Through the Wall of Flame

Sometimes stepping into our lives means stepping through a wall of flame into something bigger that we cannot yet see.

In this episode of ‘Turning Towards Life’ we begin with a piece written by Mark Nepo, ‘Through the Wall of Flame’, which you can find below. We talk about how easy it is to imprison ourselves in a smaller life than we wish for, as a way of trying to keep ourselves away from danger and out of painful experiences.

And we ask ourselves a big question – “What is it that we’re so dedicated to not feeling, that we’re willing to ruin our lives to avoid it?”. Along the way we consider the liberating possibilities that come when we’re willing to encounter what we’ve been avoiding, and to do so with the loving help of others.

You can join us for a live conversation on facebook every Sunday morning at 9am UK time, for a deep dive into topics like this. Join our members-only facebook group here to be with us.

And you can find our more about our work as thirdspace coaching here.

Through the Wall of Flame
by Mark Nepo, from ‘The Book of Awakening

As a frightened man in a burning boat
has only one way to the rest of his life,
we must move with courage
through the wall of flame
into the greater sea.

Living long enough, we each find ourselves surrounded by an old way of being, thinking, or loving that is going up in flames. In that unexpected moment, we usually find ourselves full of fear, feeling trapped by an old way of life coming in on us. But this is the passage of rebirth that we must move through if our lives are to unfold. It is the momentary and painful crossing from what is old into what is new.

It is understandable to stall at the wall of flame, not wanting to face all that is burning around us. Yet old ways can burn forever, and waiting for the flames to go out seldom works. We can waste years in the waiting.

Like the frightened man in the burning boat, we must trust that the greater sea we are jumping into will douse whatever catches fire as we move through. This is what faith is all about.

Without trying to be brave and with great fear, I have stumbled and jumped through many walls of flame. The first time, I think, was in leaving home—needing to go, burning at the edge, afraid I wouldn’t survive beyond the flame of anger in which I was raised. Not much later, I had to move through the flames of first-love rejection. Here the broken part of me was almost willing to be burned alive. I felt certain there was nowhere to go and nothing that could soothe me. I more fell through this wall than jumped and, of course, once in the sea of life beyond myself, the world continued and I healed.

Perhaps the greatest wall of flame I had to jump through was the pain of cancer and the prospect of dying. It seemed the entire sea was on fire. Even once overboard, drifting farther and farther from the flames, I thought I might drown. How could I know that greater sea was the womb of a deeper life? I’m sure this is the same for anyone struggling to break out of any form of addiction, illness, or abusive relationship.

bookofawakening

 

Photo Credit: bryanshoots Flickr via Compfight cc

You were always in safe hands

Here’s ‘In Safe Hands’, the 39th episode of Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by thirdspace coaching in which Lizzie Winn and I dive deep into big questions of human living.

This week we begin with a poem by Jeff Foster which makes the radical suggestion that what we’re trying to get to, and what we’re trying to run from, obscure a simple and vital truth: that we’ve misunderstood what we are. And that what we need is right here, just where we are, waiting for us.

Along the way we talk about what it is to find language for that part of human experience that is, essentially, unsayable. And we remind ourselves that while we’re often far away from ourselves it’s always in returning home that healing happens.

You can join our members-only facebook group for live conversation and community here.

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation, written by Jeff Foster.

In Safe Hands

You get tired of half-truths, don’t you? 
You get tired of pretending 
You get tired of the world’s promises 
You get tired of… waiting. 
You even get tired of getting tired.

You get tired of ‘you’ – 
The one who ‘gets tired of’.

A divine disillusionment 
And a great paradox – 
For who gets tired of whom?

In the midst of despair 
You find yourself staring life in the face 
Naked and unprotected 
in front of its sacredness. 
And for the first time 
(For whatever reason) 
You do not turn away.

It breaks you open 
It shatters your dreams 
It burns up your certainty. 
Even your dreams of enlightenment 
do not stand a chance.

You shit yourself with fear 
You cry out for help 
(Why has it forsaken you?)

And then 
For the the first time 
You feel deeply alive 
Undivided from life itself 
Resting in the arms of the One 
you always sought 
Unprotected yet utterly safe 
Free at last 
Free at last.

It destroys the one you thought you were 
But it never touches the One you are.

This is the road less travelled, they say 
A road leading not to the future 
Not to the promised land 
But to the one reading these words now

To the one who knew all along 
That all along this road’s ancient edges 
lies the shed skin of lost identities and unkept promises.

Clean yourself up, my friend 
You were always in safe hands.

– Jeff Foster

Photo Credit: Meanest Indian Flickr via Compfight cc

Practicing Radical Self-Responsibility

Here’s episode 38 of ‘Turning Towards Life’, our weekly, live 30 minute deep dive into the bigger questions of human life, in which I’m joined by Lizzie Winn as part of thirdspace coaching.

