Primary and Secondary Needs

Our primary needs as human beings:

Warmth, shelter, food.

and then:

Touch. The loving gaze of others.
Being welcomed by smiling faces, simply for being alive.
Community.
A way to express our feelings and experiences truthfully, and to be heard.
People with whom to celebrate, and with whom to grieve.
Intimacy with others, and with the world.
Nature.
A way to belong.
Being of service.
Art.
Beauty, wonder.
Encounters with the sacredness of things.

It is the nature of our primary needs that, when met, we feel filled, complete, connected. Nothing more is called for.

The consumer economy in which we live is dedicated to meeting secondary needs – which are a pale imitation of what is primary. Our secondary needs, even when met, can’t fill us. They leave us wanting more. And as such they are ripe for the sale, for the making of profit.

So it should be no wonder that our primary needs are marginalised, often ridiculed, in our education system, organisations, and politics. Why have real contact with others when there’s no money in it? Beauty, when it will satiate rather then create demand? Intimacy, when it interrupts our addiction to the latest products? Deep joy, or deep sorrow, and contact with what’s sacred, when it stops us from feeling like empty vessels that need continual filling? Why do anything if it can’t be linked to productivity, or profit, or economic growth? Why do anything that will have us stop our restless, rootless consumption?

You could say that it’s the systematic marginalisation of our primary needs, and the worship of the secondary, that keeps our whole economy going in its current form.

But it’s in meeting one another’s primary needs, needs that can never be met in the form of a transaction, that we are most fulfilled, and most able to take care of what really needs our care.

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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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Always incomplete

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

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

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

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

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

That it is time to let go.

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

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Escaping our smartphone dependency

We human beings are profoundly shaped by, and drawn out from ourselves, by the things that are around us. And the smartphones that most of us carry are purposefully designed with this in mind.

It’s no accident that we find ourselves checking and re-checking email, messages and social media, before we even know quite why. We’re drawn in by the promise of a brief, welcome surge of expectation and hope. This is going to be the moment when we’ll find out that everything is OK, or that we’re wanted, or that we’re loved. This is the moment that we’ll be saved from our anxiety.

But shortly afterwards, we feel a familiar hollowness and emptiness. The hit was but for a moment. Our devices call to us, wink at us, and buzz us with the promise. And we willingly succumb, knowing it will not satisfy us but feeling unsure about whether we can do anything about it.

We have, as Seth Godin writes, a Pavlov in our pocket. An ‘optimised, tested and polished call-and-response machine’, that works every time. And, because we’re so bewitched by its presence, will-power alone is unlikely to help us.

If we want to live lives that aren’t so directed by the insistent call and the instant dopamine hit, we have to find ways that our devices can serve us rather than having us, unwittingly, serve them. Specifically, we have to take steps to have our devices support us in what’s life-giving and in what actually matters to us rather than in what distracts us and numbs us.

To help us do this, we could consider putting the features that draw us in to the cycle far out of reach.

After finding myself increasingly unwilling to tolerate the effects of all this, I am experimenting with the steps listed below. I have found each of them to be  liberating, not least in supporting me in exercising much more conscious choice about how this powerful technology affects me. I’m less distracted. I feel less needy. 

And – I’m still reachable. I still respond to emails. I am still asked to do work for people. And I still have friends.

On my phone

  1. Turning off all phone notifications (buzzes, beeps, lock-screen messages) apart from those that come from real human beings who are trying to contact me directly. WhatsApp, messenger, phone and text notifications are on. Newsfeed updates, tweets, and anything generated by a machine are off.
  2. Removing all unnecessary social media apps. If I really want to check something, I’ll wait until I’m in front of my laptop.
  3. Disabling my phone’s email applications, and asking people who need to contact me urgently to use WhatsApp or a text message.
  4. Creating a tools-only homescreen, which has the eight apps I use for quick and important tasks, and launching all other apps by typing their names from the phone’s search function. This adds an extra layer of conscious choice making before I get access to an app.
  5. Disabling fingerprint access to my phone and using a long password so that access to my phone as a whole is a more deliberate act than before.
  6. Charging my phone outside of my bedroom, so that I am not drawn to check it when it’s time to sleep, or to assuage my anxiety if I wake in the middle of the night.

