Those of us who…

Those of us who have any kind of privilege, who don’t have to scrabble in the dirt to make a living or to find food, who don’t have to run from bombs and missiles, who aren’t being beaten down by oppressive systems of government or prejudice… we had better start taking seriously our duty to care for ourselves, as an act of dignity, as a responsibility, as an act of honour towards those whose circumstances prevent them from doing so, and just because we can.

As Parker Palmer writes, Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Any time we can listen to true self, and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves, but for the many lives we touch.’

Self-care and care for everything are one and the same.

To have the privileges of peace, financial resource, economic and political stability, work to do, a dry and warm place to live, is to be in a position of enormous power and influence.

And until we, who can, give up burning ourselves out, until we start treating the sacredness and preciousness of our own bodies as precious and sacred, until we start extending kindness to ourselves, until we learn to care for ourselves and the energy of our lives, we will continue to struggle to take care of others and of our fragile, extraordinary, necessary world.

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Eudaimonia

When we measure effort by results alone – return on investment, percentage growth, money made, units shipped – we easily forget that it’s the nature of human beings to be shaped by what we do. We’re profoundly affected by the actions we take, even if we choose to pretend that’s not the case. We become what we do.

And there are real consequences to our wilful blindness. Pushing ourselves ever harder to hit targets with no consideration of the bodily and emotional costs leaves us drained, anxious, depleted, and unwell. People die emotionally this way. Or our relationships shrivel. Or, frighteningly often, we lose our lives because we’ve attended so little to our own genuine care (in Japanese there is a special word, Karōshi – death from overwork – that names this phenomenon).

We’re equally traumatised and diminished when we repeatedly treat our colleagues or customers as if they are a means to an end, when we treat ourselves as if we’re a means to an end, when we speak corporate jargon that numbs and distances us from the truth of our experience, when we try to shoehorn our human fluidity and agility into rigid job descriptions and lists of corporately-sanctioned behaviour, when we mouth platitudes and sign up to ‘values’ in which we do not believe, when we turn up to meeting after meeting in which we have no role and no intent to contribute, when we abandon our cares and concerns in order to get ahead, when we live as if redemption will come in the future (when we get that promotion, job, car, or house), when we mute our own voice because we’re afraid, when we give up our artistry and integrity to serve a set of aims that are at odds with our own, and when we continually ignore the longing of our own hearts and the signals of our own bodies that we’re living at a remove from ourselves.

And yet all of these are what many of us have been taught is precisely what is required by the world of work. We’ve come to believe that success in these self-harming domains is the success we’re striving for. That productivity must always come ahead of care for ourselves and others. That this is simply what we have to put up with, or even that it’s good and necessary to have work be a means by which we absent ourselves from genuine flourishing. And by taking this to be true we enslave ourselves, willingly, to a convenient but destructive myth that has supported the kind of economy upon which many countries have relied for decades, a myth supported by the Cartesian premise that the human mind is separate from the body (so we don’t need to pay attention to the impact our work is having on us), that human beings are essentially broken (so we have to continually push harder to make up for our inadequacy), and that redemption will come from status or being able to buy more stuff (a premise which, itself, keeps the whole edifice going).

In the midst of all of this, it’s no wonder that so many people feel only half-alive, and that so few of us can imagine that work or life could be any different.

But there are other ways of being available to us, and we know them already.

The ancient Greeks had a word – eudaimonia – for the living and working practices of a life well-lived. It means living in accordance with life’s good spirit, living with a commitment to flourishing as well as to excellence in our endeavours. Specifically it means living in a way that cultivates virtues in ourselves and others – those qualities which themselves bring life into the world. Cultivating virtues cultivates our sensitivity to the needs of life and our capacity to do the pragmatic work needed in order for us to live well.

Indeed for the ancient Greek philosophers it was the very definition of excellence and an ethical responsibility to attend to the kind of human beings we become, even as we pursue our other aims and goals. To attend patiently to our practices, becoming more and more able to cultivate hope, compassion, wisdom, beauty, justice, mercy, patience, enthusiasm, peace, creativity and any number of other of virtues. And as we do so, becoming the kind of presence that makes it more and more possible for others us to do the same.

To actively work on the expression of virtues is to actively work on being an expression of life, which in turn breathes life into the people around us. And it’s not a luxury or an option either – we always need these qualities in the world, in the brightest of times and in the darkest.

Of course, cultivating virtue in ourselves is far from easy. We simultaneously have to work on our willingness to step forward and take risks, to work productively with our own inner demons, shame and self-criticism, to be able to let go of our preferences (giving up doing what we like and instead doing what’s called for), and to develop sensitivity for the needs of others and for the needs of the world. There isn’t much in the world of work for most people that encourages us to do that. Most of the time we’re more comfortable staying small, and afraid, and within the familiar bounds within which we know ourselves. And most of the time the culture we’ve cultivated in our organisations would have us do the same (even while we publicly extol the value of ‘thinking outside the box’ and run corporate wellness programmes that serve to cover up the difficulty we’re in).

Today, as we face a wide range of difficulties and tensions that are tearing at the way we’ve done things so far we could, if we wish, reimagine how we work, and reimagine leadership as we do so. We could define leadership in eudaimonic terms, making the work of ‘cultivating virtue in ourselves and others’ the primary task.

And we could, as we do so, find out how much more able we can be in responding to the world in ways that serve everybody, rather than only a narrow set of concerns shaped by targets, unquestioned growth, or our wish to fit in.