This week ‘Practicing Radical Self-Responsibility’, a call to action from activist Taj James of the Movement Strategy Centre, an organisation dedicated to “lead a transition from a world of domination and extraction to a world of regeneration, resilience, and interdependence… To put love at the centre, reimagine possibility, navigate into the unknown, and step into the new future that is calling us forward.”.

In this conversation, Lizzie and I consider the balance between strictness with ourselves (so we remember our responsibility to act) and kindness (so we can draw on our goodness and capacity, and not collapse into shame or self-righteousness). It’s a tricky and life-giving act of paying attention that’s called for in any of us who want to actually take care of the world and not just talk about it. And we celebrate the ordinary everyday acts of responsibility that can inspire us to rise to the bigger acts of taking a stand that our times are calling for.

You can join our members-only facebook group for live conversation and community here.

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation, written by Taj James.

Practicing Radical Self-Responsibility 
(notes to selves)
I can only speak for myself
I can only change myself.
There are some things about myself
I can not change.
They are aspects of who I am.
I need to learn to accept and love
All aspects of who I am
And
I am not
who I think I am
I Am Everything
And
Responsible for
every little thing
i am
Intentions matter and
I am fully responsible
for ALL of the impact I create
Without consciousness
There is no choice
Responsibility is Complete.
Weather actions or impacts flow
from conscious or unconscious
action/non-action
Choosing unconsciousness,
knowing it is a root source
from which harm flows,
has specific consequences
Cultivating consciousness
requires healing, support
great courage and spiritual discipline
Self-harm, isolation, shame and regret
perpetuate the cycles of of harm
and prevent healing, repair and restoration.
Dare to be free
Shame and silence
are the most harmful forces
in the multiverse
Harm flows
from the shadows
we have not embraced
followed close behind
by certainty
Yes, Love
is the only
generative
certainty
And, all other forms of certainty
are only
domination and hubris
masking fear and a
desire for control
i have been harmed
i have caused harm
that makes me a human
Focus on the love you have shared
not just the harm you have caused
Celebrate and soak in
the gratitude and
Do your best to acknowledge and
clean up the messes you make
Pay your debts and
pay all the debts you can pay
even those you may not be responsible for
Acknowledgement, connection, an apology and a smile
don’t cost anything
Some debts can never be repaid.
If you owe a debt like this,
spend each day of your life
grateful for the opportunity
to fail everyday
at repaying it.
Reconnect you to your bigger self.
Regret, self-hate, guilt only deepen the harm generated by
your unconsciousness and disconnection
generated by your fear, thoughtlessness or delusion
born from the harm and traumas that flowed into you
Whenever I forget any of this truth
Please, quickly, firmly and gently
remind me.
— Taj James movementstrategy.org

On Feeling Like a Fraud

Here’s episode 37 of ‘Turning Towards Life’, our weekly, live 30 minute deep dive into the bigger questions of human life.

This week ‘On Feeling a Fraud’, an experience common to most of us but which we keep hidden for fear of being found out. But what if being ‘found out’ is a path to discovering our own capacity and entering into the kind of life-giving relationships we long for?

You can find out more about thirdspace coaching at http://www.thirdspacecoaching.com

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation, written by Lizzie.

On Feeling Like a Fraud

The feeling that I will be found out one day. That someone will come and lift the facade and see me for all my faults and inadequacy. That the powers that Be will expose me, exile me, shame me. That finally and once and for all I will be outed for all the things I don’t know, all the ways I’ve been half baked. All the ways I have made it look like everything’s ok when I am really like a duck on the water, (looking like water does indeed run off a ducks back), and my little legs are going wild beneath the surface of the water trying to stay afloat and keep this whole thing going.

My little legs are going ten to the dozen because:

I have to go this fast just to keep up
If I don’t keep momentum then I will fall behind
If I don’t paddle hard I will be seen for what’s really going on inside
If I let up I will be cast out for my uselessness
If I stop and be real and admit it’s hard, I will be outed as the shameful creature I really am. This duck, like any other duck.

Who feels incapable, ineffective, confused, sad, grief filled, flawed, lacking in confidence. Who is doing their best to be loved, to be good, to be successful, to be worthy and to be noticed.

If anyone could see the flapping, the freak outs, the procrastination, the laziness, the incompleteness, the disorganised, the short cuts, the mistakes, the arguments, the lack of knowledge, just how much I’m winging it.

I would surely be cast out. The worst of human shame. To be lost and exposed and raw in the surety of being faced with my own brokenness – fully acknowledged by the world and the people who are powerful and important to me.

And yet.