On my laptop

  1. Checking my email and social media accounts only on my laptop, which means making deliberate decisions about when and where rather than reacting in the moment.
  2. Using an inbox batching system (BatchedInbox) which delivers email to me only at three specific times of day rather than the moment it is sent, and which completely takes away any potential hit from repeatedly checking for new mail.
  3. Disabling my Facebook news feed using the Chrome browser extension News Feed Eradicator, which allows me to check messages and post updates without getting drawn in. I can still check for updates from specific people and pages when I choose, by searching for them by name or by allowing notifications from their updates.
  4. Limiting access to the sites that hypnotise me, using the StayFocusd Chrome extension. This allows me to restrict access to websites (such as news and social media specifically) to certain times of day only, to constrain my total time on them to 10 minutes each day, and to completely block others that don’t add richness and depth to my life.

I know that not all of these will suit everyone’s life, responsibilities and commitments. But I encourage you to try some of them out, particularly those that seem most doable for you, and let me know how you get on.

For more support and information on all of these, you can read Khe Hy’s article ‘I was addicted to my iPhone‘  and read more at timewellspent.io

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Grasping

The way we go about our work, the way we manage others, the way we lead and the way we follow can so easily be an attempt to get seen in a particular light.

We often can’t tell how hard we’re trying to have it be this way – how our late nights are an effort to be seen as diligent, how our saying ‘yes’ to everything is a project to be seen as caring, how our perfectionism is an attempt to be seen as perfect, how our desperation for promotion is an attempt to be seen as valuable. And we rarely see how our moods and bodies are part of our efforting – the crashing disappointment when someone dislikes the presentation we’ve slaved over for a week, the deflation when another person doesn’t give us just the right kind of praise (just the right length, just the right temperature), the momentary flash of delight at a bonus.

When we work from this grabbing, needy place – and in particular when we lead or manage others from here – we’re not responding to the world so much as trying to fill a hole in ourselves that we don’t know how to fill. And there are many problems with this. It’s an endless project, doomed to remain unfinished, and to draw from us ever more energy and attention. No amount of praise of the right kind will do it, and no amount of being seen as being perfect will resolve the feeling that something is missing – because there is always the next moment, and the next, and the next when it can all fall apart. And it turns us away from others and from what’s called for as it calls us towards our own neediness.

The route through is not to find a way to fill the emptiness or to give up our longing for love or perfection, but to learn that the hole never really needed filling – to open our hand and find it already full. It is truly a lifetime’s work to discover that everything we need is right here – that we are already perfect, and already love, simply by being alive. And the discovery that nothing needs to be done, paradoxically, frees us up to stop grasping and instead do exactly what is most called for.

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Busyness and fear

Three basic human fears about what we do:

That what we’re doing doesn’t matter. That, quite probably, it’s meaningless.

That what we’re doing doesn’t help. That it doesn’t make a contribution to anyone.

That when we’re gone, all our efforts will amount to nothing.

Notice how it’s our busyness that has such amazing capacity to distract us from our fears, to numb us to them. And that it’s our busyness, precisely because it distracts us so well, that has such capacity to make our fears turn out to be true.

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Still

Who can by stillness, little by little
make what is troubled grow clear?
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

So often, faced with a difficulty, a confusion, a blow to our expectations, we dive into activity. There must be a way, we tell ourselves, to resolve this. We have to do something.

Now.

So often this move into moving comes from fear. That we’ll be powerless. That we’ll be shown to be inadequate. That this event will change us, and we don’t want to be changed.

Such an anxious, frantic move is familiar habit for many of us in organisations, where motionlessness is seen as akin to death. And where the stillness it takes to clarify our troubles is considered an abdication of responsibility rather than an act of deep care and wisdom.

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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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A calendar like a city

Today I’m in the midst of a new design project to address the inhale-exhale question. I am experimenting with the structure of my 2016 calendar so that it can be an affordance for both exhaling and inhaling.

