What will it take to give up our busyness?

Even when we see that our endless busyness is stifling us, holding back our creativity and contribution, narrowing us – even when we see that in many ways it’s killing us – it’s so hard for us to give it up.

Why is this?

It may be in part that we’re unwilling to stand out from those around us – to risk the feelings of shame and awkwardness that come from taking a stand that we call our own.

And it may well be that we’re unwilling to cease our busyness as long we’re unwilling to face loss. Because to give up rushing will indeed be to lose a particular identity, a way of keeping our self-esteem going, and of course the end of all those activities with which we stuff our time. And we human beings can have a hard time with loss.

It’s only through turning towards inevitable loss that we open the chance for life to reach us.

I think we ought to do that sooner rather than later. Because loss will be forced on us in the end in any case. And by the time it comes there’s a real possibility that we’ve missed our lives because we weren’t willing to choose to face it earlier, of our own accord.

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On account of nothing we did

Ordinary life can seem so – ordinary – that it’s natural to slip into taking it for granted, as if it were obvious and straightforward that we’re here, and as if it will go on this way for ever.

Many traditions have practices to remind us that it’s anything but ordinary to be able to move, breathe, think, make breakfast, travel, work, love, argue, sleep, produce, write, speak. And that it’s anything but ordinary to have a body that can do all this again and again, which can heal itself so often without us having to do anything. And that none of it lasts nearly as long as we might hope.

Here’s a morning blessing from Judaism, said by some as they use the bathroom for the first time in the day, that I think is particularly brilliant for its combination of straightforwardness about life and death, piercing insight, and gentle humour.

Blessed are you, Eternal One, Creator of everything, who formed human beings in wisdom, creating within us openings and vessels. It is revealed and known before you that if any one of them is opened or closed it would be impossible to remain alive and stand before You. Blessed are you, Eternal One, who heals all flesh and performs such wonders.

Finding daily practices to remind us of our bodies’ unlikeliness and wonder – even in the most ordinary of circumstances – does not require religious belief of any kind of course (and in Judaism, by the way, belief is secondary to practice, the actions that shape the world of possibility and relationship again and again).

All it requires is opening to life. And reminding ourselves that we are each here on account of nothing that we did.

And that by one of the most unlikely miracles imaginable we each find ourselves for a brief time, embodied, in a world ready and waiting for our participation.

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Feels just like me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest

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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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Messiness

We like to think we’re over messiness. Done with it.

That the world – our families, the organisations we work in, found, lead – can be ordered by the sharpness of our reason, by the power of our technology, by our sophistication, categorisation, and strength.

That all disorderliness will be excised. That the world will bend to meet our will. That change – in ourselves, in others – will happen on our schedule, to our specifications. Like the world is a machine. Like we are too.

And when it does not happen – when the mess of it all seeps between the lines, bulges out around the edges of our spreadsheets and to-do lists, whips the corners of our carefully planned timetables and calendars, unravels our hard-planned goals – we think someone must be to blame.

We blame others, fuelling our frustration that they don’t get it, won’t get with the programme, won’t make themselves into the image we have for them.

We blame ourselves, turning the blade of self-doubt and of self-criticism. If the world can’t be kept to order then we must not be trying hard enough. So we redouble our efforts – the inner wheel of perfectionism, the outer wheel of agitation. We tighten the armour across our hearts another notch. And we feel our bodies grip as the mess spills out behind us, just when we’re not looking.

And what we’ve missed in all this is that messiness is inevitable. Messiness is the underpinning of the world. Messiness is life’s sacred heart. Messiness is the only way this crazy mix of quarks and protons, atoms and molecules, people and conversations, firing neurons and imagination, poetry, pulsing blood, falling rain, money, children being born, ethernets, tumbling rising markets, music, dust, pencils, love and egg-shells can be.

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When tiredness speaks

Let yourself listen to what your body has to say.

For it surely has something to say. Honour its wisdom, even if you can’t yet tell what it is.

Start with tiredness. The tiredness that suddenly sweeps over you in a meeting, in a conversation, on walking into a room, when an argument begins, when you’re not getting your way.

What kind of tiredness is this? Surely not the late-at-night tiredness, the not-enough-sleep tiredness.

But maybe the tiredness of bending yourself out of shape, the tiredness of fear, the tiredness of goals that aren’t sincere and commitments that aren’t genuine, the tiredness of saying yes when you mean no, and no when you mean yes.

And maybe the tiredness that your body brings you when it needs to point out that, despite what you’re telling yourself, here is not where you genuinely want to be.

With thanks to Jonny

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How we learned not to trust ourselves

A recipe for learning not to trust ourselves:

Step 1 – Kindergarten: Play! Encourage freedom, creativity, feeling, and its expression. Explore the world through the immediacy of the body and senses. Make a mess. Hop and jump. Listen to stories. Tell them.

Step 2 – Infant school: Start to leave parts out. Sit down on the rug, or on your chair. Learn not to fidget, to pay attention, to respect others – necessary skills for life in our culture. Play, yes, but not too much now. Big school is coming.

Step 3 – Junior school: Keep still for many hours. Stop talking. The movement of bodies – an interruption. Play is only for prescribed times – not while we’re learning. It’s your job to pay attention always, regardless of how you feel, or what you care about. The adult world is coming.

Step 4 – Senior school: Learning is knowing facts or models in a way that’s increasingly detached from my first-hand experience. Do I care deeply about this subject? Does it move me? Can I connect it with my life? This, and other matters of the heart, are no longer so relevant, and rarely addressed in the classroom. The heart and the body – subjugated to the world of the analytical mind. The highest mark of educational achievement – that I learned to pass the exam, that I can produce what’s measurable.