In the sharing of my inadequacy, I gently find out that I am not alone. And it turns out that all these feelings, all this fear is a universal thing. It’s not actually mine. It’s a general consequence of humanness. And we all had parents and cultures and education systems that used shame as their main source of power. Because they didn’t have anything else at their finger tips when faced with the human in front of them.

So each time we share, each time we open and each time we join one another and undo the shame by seeing each other and accept the unacceptable. We heal and we grow in confidence that we are good, we are worthy, we are loved. We are vulnerable and that’s how it should be. Unfinished, messy, lovable, doing the very best we can. And doing that alongside our fellow humans in connection, in warmth, in kindness.

And together we journey. All flawed, all broken, all holding one another in the great web of life that is human community.

— Lizzie Winn

We are the environment for each other

It’s clear that we human beings are deeply affected by the environment in which we find ourselves. We are in a constant exchange with what is around us, both shaping it and being shaped by it.

And so it’s worth remembering, because it’s mostly so invisible to us, that we are each the environment for one another.

Which means in turn that difficulties that occur for other people and with other people can often be addressed, first, by taking responsibility for what is ours, and how it’s affecting those around us.

Don’t be ashamed to be human, be proud

Here’s episode 36 of ‘Turning Towards Life’, our weekly, live 30 minute deep dive into the bigger questions of human life, with Lizzie Winn.

This week, “Don’t Be Ashamed to be Human”. So many of us figure that we have to go through life essentially alone, like super-heroes, hiding all our difficulties and failures and in the process finding ourselves far away from the joys of deep human contact and support. We wonder about what it takes to turn towards the life-giving support of others, and how coaching, community, friendship and family can be ways of entering into this with one another.

We also talk about the extraordinary two-day introduction to Integral Development Coaching, ‘Coaching to Excellence‘ which will be offered by thirdspace in London on 1st-2nd October 2018.

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation:

Romanesque Arches
Tomas Tranströmer
Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous
Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel with no face embraced me
and his whisper went all through my body:
“Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.”
Tears blinded me
as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza,
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini;
within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.

Good learning undoes us

It’s common practice in many organisations for people to demand, with some force, a ‘take away’ from every learning experience, course, workshop or coaching session.

Perhaps it seems obvious, at least to start with, that this should be the case. After all aren’t we busy, productive, results-oriented people? Why would we do anything unless it obviously moves us forward, to the next step, the next project, the next success?

By insisting on this we’ve confused learning with other, more familiar, activities. And we’ve profoundly misunderstood the nature of any learning that’s really worth our while.

Firstly, the confusion. Learning is not like going to a meeting, finishing a project plan, coming to an agreement, or delivering a product. When we insist that learning be like every other activity in our working culture we’re not really engaging in learning at all. We’re confusing learning with deciding, or getting things done, both of which are worthwhile activities in themselves, but don’t change us much.

Secondly, we’ve misunderstood or wilfully redefined what learning can be. We’ve reduced it to knowing a fact, understanding a step-by-step process, or knowing about a clever technique. We want to learn with the minimum of our own involvement, in a trouble-free, predictable, and narrow way. We want it recognisable in form and structure. We do not wish to be too troubled. And all of this is insufficient for learning that really does something.

Unless we want our learning to keep us within our habitual, predictable boundaries (and I am arguing that this is not learning at all) we have to give up our demands that it be familiar. We have to allow it to confuse us as well as inspire us, to dissolve our existing categories and rigidity, and to confound our everyday understanding so it can show us something new. We have to allow it to render us unskilful for a while so that we can embody new skills that in turn open new worlds of possibility. And we have to allow ourselves to feel many things – elation, excitement, frustration, disappointment, wonder, surprise, boredom, joy – so that we can be affected by the experience and not just observe it in a detached way.

Good learning undoes us.

And for that reason the ‘take aways’ we demanded at the start may be quite different from what actually happens. And what lives on in us as a result may not appear at the moment we walk out of the room, but as the product, over time, of living with, practicing and inquiring into what we’ve only just begun to see.

By demanding we know what learning will do before we begin, we’re hardly learning at all.

Photo Credit: acase1968 Flickr via Compfight cc

And For No Reason

In episode 35 of ‘Turning Towards Life‘, our weekly 30 minute deep dive into big questions of human living, Lizzie and I take up the topic of joy as a necessary orientation in human life.

What is it about joy, we wonder, that makes it different from ‘happiness’? How is it that the way we get obsessed with our difficulties, or with completing goals, interrupts our capacity to be in contact with the wonder of being alive? What were all the ways we got taught from a very young age that joy is somehow a distraction from the serious work of living and getting things done? And what if opening to joy is a radical political act, a deeper commitment that we can bring to everything as we start to be honest about the finite nature of our lives and our limited time?

In this weekly project from thirdspace coaching we dive deep in a live, inspiring, unscripted 30 minute conversation. Our aim – to learn as much as we teach, to discover as we go, and to give support to all of us in turning towards our lives with depth and creativity rather than turning away.