Instead of my more familiar habit of fitting things into my schedule as they arise, I’m pre-designing deep grooves to follow – tracks and paths and roads written into time that guide me towards certain kinds of activity, much as the streets of a city guide us from place to place. There will be days to work and days to learn, days to exert myself fully and days to rest. There will be cycles of weeks and months that are dedicated to bringing about both breathing in and breathing out.

I intend to use the design as a scaffold – a way of determining what to say yes and no to which speaks to a bigger commitment than my more usual in-the-moment decision making can express.

Sometimes we need something big enough to hold us in this way if we want our lives to be an expression of what we care about.

And I simply have to do this. Without it, despite my best intentions, I easily find myself in the middle of periods of intensity, born of many projects reaching fruition simultaneously, that are simply beyond my physical capacity. I’m left ragged and depleted, unable to contribute in the way I wish.

The idea that a calendar could – like the layout of a city – be structured intentionally to guide me into a more vibrant engagement with my work and my wider life came to me when I took part in the RSA’s recent Street Wisdom project with this very question in mind. As I learned to look at London through new eyes, I came to see how the streets serve to bring us together or hold us apart, speed us up, slow us down, and guide us towards and away from destinations and experiences.

I saw how different buildings can be when built with care and patience or when thrown together ad-hoc, responding to changing needs as they arise. I found out that different streets have different moods, different paces. And I saw clearly how space frees by limiting. The enabling constraints of geography make it impossible to build too many buildings in one spot without creating a mess – a constraint that is much harder to see when planning our time.

And because of all of this I’m approaching my 2016 calendar as an experiment in the street architecture of time.

I’m excited. I’ve never seen time this way before.

I’ll let you know what happens.

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Exhale, Inhale

Exhale – put out into the world; create; teach; make; organise; ship; change things; get it done.

Inhale – draw in from the world; learn; rest; wonder; study; gather; change yourself; replenish.

What’s your balance of inhale to exhale?

Are you, like most of us, living a life where exhale is a given and inhale considered a luxury, self-indulgent?

What comes from a life in which breathing out smothers breathing in?

And what quality of exhale is even possible when we live this way?

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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.

Hidden Valleys

Tucked in a corner between two major roads in North London, a path framed by trees drops steeply out of view and joins the London Loop, 150 miles of walks through parks, woods and fields in a ring around the city. Only a short distance from where I have lived for eighteen years, today is the first time I find myself walking the route, and soon I’m in a damp, green, frosty world only feet from the concrete paving and thundering traffic above.

It’s quieter here, a little misty, and what startles me most is how the physical geography of the city is brought into view. Alongside the path runs the Dollis Brook, these days hemmed in by concrete and brick banks. It’s clear to me from here that it is the brook that has opened this valley in the soft London clay.

Seeing that it is a valley at all is a surprise. Under the covering of tarmac and housing the swells and hollows of the landscape are disguised, appearing as part of the purposeful human development of the area. But here in the quiet by the brook I can see how the forces of the natural world, over timescales much longer than each of our lives, have shaped the place in which I live. I live on the slopes of a small river valley. This is a new place from which to look at where I dwell, a different take altogether from seeing myself as living on this-or-that street in a suburb in the north of a busy metropolis.

After about a mile, the brook passes under the brick arches of a bridge, six lanes of cars rumbling above. I take a winding path up the valley side, emerging on the pavement of the North Circular Road, built in the 1920s to connect industrial communities while bypassing central London. I have driven this road thousands of times and have never noticed what I can see now in a narrow band on both sides of the road – that the wooded valley continues, flanked by suburban houses, their chimneys poking out from between the trees. It would be possible to walk, drive, and live in this area for years and not see that this is where we are – on the banks of a river that soon joins the River Brent and, a few miles on, becomes part of the broad valley of the Thames which has so profoundly shaped the development of London in the centuries since it first became a city.

I’m struck by how pervasively our capacity to construct has hidden the contours and foundations of the landscape upon which we live and walk. And grateful that there are those with enough foresight and courage to preserve the narrow bands of green that thread their way through the city, so that we can turn from the familiar path and encounter it from a different perspective, and with different eyes.