When we follow a path that progressively leaves out parts of ourselves, it should come as no surprise that we have a hard time trusting the parts we’ve abandoned. Our hearts: how we tell what matters to us. And our bodies: the means by which we relate, create, explore, encounter, move the world. And it might explain how we’ve convinced ourselves that models, frameworks, and techniques are a substitute for a real, live, scary, exhilarating, fierce, risky and life-giving engagement with ourselves in the pursuit of the work that matters to us.

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Learning again how to trust ourselves

Rene Descartes’ method for discovering what’s true starts with a bold and radical move – distrust everything until it can be proven. It’s not hard to see how powerful a way this is to cut through superstition and confusion. By starting from first principles, and using step-by-step logic, he gives us a way to prove things for ourselves, doing away with our need to rely on anyone else’s claims.

In order to make the method work, it’s necessary to start with one thing that can be assumed to be true without proof – and for Descartes it was that he was thinking. Hence cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’. The one thing I can be sure of is that I’m thinking, because here I am, thinking it! And in this move, he both makes his method possible and sets up the condition of our society ever since.

Without this we may never have lifted ourselves beyond the confusion of Descartes’ times. But when we take Cartesianism to be the only way to relate to the world (a project at which our education system is very effective) we quickly become estranged from ourselves. Our bodies, emotions, our subjective experience, and the experience of others are all to be doubted, or considered irrelevant. Even the existence of others is something we can no longer take for granted without proof (and conclusively proving this everyday, common-sense aspect of our experience turns out to be extraordinarily difficult in the Cartesian paradigm). Though we often don’t know it, we’re deeply educated in and profoundly conditioned by the Cartesian principle that thinking is paramount and that everything else is to be distrusted.

The consequence? We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.

We don’t know how to trust what’s true in the senses of our bodies (we’ve often barely learned how to pay attention to this at all). We don’t trust the felt-sense of situations, and we don’t know how to tell what action to action take when we feel distorted, disjointed, incongruent, afraid. We don’t trust what we love. And we don’t know how to listen deeply to the longing and song of our hearts.

We’ve become experts at distancing ourselves from ourselves. And because we can’t feel what’s happening to us we launch ourselves into many projects – in our work and in our private lives – that harm us, and harm others, and harm the planet. We justify our actions, if we’re prepared to justify them at all, as ‘reason’ or ‘business’ or ‘productivity’ or ‘best practice’ or ‘getting ahead’.

We need the cold, sharp blade of the Cartesian method as much as we ever did. But if we want to create lives and a world in which we can thrive, a world which brings about wisdom and beauty as well as truth, it’s time to learn how to feel things again. And it’s time to teach ourselves and our children once more about the discernment and understanding of the world that comes not just from the sharpness of our minds, but from the intelligence of our bodies and the sensitivity of our hearts.

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Cell walls

Human beings are not infinitely extensible.

We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.

First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.

Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.

‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.

We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.

A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.

And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.

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Anxiety and fear aren’t the same

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same.

It’s important to see this, because they lead to different places. Anxiety – felt, allowed and responded to – can be an invitation into a new way of relating to the world. But fear so often leads us into actions that cut us off from ourselves, and from others, and from what’s called for.

It’s David Steindl-Rast who makes this distinction in his wonderful interview with Krista Tippett at On Being.

Anxiety, he says, is the feeling of being pressed-in by the world. It comes from the linguistic root anguere meaning ‘choke’ or ‘squeeze’. The first experience of it in our lives, the primal experience of anxiety, is that of being born. We all enter the world through a very uncomfortable occurence in which we are squeezed and pushed and all there is to do is go along with it. In a very real sense going with the experience is what makes it possible to be born into life in the first place.

And though we’re born through an experience of anxiety, Steindl-Rast tells us, at that moment we do it fearlessly. Because fear is exactly what comes when we resist feeling anxiety, when we try to deny it or push it away. Anxiety can bring us into birth, while fear – our denial, our resistance to what we’re experiencing – is a different move altogether: life-destroying, a totally different direction for our minds and bodies to take.

“And that is why”, he says, “anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.”

And what, he says, makes the biggest difference between anxiety and fear is learning to trust – trusting life, trusting the capacity of our own hearts, trusting others.

We live in times that give many of us good cause for anxiety. But instead of collapsing and narrowing ourselves with fear we can choose to feel, and choose to practice trust. One step, and another step. And perhaps this way we can allow to be born in us a capacity to respond to our difficulties without turning away, and a greater ability to live without choking off our own lives or the lives of others.

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Going to sleep to ourselves

Sometimes, in the midst of our busyness and our fixation on having things work out just the way we want them, we forget that we’re alive.

This forgetfulness, it seems to me, is an inevitable part of our human condition. I like very much Martin Heidegger’s phrase for this – that we get ‘scattered into everydayness’. In our everyday coping with all that comes our way, we go to sleep to ourselves and what we’re really up to in our lives.

When our forgetfulness goes on for too long, and if we don’t take steps to remember our aliveness, it starts to colour everything we’re doing. Workplaces in which people have forgotten they’re alive become places that pursue profit or targets with no sense of what they’re for. Families who have forgotten they’re alive lose sight of the preciousness and sacredness of the relationships between their members. There is always the washing-up to do, of course, but it can be a humdrum task to be endured or, when we’re awake to what being in a family is for, an expression of a much bigger commitment to the care of one another and the life that we share.

All of this is why it is vital that we have practices for remembering ourselves – practices that connect us to one another, to our aliveness, and to our relationship with all of life. Many of us have no such practices and those that we do have to deal with our scatteredness serve to numb us rather than bring us more fully to life.