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation:

And For No Reason – Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

And
For no reason
I start skipping like a child.

And
For no reason
I turn into a leaf
That is carried so high
I kiss the Sun’s mouth
And dissolve.

And
For no reason
A thousand birds
Choose my head for a conference table,
Start passing their
Cups of wine
And their wild songbooks all around.

And
For every reason in existence
I begin to eternally,
To eternally laugh and love!

When I turn into a leaf
And start dancing,
I run to kiss our beautiful Friend
And I dissolve in the Truth
That I Am.

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.

Photo Credit: kaddisudhi via Compfight cc

 

Midrash

In the Jewish tradition, any story is an invitation to interpretation, to imagination, to invention. You read a story not so much for what’s true in it, as for what can be imagined into the spaces. So a straightforward story can become the launching point for wildly differing interpretations, all of which are held alongside one another even if they’re paradoxical, mysterious or downright contradictory.

It’s a tradition known as midrash and it embodies a commitment to see things from many angles, to have many different kinds of explanations for what might initially look obvious and simple. In midrash there’s no such thing as a story with a monopoly on the truth.

Often, it’s helpful to do midrash with your own life, with your work, with your relationships.

You probably already have habitual ways of explaining who you are, who others are, what’s happening, and what’s possible. Perhaps you currently have only one telling available to you, one that’s so familiar, so trusted, you can’t even tell that it’s there.

Making midrash from your own life involves starting to tell a different story from the one you’re currently telling. Maybe you’re not the righteous, wounded hero after all. Perhaps they’re not out to get you, but are trying to help. Maybe you’re not as in control of your life as you think – or perhaps you’re much more in control already than you knew. Maybe it is possible for you to be someone who asks for what you want. Perhaps there’s a contribution you’re making that you can’t see because of your self-critical stories. Maybe life has an invitation for you that’s not going to come from trying harder and harder until you work yourself into the ground.

These are just a few of the stories you might have about yourself and life, and a few of the alternatives you could start to imagine. You could also ask others how they’d tell the story of your situation – great midrash can begin simply from here.

Even if you have only one way of explaining your life, it’s already midrash, already just one interpretation of many that are possible.

So much opens, and so much suffering can be avoided, when you stop believing your own stories as the only truth.

Photo Credit: Renaud Camus via Compfight cc

Waiting for Events to Save Us

Here’s episode 34 of ‘Turning Towards Life’ episode with Lizzie Winn: ‘Practice, Not Events’. In this episode we talk about the events that can shape a life, and the mistake we make when we wait for events to save us. What comes instead, we wonder, when we hold on less tightly to what happens and dedicate ourselves to a life of dedicated practice? Along the way we talk about near-death experiences, weddings, and organisational change.

In this weekly project from thirdspace coaching we dive deep in a live, inspiring, unscripted 30 minute conversation. Our aim – to learn as much as we teach, to discover as we go, and to give support to all of us in turning towards our lives with depth and creativity rather than turning away.

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation, from an earlier post on this blog.

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.

We’re live this 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.

 

Con-trick

How easy it is to be up to something while simultaneously denying it.

I have sophisticated strategies for trying to be in control while looking like I’m being inclusive, for trying to get people to love me while looking as if I’m just trying to help, and for being stubbornly attached to my own view while looking as if I’m asking what other people think.

All of these allow me to hold on to a particular kind of self-image (kind, accommodating, self-effacing) while simultaneously getting my own way. And they involve some sophisticated kinds of denial – spinning stories that blind me to my real intentions.

When I relate to other people in this way, things can get pretty complicated.

Sometimes, though – sometimes – I am able to see what I’m doing while I’m doing it. The intentions which I was subject to become object, moving from the background to the foreground, and then I have a chance to intervene and to take responsibility for what I’m doing.

I am less had by my strategies. I become someone who has them.

This move, making what we are subject to become object to us, is at the heart of all profound developmental transitions. Every time something moves into view (a part of us, or a way we’re thinking, or a way we’re constructing the world, or a way we’re being shaped by our interactions with others) it affords us more freedom to act, a more inclusive view of ourselves and others, and a greater possibility to take care of whatever and whoever it is that we care about.

And this move requires that we get onto our own con-tricksall the ways we’ll convince ourselves of our rightness and deny our part in what’s happening.

Often, it seems, what I’m hiding from myself about my intentions is pretty much the worse-kept secret of all, known to everybody else but me. And that is why, for each of us to develop, it’s so important to be surrounded by people who extend love our way, who see us for our goodness, and who extend the kindness and respect required to tell us the truth (with care for timing, and in ways we can hear and understand), rather than keeping what they see to themselves.

Photo Credit: Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography via Compfight cc

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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