The Journey of the Wild Flower

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

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

The journey of the wildflower

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

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

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

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

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

Hollie Holden

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

Convergent and Divergent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing the path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

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

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

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

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

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

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

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

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

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practice, not events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cracks

As we come to know quite how brief and how fragile our lives are, the less sense it makes to hold anything back.

Will we miss this precious chance to bring ourselves; our lives; the fullness of our pounding hearts? Will we withhold from life what is ours to bring? Will we mute our aliveness by repetition, by staying safe, by what’s expected, by going to sleep?

We can be sure of this: each of us is a unique intersection, a horizon between what is and what can be that will never be repeated.

But if only it were as easy as saying ‘don’t hold back’. If only there was not so much we must undo so that life can shine through. The habits of our bodies: halting; rigid; curling in; puffing up; tensing; defending us from whatever we’ve decided we must not feel. The emotions that catch us in their grip: anger; shame; fear. And our habits of mind: all the ways we pity ourselves, and all the ways we’re sure that life’s unfairness is only happening ‘to me’.

But undo we must, and undo we can, if we’ll dedicate ourselves, if we’ll find support, if we’ll put in the effort, if we’ll let ourselves feel our heartbreak, if we’ll welcome what we’ve pushed away, if we’ll be patient, if we’ll allow ourselves to let go.

And as we undo, as what we held so tightly slowly breaks apart and as life starts to flow through us, we find that it’s true what they say: it really is the cracks that let the light in.

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Decades

I started my 49th year of life this week. Around 160 years ago (less than four of my current life spans laid end-to-end) a full third of my contemporaries would already have reached the end of their lives, and less than half of us could have expected to live beyond our late 50s (see source [1] below).

Today, at least in the UK, two-thirds of us will live into our late seventies and many into our eighties. What a blessing, if we’ll choose to appreciate it while we can. And what possibilities, if we’ll find a way to use our chances of vastly extended life in service of those around us and those yet to come.

Readers of my work here will know of my interest in ongoing adult development, which takes place through marked increases in our capacity to make sense of the world, to inhabit longer time horizons (knowing ourselves as inheritors of a deep past and contributors towards a long future), to be less ‘had’ by impulsivity and narcissism, to understand the world of others, to exercise more autonomy, and to take action in systems and contexts which are bigger than our own immediate concerns [2].

Such development is very natural, if the opportunities come our way and if we’re courageous enough and have enough support to take them. But it is quite different from the rote-learning, keeping up appearances, and getting ahead that so many of us are taught at school and in our workplaces. It typically requires facing into difficulty rather than turning away, welcoming back the parts of ourselves that we’ve disowned, failing and falling and getting back up again. It’s not served by looking good, or knowing the facts, or keeping it all together, or learning just what’s comfortable and familiar, or comparing ourselves with others.

And it’s probably the most important work we can do with the gift of these extra decades, if we’re lucky enough to have them. Because the world faces challenges of a complexity our ordinary way of speaking, thinking, acting and relating to one another are often ill-equipped to face. And perhaps we have been given these decades – through the long slow evolution of human beings as a species – precisely so that we can work on the problems our shorter-lived ancestors never got the chance to tackle.

References:

[1] Modal Age at Death: Mortality Trends in England and Wales 1841-2010, monograph available for download here
[2] In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan and Changing on the Job, Jennifer Garvey Berger

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Concentric Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part of ourselves

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

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

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Declaring Meaning

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

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

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

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

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Better off knowing this

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

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

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

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Taking responsibility for our stories

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes to what?

Many of us will say yes to anything.

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

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

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

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Giving Up What No Longer Works

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

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

Giving Up What No Longer Works

from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo

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

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

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

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

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

— Mark Nepo, from The Book of Awakening

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

Our stories about our feelings

When you feel emptiness, what do you do?

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

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

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

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

There’s always another story you can tell.

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

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

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

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

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A Ritual to Read to Each Other

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

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

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When the conversation dies, what do you do?

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

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

When the conversation dies, what do you do?

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

Occasionally, this is bound to happen.

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

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

The consequence?

Feeling safe.

And becoming ghosts.

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Stimulus and Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life’s incompleteness

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

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

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

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The Clearing

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

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

The Clearing

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

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

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

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

— Lizzie Winn

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

Heaven and Hell

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

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

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

Isn’t much of the world this way?

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

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

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

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

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What the storm is all about

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But one thing is certain.

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

That’s what this storm’s all about.”

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Beyond What Goes Wrong

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

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

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

Beyond What Goes Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Five summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Accepting life

An unchangeable feature of life is that, at every moment, you find yourself inescapably in some situation or other – perhaps one that you did not choose.

And however magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living.

No manner of denial (and all the suffering that comes with it) can change that your life continues from this moment, this particular configuration, and not from another.

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is not ‘putting up with things’ but responding fully from where you are. Not pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere else.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

Many paths lead from this place.

Will you go to sleep to yourself, or step in to this, the one and only life you have?

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Welcoming Ourselves and Others

In this episode Lizzie and I talk about the radical possibility of welcoming ourselves, and others, just as we are.

To those of us with a more action-oriented stance or a commitment to improving things, welcoming in this way can look like an act of irresponsibility. After all, doesn’t making things better in some way entail rejecting how things are?