One of the reasons this is difficult for many of us is that as we’ve pursued individualism we’ve abandoned so many of the shared rituals that come from being part of community: singing together; retelling shared stories, especially the founding myths of our families or culture; eating together; turning towards one another in appreciation and recognition. And we’ve been sold the line that entertainment will do all of this for us, but it mostly can’t reach deeply enough into our lives or into the lives of the people around us to wake us up to ourselves.

Writing is, for me, a powerful experience of self-remembering – a way in which I catch on to my aliveness. And that you are reading is part of it – though we may never have met we’re bound, you and I, for a moment. Reading – novels, poetry, philosophy, science. Walking too. Music. Meditation. Art. But nothing is as powerful a force for my own self-remembering as the web of Jewish practice that is woven through my life and which binds me in time, in place, and in a community. It has very little if anything to do with belief, and very much to do with what I’ve been talking about here – practices that remind me again and again of the feeling of being alive and connected to others in a vast universe of which I am, we are, a part.

Please understand that I’m not making an argument here for anyone to take up the forms of self-remembering that I’ve found so life-giving. But I am arguing for taking self-remembering seriously – that discovering and taking up practices that bring us to life again and again is foundational to a life well lived and good work well done.

Otherwise we’re just sleep-walking through.

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The human function curve

This is the human function curve, the model which underlies what I wrote about our sense of unbreakability yesterday.

Performance (the capacity to act effectively on what we intend) is shown on the vertical axis. The horizontal axis shows what happens as stress or bodily arousal increases.

Some features of this graph that are worth noticing.

(1) The anabolic phase

Up until the inflection point in the middle of the graph, performance increases as stress increases. Some people call this ‘good stress’. It’s a function of our active engagement, our awakeness to what we’re doing, and our care.

In straightforward terms, the more we care and the more engaged and active we get, the more our capacity to act effectively increases. In this phase the body is in an anabolic state, actively supporting its own growth, energy, and self-maintenance.

And with sufficient attention to cycles of self-care, rest, exercise, and support – which help us stay towards the left side of the curve – it can be possible to remain in the anabolic phase over long periods.

(2) The catabolic phase

But there is a certain level of stress and activity, which differs for each of us, when the body’s response changes. In this catabolic or over-extended phase, the body starts to break down its own structure in order to supply the energy that’s required.

Just past the inflection point – if we notice – it’s still possible to restore ourselves by stopping and taking exquisite care. Sleep, appropriate and nourishing food, rest, and attention from others can return us to our self-generating capacities.

(3) Tipping past exhaustion

Because we’ve experienced increasing performance with increasing effort, and because we live in a culture which pays the body scant attention and seriously underestimates the need for renewing practices, we readily misinterpret what’s going on in the catabolic phase.

We think that our shrinking capacity is because we’re not trying hard enough – and our extra efforts push us to the right on the graph, exactly the direction that will cause us most harm

What works in the anabolic phase is totally inappropriate for the catabolic phase. Here, the more we try the more we damage ourselves and the more our capacity decreases. 

The appropriate move at this stage is to stop. Completely. 

But stopping, admitting we are not perfect, letting on to our vulnerability, asking for help – all of these are considered undesirable or impossible by so many of us.

Just when we most need to get on to our own humanity and physical limits, just when recovery without serious damage is still possible, we push on.

(4) Towards ill-health and breakdown

But they need me. But I’ll fail my performance review. But everyone is working this hard. But it’s the end of the quarter. But that project is about to ship. But it’s not possible to stop. 

But I’ll be letting them down.

But you don’t understand.

If we continue, as so many of us do, our bodies cannot cope any more. We get struck with a fever, an infection, or a much much more serious condition.

In this phase, let’s be clear, we put our ongoing capacity – and our lives – at profound risk. Though it rarely feels that way because, let’s face it, I’ve been ok so far.

And even though it’s abundantly clear that what’s required is taking care of ourselves, and insisting those around us take care of themselves too, so many of us continue to tell ourselves that it’s a luxury, an indulgence, and something we’ll get to only someday.

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Unbreakable

For a long while, we think we’re unbreakable. We convince ourselves that what we’re doing – how we’re working, how we’re living – has no impact on us, really.

And for a while, as we try to do more, our level of stress goes up and our performance (or capacity to do what we’re intending) goes up too. We conclude that the move to make when things aren’t working out the way we intend is to push harder. And, for a while, it brings us exactly what we’re looking for.

But only for a while.

There comes a point where, for each of us, the body’s capacity begins to fray. It loses its ability to renew itself, to retain its coherence, to store energy and regenerate. Beyond this breakdown point, more effort not only results in less capacity, but in the breakdown of bodily systems themselves.  We get exhausted. We get ill. Our bodies show us what we have been committed to hiding from ourselves.

All too often, right at this moment where rest, recuperation, support and self-care are the only way back, we conclude that our dropping performance is because we’re not doing enough. And as we scramble to address the shortfall between what we’re able to do and what we think we should be able to do, we make things worse.

Much worse.

This is no trivial matter. Study after study has established the link between sustained stress and heart attacks and other serious and life threatening illnesses. And yet in so much of work, and our lives, we act as if we’re invincible, even when the signs are right in front of us that we’re not.

It’s time we took our bodies seriously. And it’s time we considered rest, renewal, and support from others as a fundamental requirement to do anything well. Not an optional extra. Not a nice-to-have. And not some silly distraction from the ‘real work’ of business, or leadership, or parenting, or making a contribution.

For much more on this topic see Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance

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On being unstoppable

Today I want to share, in its entirety, a post from my colleague Jessica Minah, in which she writes beautifully about both the human condition and the kind of coaching to which we are both dedicated in our work.

With my sincere thanks to Jess for her permission to reproduce her work here. You can see more about her and what she’s up to in the world at Pronoia Coaching.