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How to meet the world

There are enough people afraid, yelling, paralysed, spinning, panicked in the world already, and it’s not helping us. Right now what’s called for is the capacity to be grounded, to see with as much clarity as we can muster, to take the world and its changes with the equanimity that comes from knowing that change is the way of the world, and to bring as much virtue to the world as we can.

It’s always been the case that the world, and everyone in it, benefits when we can find courage, truthfulness, compassion, kindness, service, justice, mercy, creativity, gratitude, patience, integrity, fierceness of purpose, commitment and the like. Let’s please, do what we can to cultivate that in one another and in ourselves, rather than those qualities that dehumanise us or isolate us from one another.

Right now I’m taking up the practice of reading less news and more poetry*. I’m finding in this a deeply renewed capacity to engage. So much of what’s passing for news at the moment is in any case fevered speculation, and reading more of it numbs me (with fear or denial). Exercise is helping enormously. Meditation. Long hugs with people I love. Giving up the fantasy that I can control what happens. And doing the thing I’m here to do – writing and teaching.

It seems to me that if ever there was a time to start committing ourselves to what we’re really here to do (rather than what someone else told us to do, or what we imagined would get us liked or give us status) it’s now. With as much sincerity and integrity as we can find.

Let’s get to it.

*I found this suggestion in the wonderful work of Krista Tippett

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Blessings in a taxi

His name was Tahar, and he drove me from home to the station with such generosity and joyfulness of spirit. And all the while he taught me how to live. 

I asked him if the dark brooding storm-clouds of the economy and of politics worried him at all. And he looked at me with wondrous, wide, shining eyes.

‘Life is so precious,’ he told me, ‘but we forget. We forget that any of us could die any day, at any moment. And that it’s always been that way.’

‘We have to get real about the human condition,’ he said. ‘We’re fooling ourselves if we think it could be otherwise.’

‘And so there isn’t much for us to do’, he continued, ‘apart from taking care of one another, fixing what’s in our power to fix in our own lives and around us, and doing as much good for one another as we can, while we can. And, while doing all of that, to be joyful. Because, before long, and when we least expect it, it will be over.’

Tahar told me about his history of chasing status and possessions, of worrying about what’s beyond his power to influence, and the illness of body and spirit that all of this had brought him. And he told me how he’d realised that this was no way to live. That the choice, in a way, was simple – to live the life we have available and to bring as much goodness as we can to it, or to die in life. And I sat, touched profoundly by his delight and wonder at the world, and illuminated by his capacity to see so deeply into what ails us and what we might do about it.

And for the first time in days I felt truly joyful – at the wonder of my own life, of the stunning coincidence that brings me to the people I love, and at my capacity to contribute no matter what awfulness is in the world.

What a delight to meet someone so deeply committed to blessing others.

Thank you, Tahar.

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Boundaries

So many of our troubles come from our insistence that there is an us and a them. ‘Us’ – the people who share something important with us. ‘Them’ – the ones who don’t.

Us – the managers of this organisation. Them – everyone else.
Us – my company. Them – the competition.
Us – the people already living in my country. Them – everyone else.
Us – those who agree with me. Them – those that don’t.

Once we have an us and a them, we have reasons to be fearful, distrustful, suspicious, defensive. After all they might try to take what we have.

Where we draw the boundary between us and them is, in many ways, arbitrary. It depends entirely upon what we take ourselves to hold in common with others, and what not. At its smallest, us is a category of one, the person who inhabits my own body. Now everyone else is them, potentially out to get me. Many people live this way. We could draw the boundary at family, at community, at nationhood. But us could also be as big as all of humanity (all that shares a human body) – or indeed all life (all that shares the mysterious quality we call life) – and then there is nobody and nothing to be them.

The smaller us is, the bigger our fear, mistrust, and apprehension of others. The bigger us is, the more of the world we feel bound to take care of.

It’s ironic that at a time in history when there is more material abundance available than ever before, we seem so committed to shrinking us in a way that shrinks our care for the world.

The last 200 years have given us unprecedented technology, science, and understanding of what it is to be a human being. We are more and more appreciating the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. I wonder what would happen if instead of shrinking the world we used that understanding to grow our sense of us, and in doing so grew our capacity and responsibility to take care of things.

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The perfect time to hope

hopetree

Today, I can think of nothing better than to simply share Howard Zinn‘s wonderful words on hope – a reminder for days which can seem so dark, despairing, and robbed of possibility:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.

The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

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One day

One day, perhaps, we’ll understand that we’re not separate from one another.

That you only get to be you because of me. And I only get to be me, because of you.

And when we understand this, we’ll also understand our profound capacity to bring out darkness, and dignity, in one another.

We’ll see that management practices that treat people as machines beget machines. That regarding employees, or citizens, as if they are untrustworthy breeds suspicion and alienation. That dealing with our loved ones with contempt breeds contempt. That when we don’t listen to the stories and requests of others, they find other ways to get their needs met.

And that the we who we become when we do all this is but a dark shadow of the we that we could be.

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We still have time to muster dignity, and graciousness, and courage

Yes, I admit it. In my pain and confusion and fear and hope and general agitation over what’s happening in the political and social sphere this week, I’ve read far too many of the knee-jerk reactions that fill the press and the web. Some have been helpful, some have fuelled my anxiety but many – most I think – have been the work of but a few minutes or a few hours of thought, and have done little to deepen my understanding. Most of my reading has been an attempt to reassure myself, I realise, an unachievable project given the complexity of this moment.