And it has me wondering about all the other ways we pave over the contours of human life. How we hide the mysterious, life-giving rivers and valleys of meaning and longing and despair and hope and love under concepts and frameworks, procedures and policies, under the shiny, hard surfaces of professionalism and consumerism. And, too,  under the ever-growing plague of busyness that seems to have taken the place of a deep encounter with anything as mysterious, or quiet, or ancient as a river valley threading its way through the city to the sea.

Image of Dollis Brook courtesy of Grim23
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

An autumn walk

I’m on the way in to central London this morning, a short journey from home to meet someone. I’ve left in good time, and as I step out of the door the autumn sun, reflected from the windows on the other side of the street, catches me with its warmth.

I’m already heading for the bus. Quick, quick, my inner-critic says, so much to do. If you rush you’ll have a few more minutes to get everything under control. My chest tightens, and my jaw clenches just a little, and my shoulders turn inwards and upwards. I become something of a getting-there machine.

But this morning I’m fortunate that I spot what’s happening and question it. Yes, there’s a long list of things to do… isn’t there always? But I did not set out early in order to go faster. I set out early in order to go slow.

The bus journey to the station will save me five minutes, and I’ll arrive for the train squashed-in, ruminating on things done and not done, body more clenched than before, another step into a machine-like understanding of myself.

Instead, this morning, I walk.

The sky is exceptionally crisp and clear today, orange-tinted clouds against a striking, high blue. And the leaves are turning to match the sky. Deep green outlines early-autumn red. I slow my pace so I can feel my body and my breath, and allow myself to open to the beauty around me.

And I reclaim myself. I remember that I am human – not a machine. That productivity and efficiency are but one part of a fully-lived life. That beauty, and the sky, and the rhythmic pace of walking and breath, and the deepening stillness of my mind are all foundations upon which I thrive.

The critic is, for now, silent. And my sense of time is greatly expanded. I see again how long the world has been here before me, and how long it will be here after me, and that now is but but one tiny aspect of a vast world of which I am a part.

We live deeply embedded in a narrative of efficiency and productivity, in which we measure our own worth and that of others by what gets done. In this understanding we understand ourselves as units of production, forgetting ourselves and our humanity so very quickly.

And we forget the simple practices, invisible from our narratives of busyness, that can restore ourselves to a fuller life.

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From irritating to mattering

I’m sitting at my desk, opening the mail. It’s been a long day. It still feels to me that there’s much to do.

The phone rings. I answer. It’s Sam. He’s calling to ask my advice on something that matters to him. Actually, it’s something that really matters to me too.

A part of me, deep inside, whispers too much to do, too much to do. It has quite a grip, this part. It twists itself around the inside of my chest, squeezing and pushing. And as I acquiesce and reach for the pile of unopened mail, it loosens, but only just as much as it has to. Ah, that feels better.

For the first few minutes of the call with Sam I’m trying to speak with him while opening the mail. Keep it quiet, the squeezing part says, so that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I open the envelopes as carefully as I can – which even then is not so quiet – and hope that he won’t notice. At least the gripping has relaxed a little so I can breathe.

The thing is, we’re talking about something that really matters to both of us but, caught up as I am in a narrative of productivity (demanded) and deficiency (mine) I’m hardly present at all.

I feel flat, a bit shaky, urgent.

And I’m not listening. Just pretending to listen.

I feel small, shallow, hollow.

And then I remember myself. I remember all the times I’ve called someone I trusted for help and advice and found, quite astonishingly, someone willing to set aside whatever else they were doing to be, fully, with me.

I put down my envelopes, and I set aside the demands of the critic-part, and I surrender myself to the conversation we’re having.

And all at once I’m in contact with Sam, and in contact with myself, and I find myself deeply touched by the conversation we’re in the midst of, which itself moves from irritating to mattering.

And I am reminded that things mattering is what makes us most human.

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Hollow

That hollowness you feel.

Are you sure that running from it – into work, busyness, emails, surfing the web, eating – is such a good idea?

What you’re experiencing is at the heart of the human condition. Not an error, but an understanding. An insight that there really is nothing to stand on.

We’re thrown, without our permission, into a world that is bigger, more complex, and more mysterious than we can understand. And we have to find a way to live, knowing that we know so little, and that everything is shifting all the time. That at any moment it call all be taken away from us.