Last week, I visited the webpage of a coaching school someone I know is considering. On the school’s homepage, a graduate of the program boasted that the school’s methodology had enabled her to teach her clients to be “unstoppable.” And that stopped me, right in my tracks.

The nature of being human is that we are eminently stoppable. Our very biology gives us natural limits to how hard we can push. We need to breathe, to drink, eat, and sleep. We crave touch, the sun, fresh air, and communication. Our bodies are covered in a soft flesh–relatively defenseless with no claws or sharp teeth. We bleed and heal. Our reproductive cycle gives us utterly helpless young, demanding that we stop and take notice and care for these vulnerable creatures. And, of course, we die–the ultimate full stop. Death comes for us all with no regard for how hard we try to push it back. To be human is to be stoppable.

And yet we seek to be unstoppable.

Life should be able to stop us. If not for beauty, then for heartbreak. If not for the joy of seeing a tree’s stark branches waving against a gray winter sky, then for the horror of seeing people starving to death in our own rich cities or drowning to death on the shores of Europe. If not for the pleasure of a beloved piece of music, then for the despair of another mass shooting. If not for the happiness on the face of a dear friend or family member, then for the agony present  when they suffer or when we let them down. Let life be present to us. Let it stop us.

To be unstoppable is to be blind to what is happening all around us. To be unstoppable is to refuse to notice the effect that progress–at any cost–might have on our relationships, our bodies, and our spiritual life. To be unstoppable is to deny our own biology. To deny our hearts and the beautiful web of relationships that surround us.

Sometimes the world demands a response. And sometimes the only response is to pause. To be stricken. To be soft. To take a moment to laugh, or to cry, or to hold someone’s hand. A moment of noticing how angry we are, or how sad, or how–this is the really hard one–how numb we’ve become.  And cultivating the ability to be stopped takes deep work.

It requires relational sensitivity to know when our families, colleagues, and friends need us to downshift and approach them in a new, more attentive way. It requires somatic wisdom to be able to sense our energy status and get a clear reading on what our bodies need. It takes emotional awareness to stay present in strong emotions while also noticing the emotional states of others. And, finally, the ability to stop often takes great bravery as it will likely be questioned by those who would not dare question the cultural value of being unstoppable.

In my coaching practice, I do not seek to teach clients to be unstoppable because I believe it is deeply problematic, even dangerous. What happens when you teach your client to be unstoppable, and their family and friends need them to stop because they have been neglecting their relational responsibilities? What happens when you have an entire culture of unstoppable people, and the culture next door needs them to stop because they are encroaching on ancestral lands? What happens when you have an entire planet of unstoppable people, and the environment is begging them to stop because species are going extinct and the land is being polluted?

Can you see where being unstoppable can lead? Do you see where it has already led?

Instead, I believe that we must learn to listen to the call of the world, to our loved ones, and to our bodies–to stop. In the coaching relationship, mutual trust and mutual respect create a strong container wherein clients can examine their relied upon, habitual responses. Over time, they become better at recognizing the persistent ‘turning away’ that is pandemic in modern society and eventually they learn to cultivate a new response. This requires learning new skills and competencies: patience, compassion, resilience, discernment, and the ability to self-observe, to name a few. I’ve seen clients, over time, become more resilient and able to stand in deep witness to their own emotional experience; to be stopped by the world, and to be touched by it. They have the freedom to experience their own reactions without becoming overwhelmed. This, in turn, affords them the opportunity to make choices that were unavailable to them before.

Today, let a small part of yourself be broken by this heartbreaking and fragile world. What might happen if you opened yourself up enough for this to occur? What meaning might leak into your life if you dared? Find out.

Stop.

What causes what?

What’s your understanding of the cause of your actions and other people’s actions?

Mostly we’ve been taught to think that it’s something within that produces what we do. We talk about motivation, or goals, or drive, or inspiration. We think of ourselves as separate from the world and that our actions and relationship to everything comes from inside us out into the world. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.

But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

We’re not as separate from the world as all that. Much of the time what’s happening is that we’re being drawn towards situations, equipment, or possibilities that we meet.

So, when there’s a chair in the room we’re drawn to sit down when we’re tired. Or when it’s time to go out of the room we’re drawn towards the door and reach for the handle, which draws us too.

This is different from the way you might think you relate to doors and chairs.

It’s not so much that before we act there’s a thinking process by which we first decide to find a door and then reach for the handle in a series of discrete steps. In the middle of everyday human life all of this just flows out of us, from the everyday familiarity and skilfulness in being in the world that we’ve embodied over a long time.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger called such features of the world that draw us out in particular ways affordances.

Being around different kinds of affordance draws us out of ourselves in different ways. Perhaps you’ll see this most clearly if you start to watch for a while what you’re drawn into – what you find yourself automatically doing, before you’ve even thought about it – in particular places.

What do the affordances of the kitchen draw you towards?
The lounge or sitting room with sofas and perhaps a TV?
A meeting room at work with a big boardroom table?
The bus-stop or the inside of a train?
A cathedral?
The waiting room for a doctor’s surgery?

If you watch for a while you’ll see that each place draws from you not just actions but a particular style of engaging with and relating to what’s around you that includes how you relate to others.  It’s all happening long before you’ve even thought about how to respond in this or that place.

This is an important topic because it shows us quickly how much place affects us and because equipment (whether paintbrushes, books, teacups or desks) and people are affordances too.

And there are huge practical consequences of this for all of us, that mostly we’re not paying attention to.

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On thinking

I can think. I really can.

I can think long, and hard, and deeply, about complex problems.

And because I can do it well, I often live as if that’s all there is to do in the world. To think, and to solve, and to work it out. As if this is what I’m here for.

