly, your posture collapsed just a little, and the world seemed to lose its solidity. You know how this goes. You’ll deal with the deflation by apologising and the energy for all your projects and plans will slip away until long after you get home.

Or you’re five minutes late for the meeting. Pulse racing. Tightness in your chest. You’re holding your breath, mind whirling, all the excuses and ways you’ll save face working out as you dash down the hall. You arrive hot, out of breath, mutter an excuse that blames the trains or the email system or someone else for holding you up, and then stay disengaged from the conversation, wrapped up in your shame and self-judgement.

Or maybe he sent you an email telling you he wouldn’t be seeing you as you’d arranged. Fury and resentment knot your stomach. Your jaws clench, your shoulders tighten. “It’s always this way,” you tell yourself, “he’s so self-centred”. And already your fingers are tapping out a reply: cold, distancing, laced with judgements and sarcasm.

Those feelings that are so familiar, that ‘feel like you’, are where your freedom can begin. Because every emotion conjours up a world, in which certain people loom close and others become far away, in which some actions become obvious – necessary even – and others seem impossible. And from the world that’s revealed to you by your moods you act: the combination of the familiar feeling and well-rehearsed action giving you a sense of who you are. In a way, over time, your way of responding indeed becomes who you take yourself to be.

You can see that this is the case by observing yourself for a while. What kind of possibilities become available to you in love, hate, resentment, joy, boredom, anger, frustration, sincerity, cynicism, fear, panic, anxiety, gratitude? And what familiar actions do you tend to take? What results do they bring?

The first steps towards your freedom are taken when you find out that there is no right ‘thing to do’ to respond to what you’re feeling. What seems so self-evident might just be the result of years of practice that’s conditioned you to react in a particular way. Don’t confuse its familiarity with appropriateness.

Next time you find yourself propelled into action like this see what happens if you make a change – and just a small one – in your response.

What happens if you do the opposite of that which your body seems to compel you to do? You may just find that new possibilities begin to open for you and those around you… that the world starts to open up in ways you’d never imagined.

How we misunderstand kindness

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We misunderstand kindness by taking it to be soft, or a push-over. Genuine kindness arises from a heated engagement with the world and with life. It’s borne of our efforts and our sadness, our gratitude, frustration and loss, our hard-won experience and our encounters with life’s finitude.

Kindness calls on us to:

face our difficulties
speak truth rather than cover it over with self-justification or evasion
point out what needs changing
draw attention to situations lacking integrity or good judgement
witness others’ distress and disorientation and share our own
say yes and no clearly, without excuses
take a stand for what matters
speak out
magnify dignity and possibility for everyone
bring forward both our tenderness and our fierce courage

When we think that kindness is a push-over we’re mostly thinking of kindness without discernment or wisdomkindness that stands back from difficulty, kindness that robs others of dignity by denying their distress, kindness that strips people of their capacity to act for themselves, kindness that serves to make us feel better but does nothing to make the world better, kindness that’s simply cotton wool to life’s hard edges.

In the end, that’s no kindness at all.

What emotions are

Two different interpretations of your emotions:

1. Emotions are just something that happens. They sweep in, and sweep out again. There to be felt, but not to be obsessed over, worried over, analysed. Emotions simply are.

2. Emotions are of the deepest significance. They show you what you care about. They’re the surest route to understanding what matters to you. Far from being an interruption to reason they are a form of intelligent, meaning-laden reasoning, and the heart of what it is to be human.

So often we’re blinded by the particular interpretation of emotions that we cling to.

So perhaps if you find yourself obsessed with what you’re feeling, you might try out living in interpretation 1 for a while.

And if you treat your emotions as a nuisance, a distraction, and better left alone, how about a while treating interpretation 2 as if it’s true?

Photo Credit: 2. via Compfight cc

Finding out that we are ordinary

Yesterday. ‘Be more, Do more’. The tag-line for a personal training company written on the back of a van in front of me on the drive into town. The narrative theme of our times, the poetry of our shared culture, as revealed by the advertising and marketing that surrounds us.

When we live in the narrative of ‘more’, every action, every conversation, every relationship becomes dedicated to an unending project for which we feel continuously responsible. More money, more stuff, more experiences, more trips, more friends, more relationships – yes. But also more capable, more powerful, more self-determining, more authentic, more persuasive, more reasonable, more peaceful, more compassionate, more successful, more loved, more happy, more fulfilled. When we orient towards ourselves this way we become the project, the objects of an unending self-improvement effort that requires our constant vigilance.

And anything can be appropriated in service of the project of self-improvement. Excellence, which once meant living a life as an expression of virtue, comes to mean standing out from the mass. Learning – a means of getting the best test results. Art – a way to look (and think of ourselves as) cultured. Meditation and other spiritual practice – a way to have an untroubled life of peace and tranquility. Exercise – a way to get a body that others will be attracted to. Our own development – a way to gain unlimited power to do what we want, when we want it, and to have others support us and love us for it.

When we live in this way, convinced that we’re always due an upgrade, there is nowhere to rest. But, more importantly, we distort ourselves with a gross misunderstanding of what it is to be human, a misunderstanding in which we secretly imagine that it’s possible to be a god. After all, who else but the mythical gods stand out, in all circumstances, from others? Who else has endless power, beauty, fulfilment? The capacity to summon abundance and tranquility upon a command, the ability to avoid suffering, accident and happenstance? Who but the gods have an existence in which there is no death, loss, disappointment, or illness? And who but the gods get just what they want, when they want it?