In that way hollowness is not a mistake, but is instead a sign of your deep sensing of the way of things. By fleeing from it again and again into shallow distractions, you’re deepening your suffering. You’re fleeing from life. And whole industries exist to help you to do this.

Today, perhaps, it’s time to turn fully, with courage and openness, into the hollow heart so it can give up its gifts.

Let it become your home.

Let it support you in standing, rather than fleeing, in the storms, uncertainty and huge possibility of a life that you did not ask for, but nevertheless have this one glorious opportunity to live.

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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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Diminishing returns

What are the habits you have that diminish you?

It’s not so difficult to find out what they are. You’ll probably do them automatically, without thinking. They’ll soothe you in some way. And they’ll leave you afterwards with the vaguely queasy feeling of having wasted your time – they’re distracting rather than nourishing, numbing rather than enlivening, they cover up what’s going on rather than have you face it,  and they have you turn away from genuine connection with yourself and with other people.

A few candidates for you to consider:

checking your email in between other activities
checking your email in the middle of other activities
browsing facebook just in case there’s something interesting
scanning and rescanning the news headlines
or the weather report
eating whatever comes to hand
breaking off repeatedly to grab snacks or drinks
clenching your jaw, or tensing your shoulders
booking back to back meetings (because they need me there)
tuning out
editing and re-editing your ‘to do’ list
flicking from website to website
flicking from tv channel to tv channel
checking your email again

Each time you’re turning away from life, because you don’t want to have to feel whatever life is bringing you – perhaps anxiety, or boredom, or fear, or your tiredness, or being seen by others, or maybe even joy – and in turning away you’re profoundly reducing your capacity to engage.

For the moment, you’re soothed. But when you look back at the hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times that you’ve checked out in this way, can you honestly say it adds up to anything you care about?

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Good enough

I’m tired of organisational ‘stretch’ goals, increased productivity year on year, more-better-faster, doing-more-with-less, change after change, restructure after restructure. I’m tired of the push for endless growth, non-stop better performance, climbing the pole, getting to the top, being a ‘world-class’ whatever-it-is. I’m tired of squeezing out extra profit, running a lean-mean six-sigma machine. I’m tired of people being human ‘resources’ instead of people, of the way we’ve replaced the simplicity and directness of conversation with procedure and process, and of the increasing bureaucratisation of our workplaces that replaces practical wisdom with monotone rules and repeatability. I’m tired of endless criticism, not-good-enough-yet, and the self-judgement that comes with it. I’m tired of busyness and back-to-back meetings and no-time-to-talk and a million emails in my inbox and staring at my smartphone to see if anyone needs me. I’m tired of impossible targets and five-year-plans that everybody knows won’t come to be and corporate visions and values that box people in and try to make them all the same.

I see all of this in so many organisations I work with. And I see much of it echoed in myself. And I’m tired of it all.

I think there’s a chance you may be tired of it too. Even if (especially if) you’re one of the people arguing most to bring all of this about.

We enslave ourselves to the idea that we’ll be saved if we can just keep going faster – an idea that produces so much of the difficulty above, and so much stress in each of us.

What would happen I wonder if, instead, we freed ourselves into the possibility that so much of what we do is just fine as it is?

And that we, and all we are up to, are good enough already?

Acquisition or contribution

What do you think?

Are we human beings more fulfilled by, moved by, and given meaning by

contribution or acquisition?

Which gives us the deepest satisfaction, allowing us to find a home in life?

Which keeps us running, pursuing, chasing?

And which have we built our culture, our workplace systems,
our education system, our lives around?

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Knowing yourself

And so any of us who leads, or wishes to lead others, could do well to study ourselves closely through taking up (1) some kind of mindfulness meditation practice which brings us into repeated and sustained contact with our inner world, and (2) through taking up a reflective journalling or writing practice.

It’s simple, really. Until we start to know ourselves we’re mostly on automatic pilot, hardly a way to powerfully and responsively bring ourselves to what matters.

To be clear about what I am saying here: developing self-knowledge is really very different from using mindfulness or reflective practices as a way of tuning out, numbing ourselves, staying calm, trying to have a transcendent experience, or training ourselves to put up with the status quo without complaining too much – all of which seem to be fuelling the current hype around mindfulness at work.