It’s got me a long way. It brings many blessings. But it also creates great difficulty.

When I live in this way, I have a propensity to believe the truth of my thinking, far beyond its actual truthfulness. I try to understand that which cannot be understood in this way – life, or relationships, or what I’m here to do. I think myself away from situations where what’s called for is stepping further in. I seal myself away from the world with a shield of thought. And I judge myself mercilessly for not yet having thought enough or well-enough.

When I live this way, my mind is never still. There is little room for mystery, awe, and wonder. I’m anxious (because no amount of thinking is ever enough). And because of this I’m working, hard, all the time, to work it all out.

And what gets forgotten is that there are other kinds of wisdom upon which I can call. The wisdom of others. The wisdom of my heart. The wisdom of my body. The wisdom of breath. The wisdom of not-knowing, and of un-knowing. The wisdom that can only come from stillness.

And my work, if I am to be fully in life, is letting go enough, surrendering enough, opening enough to let these other kinds of wisdom in.

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Drowsiness is a red alert

In my research for yesterday’s post on our profound sleep crisis, I came across some startling work from Dr. William Dement of Stanford University’s Center of Excellence for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Sleep Disorders.

I had to tell you about it.

So many times in my life so far, in order to get somewhere that was important to me, I have continued to drive while feeling drowsy. It’s often seemed to me to be not too bad. ‘Just a little further’, I tell myself. Wind the windows down. Put some music on. Grip the wheel. Sip some water. I’ll soon be there.

Never again.

Dr Dement tells us we must treat drowsiness – which so many of us experience while driving – not as a sign of being a little tired but as a red alert, as the last step before falling asleep, not the first.

‘Drowsiness’, he tells us, ‘means you are seconds away from sleep.’

Although I say to myself I take safe driving seriously, I really didn’t understand the seriousness of this before. And I am shaken by the possible consequences of my self-reassurance, my denial of the seriousness of the situation, and my turning away from the wisdom of my own body.

Surely this, if anything, is a call to wake up.

‘Imagine what it could mean’, Dement says, ‘when you’re behind the wheel of a car driving on the highway. Drowsiness may mean you are seconds from a disaster.’

He continues – ‘If everyone responded as if it were an emergency when they became aware of feeling drowsy, an enormous amount of human suffering and catastrophic events would be avoided … Seconds away from sleep may mean seconds away from death.’

You can read more of Dr. Dement’s work on his website here, or read about his work and that of many others in the sleep section of Tony Schwartz’s wonderful book Be Excellent at Anything (previously titled The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working).

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A profound crisis of sleep

“Ours is the only species that lights up its biological night, that overrides its own rhythms, crosses times zones, and works and sleeps at times that run counter to its internal clocks. We ignore what our clocks remember at our own peril.”

Jennifer Ackerman, Sex Eat Sleep Drink Dream

The evidence is clear. There is little more foundational to our effectiveness (that is, our capacity to do, skilfully, what matters to us), and our well-being, than sufficient sleep.

The more I read about this, and the more I experience it in my own life, the more convinced I am that we are in the midst of a profound sleep crisis that shapes our society, education system, health, politics, and capacity to do what matters – and that at the heart of it is our equally profound forgetting of what sleep is and what it is to be awake.

Each of us has a powerful physiological mechanism, the sleep homeostat, that functions to regulate the daily amount of sleep we have by influencing our tendency to feel drowsy. If we allow the process to work as it should, we get enough sleep simply by responding to the drowsiness we experience – going to bed earlier, taking an afternoon nap, sleeping-in longer, or otherwise arranging to rest sufficiently.

But we live in a culture that teaches us to disregard our own bodies, to pursue ever more (possessions, productivity, status, experiences), and to deny our physical limits. We have unprecedented access to technology to support us in this project – electric lighting to illuminate our nights, devices we carry that remind us of our responsibilities and of what we’re missing out on, and that allow us to be reached at any moment. And because of this, sleep is one of the very first of life’s basic necessities we’re prepared to give up in our pursuit of more.

It’s a huge mistake.

As we resist our bodies’ call to sleep, and as the effect of the sleep homeostat becomes more apparent, we become more and more drowsy, and more and more cognitively, emotionally, and physically compromised. And the effect is cumulative. Every hour of missed sleep is carried in our bodies which is why, after a working week in which you’ve missed two hours of sleep a night, you need ten hours of additional sleep to restore yourself. Two weekend morning lie-ins of a couple of hours which leave you feeling just as tired are a sure sign you’re carrying a significant sleep deficit.

The frightening thing about this is that in contemporary culture, we’ve mostly forgotten what it feels like to be sufficiently rested. We think that boredom, or a stuffy room, or a long drive, or a report to write make us feel tired – without realising that we’re experiencing the effects of our sleep deficit. We keep going because we can’t stand the drowsiness that slowing down visits upon us.

We are a society that barely knows the clarity and crispness and aliveness of being fully awake.

There is compelling evidence that the lack of sleep that the majority of us suffer from has profound effects on our creativity, capacity to solve problems, irritability, propensity to become ill, tendency to make errors, and on our safety behind the wheel. And yet we wear our busyness and tiredness as badges of honour, imagining that our capacity to (apparently) conquer our limited physical bodies is not only required but a sure sign of our personal dedication and success.

We imagine that pushing longer, harder, doing more will eventually solve our suffering, even while we visit enormous suffering and damage upon ourselves and others. And we ask this not just of ourselves but teach this to our children by asking more and more of them too – more activities, more homework assignments, more progress that we think will get them ahead, at the expense of the basic sleep that would be so life-giving for them.