Which is why I am so grateful for the depth, nuance and care of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, which I mentioned a few days ago. Today I have once again picked up her latest book ‘The Givenness of Things‘ (published a few weeks before the election). I have so appreciated her willingness to write about US culture and society with a long view of history, with its cycles and currents, its upwellings and eddies, it setbacks and its upsets. Through it I have come to see what a narrow frame I’ve been bringing to my understanding of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Robinson – if you’re prepared to give her enough time and attention for her words to sink in – has so much to say that can help us to understand, that can support us in letting go of needing to know what is going to happen (as if we ever could!), and that can connect us again with our dignity and our hope.

In the chapter I’ve read today, Awakening, she warns us of the dangers of these times:

‘We have been reminded again lately how true it is that a small flame can cause a great fire. And that, to complete the allusion, the tongue is a flame.’

But she also warns us that we too easily make sense of events by what we think we know already, which inevitably leaves us with only a partial understanding:

‘Americans are always looking for trends and projecting them forward to their extremest possible consequences, as if there were no correctives or countervailing forces. “The crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But trends can be counted on to reverse themselves. I take much comfort from this fact… There is a truth that lies beyond our capacities. Our capacities are no standard or measure of truth, no ground of ethical understanding.’

Writing about the difference between a politics of ethics and a politics of identity (which all of us are liable to fall into when things get difficult), she says:

“Identity… appeals to a constellation of the worst human impulses. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear. Western civilization is notoriously inclined to idealize itself, so it is inclined as well to forget how recently it did and suffered enormities because it insisted on distinctions of just this kind.”

And lastly, she reminds us that there is much we can do, wherever in the world we live:

“Recurrences, atavisms, are by no means uniquely, or even especially, an American phenomenon. What are we to do? Prayer would be appropriate, and reflection. We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and our predilections… Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift… Each of us and all of us know what human beauty could look like. We could let it have its moment. Fine, but would this solve the world’s problems? It might solve a good many of them, I think.”

The Givenness of Things is a deeply intelligent and compassionate book, unafraid to be paradoxical and complex, with writing that is clear as a bell. And I think it’s wonderful reading to help us make sense of these times.

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Jonathan Sacks on the Politics of Anger

I’ve been reading, a lot, over the past few days, and noticing how my mood swings as I read. Here, I read an article about the inevitability of the coming destruction, and I am afraid. There, I read that it’s not going to be so bad, and that what is happening in our politics is just a downward blip on an upward trend, and I feel settled. Seeing this has helped remind me how changeable my feelings are, and how important it is that – whatever I’m feeling – to get to work on what needs to be done.

What seems truest right now is that nobody knows what’s going to happen, and of course we cannot know. Being afraid for too long doesn’t help – it causes us to flee, or numb out, or freeze, or perhaps fight one another. We can instead admit that we don’t know, that there’s much at stake, and start to do whatever we can do to improve things. Sitting around, hoping our lives won’t be affected and waiting to see how it turns out is surely an irresponsible strategy.

Getting to work, even when we don’t know how it’s going to go.

That’s what hope is.

Today I’d like to recommend that you read Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s article from today’s Daily Telegraph on the politics of anger, on paying attention to what’s happening in our societies, and on what’s called for in us in order to respond. As I’ve been writing these past few days, it seems to me one of our urgent tasks is to take active responsibility for the kind of society and economy we’re creating. It’s going to mean a lot more listening, much more speaking up, some difficult choices for all of us, much possibility, and our ongoing commitment to hope. For those of us who work in organisations, it’s going to mean speaking up – starting now – so that we can be part of the change. Rabbi Sacks articulates this beautifully, and urgently, and his article is powerful call to action. Please read it.

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Taking responsibility for language

The impact of the US election result (and the EU referendum in the UK) is, of course, not limited just to changing who gets to pull the levers of power. In both cases the political result is accompanied by a shift in the language in which we all live. Quite suddenly, new forms of speaking and listening are coming to the fore, while others move to the background.

In both countries it has quickly become much more acceptable to use harsh and violently discriminatory language – against minorities and against all those who disagree – in the public sphere, on the street, in our institutions. Simultaneously, certain kinds of speech have become less possible. This shift, of course, has been both modelled and encouraged by prominent political figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, and it has been amplified by press coverage and the now widely-reported ‘echo chamber’ of social media.

But whatever politicians do, it’s when our own ways of speaking with one another cheapen and coarsen in this way, and when it spreads into our communities and homes, our work and our casual social interactions, that the world changes. Actions that would not have been possible before become possible again, ordinary even. And as all this happens, we change too.

As Marcus Zusack points out in his beautiful novel ‘The Book Thief‘ – a passionate hymn to the power of language and silence to both destroy and to redeem – the profound and shocking shifts in German society during the dark times of Nazism were constructed first in words and only second in action. For most of my adult life I thought we had learned this, and that the horrors of two world wars had taught us the importance of a society that can largely take care of language and reason, even in the face of occasional lapses and challenges. Today, it seems to me that we need to learn it all over again.

It won’t do to imagine that the situation will get better by itself. It’s going to take the purposeful day-to-day action of many of us to do this.

Now is a time that we must renew our commitment to take care of language, cherish it, and restore its redemptive capacity. We have to work hard to protect the capacity of language to disclose truth and compassion, and not let it fall into a dangerous disrepair.