Getting to know ourselves well is not easy to do, mostly because when we stop our busyness we quickly come into contact with our own inner turmoil which we’d rather get away from. But it’s necessary if we are to know our reactions and responses well enough to have them rather than be had by them.

And we also need to do this because it’s only by knowing the contours of our own inner worlds that we can get a glimpse of what others’ inner worlds are like. Until then, we just see others’ behaviour without any real idea of what they might be experiencing. In this way developing self-knowledge builds the foundations for the compassion and deep understanding that any of us need in order to work well with, cooperate with, take care of, and stay in productive and creative relationship with other people.

Making visible

So much of what it is to be a person is invisible to us.

Yes, we can see outward behaviour, but we can’t see the thoughts, intentions, vows, commitments, bodily sensations, meaning, love, joy, grief, sadness, hope or pain of others.

In order to see and understand other people as people and not as objects we need to be able to understand the contours of their inner worlds. And in order to do that, we need to know our own inner worlds: we need the language and discernment to notice and distinguish what’s happening inside us. But we have abandoned the practices that can support us in this.

We’ve abandoned reflection and replaced it with busyness.
We’ve abandoned sitting quietly with ourselves and replaced it with consuming.
We’ve abandoned patient and disciplined self-observation and replaced it with entertainment.
We’ve judged the contemplative practices of those peoples and traditions that came before us to be irrelevant, spooky, or superstitious – at odds with our apparently sophisticated, rational way of being.

Our capacity to understand ourselves, and to understand others, has been flattened out, rendered shallow and inconsequential as a result. We barely know ourselves, and we barely know how to respond to the suffering and difficulty of those we work with, and those we live with.

If we want to build families, communities and organisations in which people have a genuine chance to thrive, we need to take care of this.

It’s time we took back what we’ve so comprehensively abandoned, so we can learn to treat what’s invisible about others and, first, about ourselves, with the seriousness and wonder it deserves.

Meaning and Mattering

Does it strike you how small an orientation to work, and to life, it is to focus only on efficiency or performance?

And how small an orientation to engaging with the world it is to demand knowledge rather than cultivate wisdom or discernment?

We are so convinced by our rush to produce, to measure, to attain and to know that we give little space to two deeply important human disciplines – the capacity to wonder and the capacity to be patient.

And the more convinced we are, the more we turn our organisations and ourselves away from an encounter with what could both be meaningful, and what could matter.

And it’s a tragedy, because meaning and mattering are two of the foundational requirements of a human life well lived.

Waiting for life to begin

Perhaps you’re living a life where happiness, fulfilment or meaning is dependent upon reaching some future goal:

You’ll be happy when you retire
You’ll rest only when you’ve made (you choose how much) money
You’ll be fulfilled when people at last recognise and appreciate you

Meanwhile, you’ll put up with living a life at odds with yourself, or a life in which you don’t take care of what’s right here – your body, your loved ones, your talents, your capacity to contribute, and all the people who can support you.

What will your life be, do you think, if you never get to your dreamed-of destination? If the goal is never fulfilled in the way you’re imagining it? If you’re thwarted in your intentions by breakdowns and failure along the way? If illness, or death, intervenes? Or if you get there and find out it wasn’t, at all, how you imagined it to be?

Have lofty, ambitious goals, yes. Set out for something, yes. Bring energy, commitment, hope and optimism to it, yes. Make a contribution. Make a splash.

But please don’t do it for the far-off result alone, or have your life rely on things turning out in order for you to be fully in it.

Too many people have constructed their lives this way and found out, too late, that their deferring life in favour of an unknown future turned them away from the deeper rewards – and bigger contribution – made possible through actually living.

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What happens when you stop

Are you so busy because there’s so much to do?

Or are you busy because you can’t tolerate what you feel when you stop?

Yes. There’s a lot to do. There always is.

But there’s much to be said for cultivating your ability to feel your anxiety, longing, despair, sadness, and emptiness instead of launching into action all the time.