Isn’t it time we gave up the madness and suffering of sleep deprived lives and a sleep deprived society, and taught ourselves again the wisdom that our split-off-from-ourselves bodies know so deeply, and so well?

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Changing my mind

It’s easy to feel sure that who I am is the inner experience I have of myself. To imagine that I am my thoughts, my values, my opinions, what I believe to be true, what I care about. And, consequently, that to change who I am – to grow, or develop, or address my difficulties – I only need to change my mind.

It makes intuitive sense to think this way, firstly because of course we are each uniquely privileged observers of this particular, own-most inner aspect of ourselves that we call mind. And, secondly, we’ve been conditioned by our culture and its strong background of Cartesian dualism to treat mind as primary and everything else as as secondary.

But it doesn’t take very much looking to see how far my identity extends into the world – how ‘who I am’ is part of the world, shaped by the world at the very same time as I shape it.

I am who I am in relationship with others, for example. The kind of son, brother, husband, parent and friend I am is affected moment to moment by the people I am son, brother, husband, parent and friend to. And who they are with me is equally being shaped by their relationships with me. And in this way our identities are inextricably and continually entwined with those who we are in relationship with.

I am who I am in relationship with what I own and use, too. That I now choose to have a phone without email on it, for example, is profoundly shifting my experience of myself, the kind of attention I pay to life and other people, how preoccupied I am, my sense of what I’m supposed to do moment-to-moment, and what I feel (I’m much less anxious). Similarly, my home, what I choose to wear, the art on my walls, the food I eat, and how I travel are not just expressions of me but an extended part of my identity, continually shaping and shifting and reminding me who I can be in the world.

I am who I am in relationship to my actions and body. The me that I am when I live a life of hurrying and frantic activity is quite different to the me that takes time, that puts things down, that is attentive to movement and space. The me that I am when I ask for help is quite different from the me that tries to do everything on my own. The actions I take shift my story about myself, as well as what I notice, my capacity to respond, and how others relate to me including the stories they have about me.

And because of all of this, any time I want to learn, or grow, or change, or be more genuine, or take up my freedom, or reduce a difficulty I’m in I have to do more than just think differently or hold a different set of beliefs about the world. I have to act, in each of the domains I’ve described above.

It is this very practical step of taking new bodily action that brings about a new identity, a new relationship to life, a new relationship to others, and to the stuff around me. And I have to do it not just once, but over, and over, and over, until it becomes habit, skilful and familiar enough to fade into the background.

Then I can say I have changed.

And this is the case even though the culture I’m embedded in, as well as the voice of many coaches, advice columns, and self-help books, would tell me that if I change my mind, everything else will take care of itself.

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The non-obviousness of what’s obvious to us

When I feel ashamed, particularly by something someone else has said, my body quickly steps in to defend me. I tighten up, contract, shut down, back off, go silent, get out of the way. It protects me from the feeling of being wounded, but it makes staying in conversation and in relationship quite difficult.

Other people I know, in exactly the same circumstances, have bodies that have them rage, or puff up, or cry.  And some step in, opening, softening, allowing themselves to feel and be vulnerable, coming into closer contact and into questions and curiosity about the other person.

Knowing this reminds me that what seems so obvious and familiar in my body, because it’s been practiced for decades now, is not the only path. Seeing how other people are able to respond shows me that there many different responses to shame, many different stories about it to live. And not all of them involve freezing, or running.

And all of this is a source of hope for me, because I see that with diligence, and practice, and kindness, and some measure of courage – but mostly with practice – I, too, can find a way to stay in contact with feelings I really don’t like to feel. And, as a consequence, to be more open when I’m shaky, to be more present when I’m suffering, to maintain integrity even when I want to give in, and to be curious even when I want, most urgently, to get away.

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No email in my pocket

Our tools shape us. I’ve argued this here before, most notably earlier this week.

And so, inspired by a blog post from Danielle Marchant, I have disabled email and facebook on my phone. It has been a revelation.

No longer do I carry in my pocket a device that calls to me in the way that it did. A smart-phone, I have found, beckons to me even when it is doing nothing. It lays out a pathway, a scaffold, for checking and rechecking, for wondering if anyone has tried to contact or me or if anyone needs me, and for addressing my longing – and my wish to help – in a very superficial way. I find myself drawn towards it, but left hollow and wanting from my interaction, and then checking again in the hope that the emptiness will be filled. A feeling of emptiness, itself, I see, that is brought about by the very pattern by which I try to assuage it.

As I let go of the neediness that my phone both invites and promises to resolve, I see why we have been hooked so absolutely by our amazing and life-altering devices. I do not wish to abandon technology that can serve to connect us in ways we could never have imagined. But I do wish to give up on the world that gets brought about by my being always-on, always-available, distant from myself and so often distracted.

I am checking my email only when with my laptop – a purposeful act, chosen consciously and deliberately around my other commitments, rather than a habitual, reactive interruption to them.

So, please, if you know me personally and need me urgently, a call or a text are the way to go.

And as a result of all this I find myself more present, more fully engaged in the simple contactfulness of conversation with others, more alive to the places I’m in and to what’s going on around me. I am less split, less distracted. My horizons have shifted, subtly, meaningfully, by spending less time looking down at a sliver of screen in front of me and more time looking up and out at the world and at other people.

And, in the way that such subtle but important shifts of perspective can bring about, the world feels bigger too.

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What I learned from Du

Our special guest at the ten-year celebration of thirdspace last week was Du Lapaine, an extraordinary musician from Croatia. As well as playing for us (and more about that in moment), he spoke with us about what had had him step out of his PhD programme in mathematics in order to take up music as a calling.