It is going to take nothing less than each of us taking care of our own way of speaking and listening, our words and our silence. It’s going to take us teaching our children how to stand apart from a public discourse which vilifies and demeans, which bends reason out of all recognition and tramples on dignity. It’s going to mean us being vigilant about our own language and standing up daily (at work, on the bus) whenever language is used to wound and distort. And it’s going to take from each of us – you and me – a daily and unending practice of defending the capacity of language to dignify and reveal, to connect and heal, and actively resisting its use to diminish and separate, to wound and make people afraid.

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Resources for these days

Some resources for these days in which the world looks so uncertain.

(1) How we can respond to the US election result

A fabulous, wise 30 minute talk by Norman Fischer at Everyday Zen, which is actually part 7 of a series called ‘Training in Compassion’ but stands alone beautifully. What Norman has to say is both a reminder of our capacity to respond and a call to hope in that capacity right when we’re least sure what to do.

You can listen to the talk ‘Keep the three inseparable’ here, or pick it up on the Everyday Zen podcast (RSS or iTunes)

(2) What to do when you’re afraid

It’s easy to be ruled by fear. Far better is to turn towards it – to have it rather than be had by it. Tich Nhat Hanh’s excellent book Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm teaches us how to do exactly that.

(3) How to stand up for what’s important

Powerful, fierce, compassionate words from my friend and colleague Joy Reichart, about how to find our strength when there’s something important to be done, and how not to turn away.

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How I stay sane…

Walking, alone, for hours in the woods

Long, open hearted conversations with people who I care about, and who care about me

Writing

Reading – especially that which evokes a deep connection with the human condition, or inspires awe and wonder at the universe

Music

Meditation – a simple sitting, breath-following practice for 30 minutes to an hour

Holding my children

Teaching

Spending time in community

Being sure to not work all the time

And making sure that there are seasons in my life. 

 

A narrow bridge

Once again the feeling in my body is as it was the day after the UK referendum. Fear, and deep disappointment, and many imaginings (some wild, some not) about what is going to happen.

So I have spent the morning walking, among tall trees and beside water. It’s a practice that I rely on most to restore me to a sense of myself, and to a sense of my own capacity. And I’ve come to see (to be reminded, for I have seen this and forgotten this repeatedly) that there are at least two kinds of fear at play here.

The first is fear for the world – in this instance what will come of electing to high office (and military command) a man who has done so much to inflame tensions, to foster hate and distrust, to demonise anyone who is ‘other’. And the second fear is fear of myself – fear that I will not be able to respond, fear that I will not know what to do, fear that I will be overwhelmed.

Seeing that makes it all the more important, I think, that I learn to be good at feeling fear (because fear is always a reminder of what is at stake and there is so much at stake here) rather than being ruled by it, and that I keep on learning to be good at finding my own capacity, and courage, and hope.

Or, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said over two centuries ago about the world and what’s called for:

All the world is a very narrow bridge.
The most important thing is not to fear at all.

Whatever will come now will come in large part because of what many people decide to do. Small actions, taken with others, become big actions. And this is going to mean many of us waking up, stepping outside the small horizon of our immediate concerns, and doing things. Actually doing things, rather than talking about it or hoping someone else will do something. It will mean actively helping one another, helping others beyond our circle, taking a stand every single time we encounter injustice or indignity or bigotry in politics or home or work, teaching ourselves, writing, speaking up, teaching each other, making art, asking big questions, thinking and feeling deeply.

There is another Jewish principle that I think can be illuminating here – that of tikkun olam, or repair of the world. The premise? That the world is incomplete, broken, and has been for longer than any of us can remember. That it can be repaired, by our day to day actions, or neglected, in which case the tear in the fabric of the world increases. That repair is possible.

It is this last part that I find so resonant today – just because so much is broken gives us no excuse to give up.

Indeed it may well be the case that the rise of hate, disdain, ridicule, indignity, violence and indifference in the world is always an opportunity to learn how to better ourselves if we choose – how to be more adult, how to be less narcissistic in our concerns, how to become more active, compassionate, wise, organised, connected to one another and impassioned about life.

I think we have an urgent responsibility to take up the practices that will have us be that in our homes, in our organisations, and in the wider world. And I think this can rightly be a cause for immense hope.

And I am sure that we have to start, right away.

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Results


So now  we wait. And some time later today we’ll know the result of this election that has many millions, in the US and outside, holding their breath.

Crazily enough – and understandably enough – there is a part of me that is convinced that I can control how this goes. If I check the news often enough, if I screw up my eyes and wish enough, if I think hard enough, if I hold my breath for long enough, if I pray enough. I say this simply because I have indeed found myself doing all these things.  And not only is it clearly futile, it’s also a source of great difficulty. When I’m in the grip of this story, which inflates both my power and my responsibility to extreme proportions, I’m also in the grip of resignation, frustration and despair. If I can’t have it my way, the logic goes, I’m powerless and ought to be ashamed. And so I bounce between grandiosity and deflation, neither of which give me the best chance to be of use to the world.

Which is why I think acceptance is so important. Tricky times may be on the way – have always been on the way. The world is going to go how the world is going to go, and it really is not in our power to change it. 

But acceptance is neither giving up nor tuning out. From knowing the true limits of our power, from ending our attempts to control what we cannot control, comes a new kind of power and responsibility. Instead of clinging on with a vice-like grip we can cultivate our capacity to respond with dignity, freedom and integrity. And, boy, we are going need all of these. And, while learning to be patient with our own difficulties, we can cultivate the capacity to attend, urgently, to the difficulties of others. 