When we live as if we’re supposed to be gods, or entitled to be gods, we shouldn’t be surprised at the harshness of our disappointment and self-criticism, our endless comparison with the lives of others, and the way we’re hurled from grandiosity (I’ve made it, the all-powerful me) to deflation (I’m so small, and the world is so big, and there’s no hope) and back again. And we shouldn’t be surprised at what a fight we get into with our lives – lives that often surprise us, let us down, show us how little we know, throw us about, all without much regard for whether we’re getting what we want.

When we stop trying to improve ourselves (and often the people around us) all the time, we can start to appreciate in a new way the very natural and quite beautiful capacity of human beings to develop; to unfold like the buds of a rose. And we come to see, I am coming to think, that the path of our development is not trying to be gods, but finding out that we are ordinary.

To be ordinary is to discover that we share the same heritage and future as all human beings, and all living things – a heritage and future that we cannot escape. To know ourselves as ordinary is to find out that we have bottomless capacity for compassion, kindness, wisdom, beauty and contribution as well as for selfishness, cruelty, denial and stupidity. To know ourselves as ordinary is to understand that we’ll die, that there are consequences to our actions, that the earth’s resources are limited, that we can’t just have what we want because we say so. And to know ourselves as ordinary is to see that the vast world was here long before us and will be here long after us, and to find out that our contribution – if we’re willing to make it – ripples out through the other ordinary lives that our life touches, both those who are around us now and those who are to come.

To know ourselves as ordinary is to discover humility, finding out that we’re not bigger than life but neither are we smaller than it; to take up our place in the weave of living things in which we find ourselves.

When we know ourselves as ordinary we discover that we’re all in this together and, because of this, we have some justification for hope: the understanding that our skills, capacities and deepest commitments can be an immense source of help even when we cannot control the outcome. We have a reason to love and care for others who are as messy, conflicted, confused and life-filled as ourselves. And we find ourselves able to step in on behalf of life, rather than lose ourselves in fairy stories of optimism (it will magically all get better whether or not I take part) or pessimism (in which we’re all lost, whatever we do).

Photo Credit: Kiwi Tom Flickr via Compfight cc

One thing

In recent months I have taken up reading printed newspapers instead of reading online. It’s a decidedly low-tech, tactile experience. And what I have most come to appreciate is the boundedness of the activity, the constraints imposed by a form which is, simply, just what it is. There are no hyperlinks, no pop-ups, no advertising or stories chosen on the basis of my previous browsing habits. A single edition contains just what it contains, and no more.

The effect on me of this particular, immutable, physical arrangement of words and ideas is often quite profound. I read with much greater attention, free of the urge to jump out and away any time a link catches my eye. I read about topics I don’t read about online, because the paper does not hide from me perspectives and ideas that are different from my own. I am called to step into other worlds – worlds distinct from those shared with me by my Facebook friends and by the advertisers who are determined to sell to me what they already know that I like.

Mostly, though, I am freed by the containment of the form to be up to just one thing, and I experience this as enormously satisfying.

We have been sold powerfully on the freedom to choose whatever we want, whenever we want, and promised that realising this freedom is the pinnacle of human achievement and fulfilment. It’s a promise that often feeds our restlessness and rootlessness. Reading the newspaper reminds me of a parallel possibility, that of choosing to purposefully limit our own choices, of the beauty and dignity of commitment.

It is but a small example of a powerful principle by which we can live. Our willingness to bind ourselves by a promise, to give up a superficial freedom, uncovers a deeper, more significant freedom. It’s when we’re prepared to be up to one thing that we stop skimming across the surface of experience and find ourselves invited into a deepening engagement with the world.

And if it’s true of reading the newspaper, how much more true it becomes when we are willing to make life-defining commitments, those that bind us into a particular kind of care and attentiveness to the world, and have us set aside trying to do it all.

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Let’s commit to language

In this time when we’re seeing again how readily language can be used to undermine truth, disorient us, and turn us away from one another, let’s dedicate ourselves to recovering the sanctity and dignity of words.

Let’s remind ourselves that language matters, because it’s from language that we build all of our shared human life.

Let’s remember that this is about each of us. Because the everyday practices in our families and organisations include ways of using language to distort, cover-up, depersonalise, avoid and confuse. And that this, step-by-step, unravels its  life-giving power.

Let’s commit ourselves to using words in ways that preserve, and clarify, and deepen meaning and understanding. Let’s remember that we’ll often fall short, and will have to rededicate ourselves to the task, again and again.

And let’s keep reminding ourselves that the power of words to reveal, to illuminate, to uncover, and to share the precious fruits of knowledge between us is vital, rare, and easily undone.

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These are our values

The values you’ve declared for your organisation are not things that you can put on your wall, or lock away in a safe. You don’t have them. You can’t own them. And you most certainly can’t ’embed’ them in others, unless like rivets embedded in a wall you’re planning on using force.

You can’t even, in all truthfulness, say ‘these are our values’. Because values are, more accurately, works-in-progress, ongoing commitments to something that can never be completed.

You don’t have fairness, dignity, compassion, justice, creativity, honesty or service. You bring them about, most importantly when they’re least in evidence, when they’re most challenged, when they’re most called most into question by the complexities and compromises of life. And in each moment of action they are already in the midst of disappearing again.

When you relate to values as things they become things. The objects of lip-service. Inert, lifeless, hardly practiced.

Remember instead that values are a state of affairs that you’re actively working to bring about. You can’t embed them, but you can cultivate them. And that way they’ll have a chance of remaining alive in your hands.

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