Like many of us, Du explained, he found out early on that he was very good at something – in his case solving complex maths problems. And he enjoyed it enough, and was talented enough, to be able to study it seriously through school and university, and to step into an advanced programme of postgraduate research.

But something very interesting and profound happened to him during this time. He discovered that he was falling in love, and with something quite different to what he knew himself to be good at. The other party in this growing affair was the didgeridoo, an instrument he’d come across in the corner of a local music shop as a young man. He’d spent some years struggling with it – and many thousands of hours of practice – and was gradually coming to know its contours and possibilities, as well as his own. And, over time, he was coming to feel the call that this practice had for him, and the deep aliveness he experienced while playing.

Unlike many of us, who do our best to stay on the path we think we’re meant to be following, or on the path others have designed for us, Du decided to treat the love and longing he was experiencing with the seriousness it deserved. And rather than forcing things, as he found himself with less and less energy for the studies he was pursuing and less aliveness in the teaching he was doing, he decided his heart’s call needed honouring with a respectful and sensitive response.

“When I told my PhD supervisor I was leaving, and why”, he told us, “he gave me his blessing right away. And he let me know I could always come back”.

Perhaps most importantly, Du chose to go all in – an act of both dedication and surrender. “I knew that to start with it would be like being caught in a big stormy sea,” he said, “but that there would soon be floating wood I could hold on to.”

Eight years on, he told us, he’d managed to build himself a sailing boat and, more recently, with continued dedication and practice, something more like a small yacht with which he has enough power and wherewithal to set a direction and weather the bigger waves and squalls that life can throw at any of us.

“It’s been a huge change in my life,” he said “but I haven’t suffered because I didn’t struggle against what was happening to me. I decided that I would fight for my life with the didgeridoo”, he said, “rather than fight against it”.

That, it seemed to me, was among the most important lessons I learned from hearing Du speak and play: what can happen when we give up fighting against what life is calling us to do, and instead use its energy to support us. Following a vocational call in this way guarantees nothing in the way of material gain (which may not come) or cessation of difficulty (of which there may be much). But it does, at last, offer an opportunity to live – and an opportunity to give up a particular kind of suffering. And this is something that many of us are very far from doing as we try to squeeze ourselves into pathways that others have laid out for us or with which we mistakenly feel we must bind ourselves.

Watching Du play in person is extraordinary. The separation between him and the instrument, and between the music and the audience, quickly dissolves away until it’s clear that we’re all up to something, together.

If you have the opportunity to see him (and I hope we will bring him back, before long), please do. He and his music are quite something to behold.

Turning

If you want to be up to something beyond fitting in, settling down or taking up the roles others have made for you, you’re going to have to look closely and seriously at your relationship with tension. And ask yourself, when you feel your body tense, which way do you go?

You may not be able to address this question until you spend some time quietly observing yourself. What does tension actually feel like in your body? Where does it show up? What is its quality? How does it move?

The easiest way to interpret tension is as a problem to be resolved. So you move away from it, dissipate it, release it so that it can’t trouble you. You’ll have your own well practiced ways of doing this, and if you continue to observe yourself for a while you might find out what they are.

But know that if your move is away, always away, you’re acting to keep the world exactly as it is. Because tension is stirred at that exquisite moment when difference or possibility present themselves to you. The possibility of speaking with courage, of standing out, of surprising others and yourself, of being known in a new way, of being fully and radically in contact with others, of standing for something – all profound sources of tension.

So take on a bigger, more generous interpretation of what your body is up to. How about tension as an invitation, a doorway, the opening of a new horizon that you’ve never experienced before? Tension as a profound call to throw yourself wholeheartedly in to the riskiness and creativity of being alive.

If you want to be up to something in the world, sooner or later you’re going to have to step in and learn to stay in the midst of what you’ve turned away from for so long.

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Producing ourselves

It may be hard to see, but every productive act we take in the outer world shapes us in the inner world.

A better way of saying this might be that we are not separate from what we do. We’re always being shaped by our actions, how we spend our time, what we pay attention to, who we speak with – and how, how we listen, what we make.

In a world obsessed with outer productivity we rarely spend much time considering what kind of person we’re becoming through how and what we’re producing.

Even if you have a narrow obsession with productivity this is important. Because, of course, the kind of person we each become profoundly shapes, in turn, what we end up producing in the world.

Feeling what life is like

Perhaps today is the day to start allowing yourself to feel the impact of the life you’re living.

What joy, sorrow, tenderness, anticipation, love, fury, despair, disappointment, acceptance, hope is being brought about by your life?

What does it feel like to be you, really?

It will probably take some softening, some slowing down, and some opening on your part, so that you can feel beyond the numbing and automatic habits we’re all prone to fall into.

Once you start to tune in to what life is actually like for you, you open the possibility of a new and fresh response arising – one that honours your life and that of those around you.

And what better project could there be to take up at the dawn of a new year?

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Bracing

How much of your energy, do you think, do you dedicate to bracing yourself against the world?

You may have to look closely and quietly for a while to find this out.

It may not be at all obvious.

We all learn to brace, in one way or another, from when we’re very young, to protect ourselves from experiences that are overwhelming. Later, our bracing continues, long after it has ceased to be a useful or necessary protection. And in our bracing is much of our stuckness, much of our tuning out, and many of our habitual, automatic, numbing reactions to the world and to people.

Where to look for all this? In the tightness of your jaw, the scrunching of your eyes and cheeks, the contraction in your chest or in your belly, the crossing of your arms, that slight but definite collapse in the middle that hunches your back, in the way you raise the angle of your head so you look – at some distance – down your nose at the world, in the constriction in your throat when you speak.

All of these bodily responses – and there are many more – are subtle but powerful ways of holding your experience of the world at bay. Most of us are hardly in contact with what’s around us and we’ve barely seen how much effort we’re putting in to not being hurt, or upset, or worried, or afraid, or seen.