Let’s start with our own lives, and with those around us. And, yes, let’s extend ourselves into the world so that we are not perpetuating cycles of fear, and denial, and mistrust. And let’s know our limits, so we don’t paralyse ourselves with how big the task is. And in the light of our limits let’s each – and together – do what only we can do to repair what has already been torn asunder. 

The state of the world

I am coming to see that what I take to be the state of ‘the world’ is frequently a slew of silent assessments that have little to do with the world at large and everything to do with whether I feel accepted or rejected, welcomed or abandoned, moment by moment.

I am coming to see how often my sense of self is shaped by these assessments: I’m ok if accepted, deficient if abandoned. And that my actions, even the most subtle expressions that cross my face, are often an attempt to gain acceptance and avoid rejection.

I have started to closely observe the flow of emotions and bodily sensation when I’m talking with people and I can see that this too often follows the scheme. A tightening in the gut if there’s dissent, a racing of the heart if it seems I’m not understood, a gentle and settling calmness if my partner in conversation ‘gets it’ and is welcoming me home.

My self-assessments are often narrow and prone to error. I get to feel alive when I take myself to be accepted by others, and diminished when I take myself to be rejected. Neither of these often have much to do with other people’s actual acceptance or rejection of me. They are more an ongoing acceptance or rejection of myself, by myself.

It may strike you that living in the midst of such a scaffold of assessments is a pale approximation of living fully in the world. It leaves out so much, particularly when the assessments themselves are inaccurate. But even when I’m right about how others see me it denies the full, rich, vibrant life that is possible when rejected and misunderstood. 

There are gifts in disturbance, in confusion, in disagreement, in screwing things up, in making a ruckus. There is life that comes from standing out, from being an annoyance, from having something fresh and challenging and different to say. The value of a human being has nothing to do with how we’re seen.

The more I study this, the more I find the parts of me that are afraid, scared of being abandoned, hyper-vigilant to acceptance are just parts doing their very best to protect me. And that their narrow self-assessments, born of a much earlier time and place, cannot truthfully define a life, nor truly value a life.

And it is a great relief to discover that there are other parts that know and trust life much more deeply, that understand that I do not need protection, and are dedicated to my bringing myself ever more fully forward into the world while there is still time.

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Naming

How strange and beautiful names are.

We know we are not our names. You and I are not a Justin or a Sue, a Peter or a Dan, a Zephaniah or a Helen, a Lucy or a Grace, even if that is what we have been called all our lives. Our names never capture us in our completeness, our wholeness, or our complexity.

And yet we also know that our names are powerful. With them we can be referenced, talked about, called to account, questioned, criticised, recalled, honoured, resented, planned for, dignified and loved in ways that would not have been possible before human beings had names for one another.

What we name becomes available to us. Naming brings us into relationship. Naming directly shapes who and what we’ll notice and pay attention to. And naming shapes who and what we have to take care of, just as avoiding names shapes what we’ll ignore.

And this is why it’s important we find out what we’re resisting naming – in our families, organisations and politics. And why finding accurate names for what we’re turning away from is a deep and necessary act of creativity, dignity, and responsibility for one another.

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The perfect mistake

My school German teacher would not tolerate mistakes. His way of teaching was to interrupt us, every time, if we made a grammatical error, even if we were halfway through a sentence. And so while I learned German just fine as an academic subject, a detached exercise in reading and writing, I never learned to speak with any facility. My body – faced with a real German-speaking human being – simply wouldn’t do it.

It’s this that clearly illuminates the difference between learning about a subject and developing ongoing, embodied skilfulness to do something with it. Learning a skill always requires risk and the possibility of getting it wrong. Indeed, we become skilful in the very process of messing up, feeling ashamed and confused, and then trying again in the light of what happened. Making mistakes, and the possibility of shame, call from us the kind of engaged involvement that’s required for our activity to have sufficient power to disorganise and reorganise us, which is the mark of any lasting learning.

As Hubert Dreyfus argues in On the Internet, this is why online learning (now so in vogue in the world of organisations) is fabulous for learning facts but not good at all for learning to master any complex or sophisticated skill – there simply is not enough contact with the bodily presence of others and insufficient social risk to have our mistakes (or the risk of mistakes) affect us.

It’s also why author William Westney argues (in The Perfect Wrong Note) that our fumbling errors made when learning a musical instrument are so constructive, useful, and enlightening, especially if they happen in the presence of a teacher or group of peers.

And it’s why my teacher showed us German, brilliantly, as an exam subject but did not – because he would not let us fail – teach us how to speak.

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Humanities

It’s not just that fear is easy, that it makes us feel important, and that it sells.

When it’s unaddressed it also turns us away from our humanity.

When our society turns to fear as the background mood, the humanities themselves come under such assault. We’re turning away from the study of literature and poetry, art and philosophy, music, language and culture as ends in themselves. When we’re afraid and in denial about our fear, as so many of us are, we want just that which will demonstrably help us go faster, complete more, make the money, hit the targets, beat the competition, keep out the outsider, make us feel safe.

The humanities do none of those, at least not in obvious ways. They won’t settle, or soothe, or rush us into action. They’ll take their time. They’ll trouble us, stir us, have us ask bigger and deeper questions than we’re asking. They’ll open the horizon and the wide sky, connecting us with the wisdom and humanity of those who have come before (who may have a thing or two to teach us about our current circumstances), making us feel our vulnerability and possibility, opening us to others, inspiring us, and reminding us what a store of depth and capacity we human beings have to respond to life. This is the very depth and capacity which, as Marilynne Robinson writes in her latest book, might well be ‘the most wonderful thing in the world, very probably the most wonderful thing in the universe’.