Because as long as the source of your action is running away or a means to fill a hole, it’s much harder than it needs to be do what genuinely matters. And – perhaps this might surprise you – it’s also much harder to feel the joy, satisfaction and fulfilment that comes with doing it.

So how about dedicating even a small amount of your time to letting things be? And to finding out what you’re running from?

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Five Books in Five Days (4) The Three Marriages

 This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.

There are three marriages in a human life, says David Whyte in his book of the same name. The first is a marriage – whether we call it marriage or not – to another person. The second is a marriage to a kind of work – whether we choose it, or it chooses us. And the third is the less visible, though no less important, marriage to the strange and shifting something we call our self. Each kind of marriage profoundly shapes us. And each can be a source of great dignity and meaning if we are willing to be patient and curious, and if we pay it the kind of exquisite attention it deserves.

The problem we most quickly get into, in the rush and bustle of our contemporary lives, is seeing each of these marriages as, in some way, at odds with the other. From this vantage point we must struggle always to get balance between competing forces – work is at the expense of the other, the other is at the expense of ourselves, attending to the self is at the expense of both work and relationship. And in this way we add to the sum of our suffering, because the only way out is to try to carve out more time for each, or to let one or more submerge beneath the demands of the other.

But there is another way, says Whyte. To separate the three marriages in order to balance them is to destroy the essence of all of them. Instead, we must lift our eyes to a bigger horizon and start to see how each informs the other.

“I especially want to look at the way that each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable…” he says. We have to “start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning, or emboldening the other two… We can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.”

By refusing to divorce work from relationship from self, Whyte describes a path that dignifies and ennobles all three. Filled with examples from his own life and from the life of artists, poets and novelists, Whyte’s book is beautiful and poetic from start to finish. And it has the power to radically shift the way each of us thinks about, and relates to, the foundational pillars of a human life.

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Amends

You’re furious at her.

The update was late, twice as long as you’d wanted, and not written for the audience you had in mind. And the meeting where you have to present it is first thing in the morning.

You’re not just furious. You’re frustrated, and not a little bit scared about what’s going to happen as a result of all this.

And in your fury you’ve said some things you regret. Some things that fail to see her dedication, the hours she put in, the way she set aside her own concerns in order to help you. By not seeing her good intentions, and by being so sure of your rightness, you’ve left her feeling hurt and wounded and confused, and wondering if her commitment to your project was well placed.

And, when you’re brave enough slow down a little and start to look more closely… which is difficult, because looking honestly hurts you, too… you start to see what you’ve known from the moment you asked her to take this on. You weren’t clear. You were in too much of a rush. You assumed she’d know what to do without checking it out with her (“that’s what she’s paid for after all”). You were afraid to show her that you didn’t, really, quite know what to do yourself.

When you look closely, you start to see that your anger – real as it is – is not so much anger at her, as it is anger with yourself.

And this is the crucial revelation.

Because you see that you projected your own shame and your own self-criticism towards her. And you see that this primarily played a self-protective role. By being angry at her, you did not have to feel your anger with yourself. Covering up your own vulnerability and uncertainty allowed you to shift the burden – and the blame – her way instead of yours.

And it is this revelation – seeing what you were really up to – that allows you to take responsibility, and to make amends.

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Waiting

I’m waiting for some friends to pick me up in their car.

All around me, people are coming and going on errands, on their way to meet friends or loved ones or business acquaintances. Some are hurrying, others earnest, some struggling with the pain of simple movement. Seagulls are calling. There’s a distinctive fresh salty tang to the air. The sun is low, soft-edged, orange-yellow in the late afternoon sky.

But I miss all of it. Because a small device in my pocket, bevel-edged and glassy, has grabbed my attention. I’m enchanted, responding to emails, checking for news that I’m wanted and needed, feeling the weight and promise of everything I’ve offered to do for myself and for others.

And I’m at least a little afraid of what I’ll feel if I put this down.

Wherever I am I always have something to do. I’m defined by my doing, my to-do, my not-yet-done. I become, always, some form of producer or some form of consumer.

And, because of this, I no longer know so much about the art of waiting.

I am rarely freed, rarely cut loose to fall into the depths of my own longing, my confusion, my boredom, or my simple capacity to wonder at all that is around me.

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