If you want to relate deeply to others and to your own life there can be fewer more immediate steps than discovering the bracing holds you live in day to day and gradually working to release them.

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Cultivating moods

Moods aren’t phenomena that just happen to you. They always involve you. You’re an active participant in them, even those moods that seem to arise and fall away unexpectedly, mysteriously.

One way of starting to see this is noticing that there’s an assessment at the heart of every mood.

In fear – something or someone is threatening me
In anxiety – there’s nothing solid for me to stand on
In love – there’s something or someone shining, alluring, life-giving here
In resentment – I’ve been wronged and can’t directly address it

A consequence of this is that it’s possible to consider cultivating moods.

You have some measure of choice about the assessments you make; about where you look for evidence for the assessments you do make; about what you read and watch and who you speak to; and about the practices you take up that shift your body in such a way that moods are prolonged or released. In this way you can gradually lay the ground in which new kinds of mood, perhaps those less familiar to you or less habitual, have the possibility of arising.

And because each mood brings about a world of possibility or constriction, attending purposefully to the cultivation of mood is a vital act of responsibility for our lives.

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The wisdom of our bodies

One of the first of our instincts that we’re socialised away from is the instinctual intelligence of our bodies.

The school system many of us encounter in the post-industrial Cartesian world does exactly this – gradually reducing the childhood orientation towards bodily experience and feeling, and replacing it almost exclusively with a much more detached, rational-intellectual approach. You only have to look in to a class of five-year-old children and then into a class of thirteen-year-olds to see how spontaneity, movement, and responding to feeling have been replaced by a more rigid uniformity.

We’re rarely, if ever, asked to engage in reflection on how our study of different subjects feels – what we’re drawn to, what we’re drawn away from, what dulls us, what brings us to life. And we’re discouraged from paying serious attention to what else our bodies might have to tell us – that we need rest, that we’re afraid, that we’re lit up, that we’ve discovered something special and of significance to us. All of this prepares very well for the numerous situations in adult life, in organisations especially, where we are encouraged to fit in, in just the same way that everybody else is fitting in.

It’s no wonder that, as adults, we have a hard time discerning what’s most meaningful for us, what’s of particular importance in our lives and our responses. And why we’ll put up for years with living in a way that is at odds with ourselves.

Reclaiming our adult lives involves no small measure of reclaiming the wisdom of the body from which we’ve been separated for so long. It requires us to start to treat what our bodies are telling us with discernment, care and respect. And it requires us to pay attention to ourselves and our experience in a new way, usually by cultivating some quiet time in which we allow ourselves to actually feel.

And it takes a certain kind of ongoing curiosity and wonder, because most of us have been estranged from our bodies for so long that we first start to feel again we no longer know quite what it is that we are being shown.

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More more more

For the next few days I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working. This is from July 2013.

We’ve built our culture on the premise that more is always better. That there’s no such thing as enough.

We think we’d be better off we had more time, more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, the latest fashion, the newest smartphone, a bigger job, more market share, more efficiency. We construct our lives around this premise and we construct our organisations, institutions, and politics around it too. It’s endemic.

We’ve even gone as far as to relabel ourselves in this fashion. We’re no longer people but consumers. Without acknowledging how demeaning it is to be understood as yawning open mouths sated only by the arrival of more stuff, companies and politicians refer to us in this way – and we take it. Once upon a time we used to be citizens, but you’ll have to listen hard to hear that in our public discourse these days.

All of this ‘more’ seems so obvious, and so unquestionable, we can’t see what it’s doing to us. We can’t see the way it has us relate to the whole of life as if there were not enough. Not enough time, not enough space, not enough shiny things, not enough holidays, not enough growth, not enough experiences. We can’t see how it has us hoard our possessions such that many of us have way more than we require, while others cannot meet their basic needs. We can’t see how it has us work like machines, ignoring our families, our loved ones, our friends, our relationship with nature, with art, with stillness, with beauty. We can’t see how our obsession with more fuels the degradation of the environment in which we live, and of the bodies that support us. We can’t see how our sense of lack, even when all our basic needs are more than fulfilled, eats away at our lives and our experience of living.

If you look closely at life, you’ll find that once you’ve satisfied your basic, most essential needs, acquiring more on its own rarely – if ever – produces the fulfilment and feeling of safety you’ve been longing for. Or if it does, it doesn’t last for very long, replaced as it is by a gnawing anxiety that what you now have still isn’t enough.

Only when you start to see the hollowness of the ‘more’ narrative we’re all living in can you also begin to see what’s genuinely satisfying. Deep, truthful, courageous relationships. Community. Seeing and being seen. Serving others wholeheartedly, and accepting the gifts of others’ service. Finding your voice, your unique contribution, and bringing it. Curiosity and wonder. Being part of a commitment bigger than yourself. Slowing down enough to be present in life rather than ever absent from it.

The best question to ask yourself when you are caught up in the spiral of more is ‘for the sake of what?’. If your only answer is ‘so I can have more’ or ‘because I want it’ you’d better ask again. Perhaps you’ll find a genuine, honest answer why more is necessary. But if you can’t find one perhaps it’s time to turn away from what you’re so sure you must have, and into life itself.

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Sleep

Sleep.

Source of our energy, our creativity, our compassion, our sanity.

And in the buzz and rush of our culture, in our

always-on,

‘but they need me’,

‘I’m so important’,

endless to-do-list,

‘I should’,

‘I ought’,

‘I want’

target-driven,

shame-filled

always-more society

in which we wear our busyness,

and our exhaustion

as badges of honour

perhaps the most undervalued currency of all.

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