When we turn away from the humanities as a serious path, and allow ourselves to be possessed by our fear, we reduce ourselves in profound ways. And, when our democracies and our organisations turn this way, we lose the very thing that makes both democracy and organising together work: our trust in the capacity and dignity of the other human beings with whom we share the places in which we live.

The humanities teach us how vital, how possible, it is to live and work with other people even when we disagree – and how much we must be prepared to learn from others, both those living now and those long gone, if the world is to be bigger, and better, than that tiny and narrowing patch of land we each defend at all costs simply because it’s the only remaining patch of land on which we don’t feel afraid.

Fear is easy

Fear is easy.

Really easy.

It spreads, like wildfire – my fear becoming your fear becoming their fear becoming my fear again.

It makes us feel special – if I’m so afraid, there must be important things to do, like saving myself or saving the company or saving the country. At last, because of fear, I have a role to play.

It makes things look simple – there is no choice here, no nuance, no time to talk together or think together about what’s really called for, or if we’re doing the right thing, or what the consequences over time might be. There is just action, this action, my action, and now.

It helps us look right – how dare you suggest another way, a different way? Can’t you see what’s at stake here? How risky this is? How much we have to lose?

It saves us from having to listen to one another – if you’re not with me you’re against me, and if you’re against me you must be wrong, and it’s because you’re wrong and all of those others of you who are wrong that we’re in this terrifying mess in the first place.

It saves us from having to think – that there might be another way to see this, that your point of view might have merit, or integrity, or something to offer.

It saves us from shame – at the ways I’m hurting you, or hurting myself, or hurting those who will come after us.

It sells – the idea that I’m the best, that my way is the right way, that we’re the chosen ones, that they’re out to get us, that you have to work harder, that you must never stop, that our values are under threat, that we have to do this vital but terrible thing, that after all it’s only business or politics or necessity.

It allows us to justify – these punishing targets, our culture of hyper-activity, my monitoring of your every move, the hours I expect you to work, our obsession with measurement and deliverables, my not listening, our race to the lowest common denominator, your being available at every moment, our treating others as objects.

Of course, fear works best when it doesn’t display itself as fear. It’s at its most potent when dressed up as civility, and best practice, and just-doing-business, and competency frameworks, and HR policy, and micro-management, and ‘smart’ goals, and this-is-work-not-a-playground-don’t-you-know.

Fear is easy, and fear is cheap, but it’s dignity that sets the human spirit free to contribute, and create, and address our difficulties, and listen, and change things, and improve our situation. And dignity takes work, and courage, and honesty, and sincerity, and integrity, and wisdom and compassion and humility and love.

Yes, love. Not a much-respected word in many organisations or in politics, and easily dismissed by the easy politics and business of fear. But it is indeed love that reminds us how brilliant human beings can be, how capable, how varied, how much there is to marvel at in our situation and our capacity, and how much we need all of this right now, just as we always have done.

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On the side of life

How about we get on the side of life, which means not being on the side of death?

The side of life: taking ourselves seriously, which means taking seriously all of these and more: aliveness, vibrancy, intimacy, vulnerability, openness, courage, integrity, play, joy, anger, sadness, dignity, compassion, wisdom, uncertainty, fear and freedom.

The side of death: turning away, suppressing, denying, avoiding, constraining, limiting or controlling anything on the side of life.

The side of death is alluring, comforting even. Deadening ourselves means we won’t have to feel what we don’t want to feel, or experience what we don’t want to experience. And perhaps if we can deaden others, they won’t bring us any of that either.

If we’re unlucky, we can live a whole life on the side of death, perhaps only waking up to life when it’s too late (see Tolstoy’s short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich for a stunning account of just this).

Whole organisations – their structures, processes, practices – can be dedicated to the side of death too (the difficulty here is that the side of death looks so respectable, so reasonable).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Life is never out of our reach, even in trying circumstances.

And the good news is that there are many people, and many organisations, whose commitment to life shines strongly, and who are just dying to share with us what they know.

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The end of things

Walking among tall oaks in London’s Hyde Park, my thoughts turn towards the end of things. Leaves are falling, their curled crisp edges crunching beneath my boots. There are still many trees clothed in green. The end of this will come soon, I can see, leaving the dark shape of curling branches clear against the sky.

One day, each of these trees, too, will be gone.

It is a relief to know that this is how it is. That things come to an end. Quite naturally. Quite ordinarily. And that it is true for us too.

How many mornings I have awoken with such deep lonely sadness at all this. That I will lose myself. That I will lose all of my faculties. That I will lose everyone I love, and they will lose all this too. That all this has already begun.

But here, among the trees, I am gladdened. Losing it all is not my fate alone. It is not a gross unfairness visited upon me. It is not something I always need to mourn. It is the way of life, and always has been. It is the condition of humanity, and always will be.

I am joined in this path by every living thing that has ever existed, and every living thing that will exist. I am unified with all of life, indivisible from it.

Yes, deep sadness at how all of this ends has its place, reminding me how I long to live and how much there is to lose. But equally appropriate is joy, and wonder, exhilaration and radical amazement that any of this is happening. That I get to take part. That I am, for now, here.