We explore this tension together, looking at how our surrounding culture of keeping up and comparison with others turns us away from ourselves. We consider the possibility of both welcoming and working to repair the world. And in the midst of things Lizzie’s niece joins us for a surprise visit.

The source is written by our friend and colleague Steve March:

Letting Be – A Poem to Welcome a Fellow Journeyer

Dear journeyer, you are welcome here exactly as you are.
No one here will try to change you according to their ideas or ideals.
No one here wants you to be otherwise.
We will let you be, just as you are.
Only then can we celebrate your perfect uniqueness.

Letting be is a gift of love that we give to you.
Love of your Truth.
Love of your Beauty.
Love of your Goodness.
Only then can we relish your luminous brilliance.

Letting be is a gift of love that you can give yourself too.
Letting be, your heart will melt, your mind will open, your body will release.
Letting be, your creativity will rocket forth.
Letting be, your innate resourcefulness will amaze you.
Only then can you behold your true magnificence.

The sun beams just for you.
The mountain salutes your majesty.
The river of life guides you within its currents.
The universe is your playground.
Welcome home, dear journeyer.

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

Love

Love – genuine love for anything – is so often left out of the discourse of organisational life.

Apparently it’s not serious enough for business.

Sometimes we’ll allow ourselves passion – a word which is allowed, I think, because it sells us to others with its promise of energy and heat, commitment and making things happen. (We’re so tied up with endlessly making things happen that we’ve forgotten everything else that conspires to make it possible).

And we’ll allow ourselves cynicism and skepticism, moods which distance us from one another and give us a feeling of superiority (a kind of pseudo-sophistication in which we believe we have greater insight than everyone else around us, who simply can’t see what we can see).

Frustration and resignation are also welcomed in many organisations, because serious work is apparently meant to be difficult all the time and both of these moods, reminding us of our difficulty, tell us that we must be doing it right.

But love – genuine love? Deep, heartfelt love for something or someone that brings out our integrity, moves us, has us speak truth even when it’s inconvenient, draws us out of ourselves, can touch people with something beyond manipulation or self-interest? How often do we allow that in ourselves or in others?

We treat love with disdain.

And we’re much the poorer for it.

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Care and Careful

Careful and care are quite different from one another, but we often confuse them.

Careful:

holding back
waiting until conditions are just right
being nice rather than genuine
saying what’s expected, what’s socially acceptable
protecting yourself – for the benefit of whom exactly?

Care:

coming in close
acting when it’s needed
being kind, which sometimes requires sharpness
saying what will actually help, teach, free people up
dropping your defences so you can be of assistance

Careful keeps difficulty going when it feels too risky to act. Care does what it can to reduce it.

Careful twists the truth for its own ends. Care speaks it.

Careful is full of caution.

And care is full of contact.

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Trusting your own shape

Lizzie and I were live for ‘Turning Towards Life‘ yesterday. In this episode, we talk about Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem ‘The Swan’. In particular we take up the question of faith in ourselves – what does it take to trust in the particular shape in which we’re made, even though it brings us difficulties? And gifts what can come when we’re prepared to trust that what we’re for might be quite different from what we’ve been doing, or from what we’ve imagined?

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

Supplier or partner?

A choice to make whenever you work with others: will you relate to them as supplier or partner?

Suppliers are there to give you what you ask for. ‘We want 300 widgets by Friday’ – there’ll be a supplier for that. The supplier does not need to know much about what you care about, or are committed to, beyond the needs of the current supply. Once they have fulfilled your request to the standards you lay out, their job is done. And in relating to them as supplier you become consumer – the one with the right to determine the spec, the one upon whose sole discretion the supply gets accepted or rejected, and the one who expects not to be challenged, or disturbed, or questioned.

The consumer-supplier relationship, even if it lasts over a long time period, is essentially a relationship of safety and utility (an I-It relationship). If someone else comes along who can give you what you ask for more quickly, or more cheaply, or with less fuss, have them supply you instead.

And while supply gives you what you asked for, it gives you only what you asked for. You may get what you want, but you may well not get what you need.

Partners are there to be in your commitments with you. To be a partner is to step in, to care about the same things that another cares about, and to build a relationship which can hold creativity, surprise, trust and difference. To be a partner is to be prepared to question the spec, the strategy and the premise, and be questioned in turn for the sake of the larger commitment you share. It’s to enter into something big together, to be influenced by one another, and to be in it for the long term.

When you step into a relationship this way, you invite the other party to join with you in your endeavours. As such partnership is an essentially I-You relationship, a shared commitment aimed at a far bigger set of possibilities than a supplier-consumer relationship can ever hope to address.

The partner-supplier choice applies to just about any relationship. Colleagues, employees, consultants you bring in, people who make things and services you use – any can be partner or supplier. In each case you choose. Will you invite the other to be supply for your requests or partner in bringing about what matters most?

Each kind of relationship has its place, and each has its consequences. But what gets most of us into trouble, sooner or later, is how often we try to make ourselves suppliers when a bolder, riskier and more significant contribution is called for. And how often we look for the safety and reassurance of a supplier, when it’s a partner that we really need if we’re going to have the impact on the world we’re hoping for.

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