My heart quickens and my eyes widen at the beauty and fragility of life, at its preciousness, at how fleeting it is. I see that there is no time to waste. There is so much to do, so much I can do. Whatever contribution I am here to make, now is the time. Every moment until now has been preparation for this. Every moment to come, however many or few, calls with the promise and possibility of participation in life’s grand, beautiful, tragic, surprising, endlessly creative unfolding.

It is time, as it always is, to begin.

Back

Stepping back from serious writing for a couple of months has been a necessary joy.

And I’ve discovered again the joy of having something to say.

I’ll be back tomorrow.

Thank you for holding on for me.

 

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The intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live

I’m thrilled that the latest episode of the New Ventures West podcast features me exploring the intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live.

Over the course of 26 minutes I talk with my colleagues Adam Klein and Joy Reichart about how philosophy can help us inquire into the mostly invisible background of practice and culture that shapes our lives, how our early families play a part in this, and how we might expand our ways of taking care of the world and of others in the light of what we find.

Along the way we explore the legacy of the philosopher Rene Descartes and the consequences of his powerful method for inquiry on our education system and our sense of ourselves; how more recent philosophers have sought to develop more inclusive and complete accounts of what it is to be a human being; the intersection of philosophy and science; and what all of this means for how we live our lives with meaning and dignity.

I’m delighted with the way this has turned out. I hope you will be too.

You can listen online here, or subscribe to the podcast (which features many of my colleagues) through iTunes here.

Rest

river

It has been hard to write these past two months. The familiar flow of words and ideas have slowed to a trickle. My body has not moved into the work with the grace and flow with which I have become familiar. It’s as if some kind of gridlock has taken hold, with each part – mind, heart, body – pressing against the movement of the other.

It has been tempting to try to force myself into action, to believe the inner judgements and slurs that whisper into the vacated spaces. You’ll never be a writer this way. You’ve run out of anything to say. You’re not brave enough, smart enough, honest enough to do this.

But this time, I am not so convinced by all the inner chatter as I once might have been. This time, I’ve been waiting – patiently, quietly – to see what wants to write itself through me.

We make production and consumption the highest measure of value in our culture. But we are part of nature, born of nature, and we are subject to its cycles just as much as a field, or a tree, or a river.

I am remembering that fields must lie fallow in order to be fertile,

spring must turn to summer and autumn to have any chance of returning,

and human beings must rest and nurture themselves – often – in order to flourish.

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Stories

We can’t help it. We’re sense-making beings, us humans. And so you and I are always living our lives from a sense of story.

The story profoundly shapes our interactions with other people, and with ourselves. Watch how you’d relate to your sister, your colleagues, from the narrative of ‘the burdened one’ – the one who has been handed too much to carry, and who can’t find any place to put it down. See how much busyness it breeds, how little time to rest, how much resentment, how much of a sense of being in life alone.

And see how differently you’d encounter all of life from the narrative of ‘a healer’ – the one whose responsibility it is to heal herself by taking care of her own body, mind and heart so she can take care of others. Or ‘a painter’ – looking for the hidden light and beauty in everything. Or ‘a bestower of blessings’. Or even ‘an ordinary person’.

The stories we’re living seem so compelling, so true, especially as they seem to account so coherently for everything that’s happening. But any story is only one out of many possibilities, and each story conceals much even as it reveals.

And so it’s important to ask ourselves what other stories we could imagine, particularly those that would bring forward our virtues – patience, kindness, courage, imagination, integrity, compassion, love, commitment, steadfastness, playfulness – qualities that allow us to meet the world more generously, more creatively, and let more of life through.

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Blessings and Curses

At every moment in life, you can choose whether to be a blessing or a curse to others.

How you open the door to her when she comes come, how you reach across for him when you wake, how you speak when you order your coffee, how you move through a crowded train, how you are with a crying child, how you put out the bins.

How you answer the phone, how you begin a meeting with your pressured and anxious team, how you write the next email, how you announce your intentions, how you respond when you’re hurt, how you listen to the request of a lost stranger.

The capacity to bless will have its seeds in your capacity to bless yourself, which always means welcoming yourself and what you’re experiencing rather than denying it, raging against it, or judging yourself for it.

Will you turn towards that of you which loves without dismissing, or denigrating, or criticising it for its impracticality?

Will you turn towards your fear and acknowledge how afraid you are with dignity, rather than pretending it isn’t true?

Many of the curses in the world arise from our denying our own very basic, vulnerable, mysterious, confusing humanity. Much of that comes from being afraid and pretending that we’re not – a curse upon ourselves which curses others as we go. And many blessings come from the discovery that this one, brief, precious life simply won’t go exactly how we want it.

Of course, it’s rarely as simple as just ‘deciding’ to bless as we go. Too much of us has been shaped by years of habit for that. But the good news is that the capacity to bless – which is given to all of us – grows with practice. And that you can start today.

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When hiding anxiety only fuels it

A story about the trouble caused when we can’t talk about shame and anxiety in organisational life:

A global retailer struggling to meet the expectations of the markets, brings in a new measurement system for its stores, with more than sixty targets to meet.

A daily ratings table of stores is published internally, naming those meeting the targets and those falling short. It’s described as a logical move to increase performance in difficult times. And at the same time, it allows the board to deny the anxiety they’re feeling: “we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve responded in a clear and rational manner to market conditions”.

Meanwhile, the ratings system has very effectively pushed the anxiety onto the store managers, where even respected, skilful, long-serving managers are reduced to a daily jostle for the top few spots. Unable or unwilling to challenge the system itself (after all, it’s apparently a rational response to the current difficulty), they start to put pressure on their department heads for the daily delivery of the targets. And, unable to start a conversation about how all of this feels to everybody, the department heads – fearful of being shamed – look for whatever they can do to hit their targets.

This is where the real trouble begins.

Because in the face of unnamable anxiety and the unbearable threat of shame, even respected, diligent department heads start to look for ways to game the system.

Numbers are fiddled. Statistics reinterpreted. Orders are left piling up in the warehouse because nobody can keep up with the new standards for shelf layout. Items in the store are relabelled so that products look like they’re available when the mystery shopper team comes around. Staff members are taken off other important duties to work on the tills when queue-length is measured, but the queues are allowed to reach enormous and frustrating lengths at other times.

The target numbers are, frequently, met – aside from for those few unfortunate store managers who aren’t wily enough to play the system – but standards drop relentlessly across the group and customers start to take their business elsewhere.

Public shame, skilfully dealt with. Skilful gaming of the system, denied. The organisation becomes a system for avoiding anxiety rather than serving customers. Nobody talking about it – “it’ll open a can of worms”.

You can see this same drama played out in hospitals, whole health systems, schools, retailers, service industries, transport, government, with huge and debilitating effect.

And in most places nobody’s talking about what’s really going on, because we’ve made mood undiscussable.

If we’re going to deal with all of this – and we must – we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that organisations are always made up of people, and people are always caught up in moods that shape what can be seen and what’s possible. Our insistence on understanding people as detached, strictly rational parts of a well-oiled machine is not doing anything to address these difficulties.

And without the courage to do this, we’re going to condemn ourselves to a future of looking good while we undo our best and most important efforts.

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Losing it

This morning, after swimming, I overhear a conversation between two men who are sitting by the water. One has lost his sunglasses on an earlier swim and is quite distressed.

‘They were expensive. Armani.’ he says. ‘I paid a lot of money for them. And they are the third pair I’ve lost this summer’.

He is too agitated to be present with his friend who, after some minutes of listening, says ‘You seem really shaken up by this, too shaken up even to really be interested that I’m here with you. You’re saying the same thing, over and over again. But,’ and here he pauses, ‘tell me something. Did you enjoy having them? Did they bring you pleasure? Because although you’ve now lost them, for a while you did have them too’.

For a while, you did have them.

And at that moment it occurs to me that this is true for everything, and for all of us. We wail and fret about what we lose, and rightly, because our loss is so often a source of suffering for us. But we will all lose our sunglasses, eventually, just as we will lose all our possessions, our friendships, our bodies, and everything we know.

And because losing is terrible and difficult to bear, we can spend our lives fretting about what’s yet to lose, and clinging madly to it, or becoming consumed with longing or remorse for what we’ve lost.

And all the while forgetting that, for a time, we did have all of this, and missing the wonder that there is anything at all – sunglasses, friendships, work, life – worth having enough that its loss matters to us in the first place.

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Dissolving

This summer I have taken up wild swimming, in the beautiful and tranquil swimming ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath.

It has been quite a practice in releasing myself into the unknown. The water is cold and murky and deep. It’s impossible to see more than a few centimetres below the surface, and so entering is an exercise in letting go, in welcoming what’s here, in giving up control.

Once in the cool water, eye-line level with that of the ducks and birds that frequent the pond, I notice how quickly any sense of inner pressure subsides. There is really nothing to do here, nowhere to get to, and I start to see how much my own inner life is still dominated by assessments that are often invisible to me.

Am I doing well enough? Being responsible enough? Getting enough done? Taking enough care? Being smart enough? Kind enough? Successful enough? 

I notice how often I feel sad, or deflated or frustrated because of an inner judgement that I’m falling short. And how often I rely on an equal and opposite assessment – that I did something well – in order to feel joy, or satisfaction or that I have anything to offer.

But here, in the coolness and stillness of the water, I am struck by my inner quietness and expansiveness. Held in a body of water that is vast and calm I am vast and calm too, my sense of separateness from the physical world dissolving as standards and self-assessment dissolve.

For a while I am the water itself, the trees, the birds and the sky. For a while I just am, and my beauty and value is the simple fact of being alive. And for a while I am reminded that I am not my assessments, even if I often live, quite unaware of it, as if they are what is most true.

Inside and outside

When we divide what’s ‘inside’ us from what’s ‘outside’ as if they were separate from one another we cause ourselves all kinds of difficulty.

In much of our culture we treat working with what’s ‘inside’ as if it’s irrelevant, an indulgence, soft, a waste of time when compared with the hands on world of making, doing, deciding and acting. And we can become equally convinced by the opposite position – that we can’t act until we’ve completely resolved some feeling or inner difficulty, or until we’ve studied and understood a subject from end to end.

But inside and outside are a continuum, different aspects or angles on the same world. It might be most helpful to think of ‘inside’ primarily as that corner of things of which each of us has a particularly special, privileged view – and part of the world nevertheless.

And so it is the case that the way I relate to others is very often the way I’m already relating to parts of myself. And that the way I struggle within myself is the self-same way I struggle with other people.

And it’s often the case that powerful ‘inner’ work is done ‘outside’ – for example by developing skill in relating to others I also develop skill in relating to myself. And that there are many riches to discover about the ‘outside’ world by the much undervalued art of listening attentively and with deep curiosity to the inner experience of others.

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