Good learning undoes us

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good learning undoes us.

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

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

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Con-trick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Changing the path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

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

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

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

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

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

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

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

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

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practice, not events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heaven and Hell

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

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

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

Isn’t much of the world this way?

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

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

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

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

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What the storm is all about

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But one thing is certain.

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

That’s what this storm’s all about.”

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The right time to hope

There are a million ways to be. But we hold on tightly to the way of being that is most familiar to us – the one each of us thinks is who we are.

And so when we’re in trouble – or stressed, or feeling held back by the world or by ourselves, when we’re longing, wishing, wanting, despairing – we tend to do more of what we already know to do. What we always do.

Even when it hurts us.

Even when by doing this, we keep the world the same as it has been for so long.

We choose familiarity over our own growth, because familiarity seems to save us from risk. At least we know the world when it’s this size, this shape.

At least we won’t be surprised.

And, because of this, just when our habit is to rush to do something, it’s often just the right time to wait. When we’re certain we have to be certain, the right time to be curious. When we’re most familiar with holding back, it can be the time to act. When we’re sure we have to be strong, the right time to be vulnerable. When we’re most ready to judge can be time to suspend judgement. When we’re most harsh on ourselves it’s the time, instead, to be exquisitely kind.

And, when we’re most despairing, it’s often just the right time to hope.

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Turning Towards Life

The technology available to us in our generation gives each of us an unparalleled opportunity to reach the world with our ideas and contribution. No previous generation in history has had this available to them.

We’ve been struck over recent days how remarkable this is, and how easy to take for granted.

Ideas that destroy, divide, and diminish our humanity, dignity and shared responsibility can spread as fast as those that can serve life. And so we’re starting to see that we have a responsibility, where we can, to bring our courage, generosity and gifts in service of that which could dignify, heal, and connect us. And that there’s no time to lose.

In this spirit we began today a freely available online conversation project hosted by thirdspace called ‘Turning Towards Life‘.

Every Sunday morning at 9am (UK) we’ll be speaking live online for about 30 minutes about a topic to do with facing life with courage, wisdom and compassion. Or, said another way, to do with how we might each come out of hiding and take up our places in the world.

We’ll start each conversation with a source that’s inspired, moved or challenged us – a poem, article, reading, or book – and we’ll post the source on a Friday so it’s widely available before our conversation.

The best way to join us is in our new facebook group. You’ll be able to see us live there, watch previous videos, and join the conversation.

To get you started, here’s a short introduction to the project. Please join us, and join in. We’d love to have you with us.

 

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Balancing Judgement and Mercy

Whatever we say we’re most committed to, a great many of us live as if judgement were the primary human value, judging ourselves mercilessly and without respite. And, when we live in the stream of harsh judgement, no effort is enough, no achievement worth much, and our efforts to help seem to us nothing but disguised selfishness. In this relentless stream we find that the only way to bring ourselves to the world with the care and commitment we wish for is to fight an endless battle in which parts of ourselves – our essential goodness and our inner criticism – are pitched against one another.

In a battle there’s really never any time to rest. We live in state of vigilance, braced and ready for the blows that can come at any moment: for the offhand critical comment from a loved one or colleague, for the figures on our latest bank statement, for a tweet or instagram post that reminds us of all the ways we’re falling short.

And we find ourselves mounting all kinds of pre-emptive defence: doing our best to look good (which we’ll do even at great emotional, spiritual or financial expense), tuning out from our lives with distractions (so as not to feel the difficulty we’re in), shaming ourselves (to avoid the pain of being shamed in other ways) or deflating and collapsing (as if hiding from the world will save us).

Perhaps the worst of all of this is the way we hide the very battle we’re fighting, as if we are the only ones, as if nobody else has it this way. We become convinced that life has to be a battle. And that is our lot to live a life of inner harshness that only adds to whatever harshness and struggle we already experience in the world around us.

Nearly all of us are doing this – whether we’re teachers or CEOs, politicians or parents, artists or activists or accountants. And the more we live this way, the more exhausted we become, and the fewer of our gifts – the gifts we each have that the world needs from us – we get to bring.

All the while that we’re caught up in harsh self-judgement (which easily and also becomes harsh judgement of others) we’ve forgotten that judgement isn’t the same as discernment, and that discernment only becomes possible when judgement is balanced by a stream of mercy. I say ‘balanced’ here, but it seems to me much more the case that true discernment (the kind that can be life-giving, truthful and contributory) only comes into being when judgement is thoroughly infused with mercy – when judgement and mercy pour into one another, illuminate one another, become a single river.

And what is mercy? It’s a commitment to not turning away. It’s dignifying our anguish and confusion, the transience and unpredictability of our lives and the difficulties we’ve all had to face, and reaching for the essential goodness that is present in all of us. Mercy is indeed our turning towards life itself with a fiercely kind and loving embrace. It’s a commitment to see the beauty in our very unfinishedness, to cherish and honour both our inevitable falling-short and our capacity to improve things.

Most of us haven’t practiced mercy towards ourselves with anything approaching the diligence with which we practice harsh self-judgement.  But until mercy can become a serious part of our constellation of virtues, until we practice it as much as we long for it, we’ll struggle with more difficulty than we’re due and we’ll doubtless bring more difficulty to others than we intend.

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Helping ourselves, and others, learn to live

What if we gave up the idea that anyone else can have easy answers about how to live our lives? What would happen if we took up the project of cultivating our curiosity, our openness to life, our sense of wonder at ourselves and others?

What could be if we started to look for the ways we keep ourselves running in habitual, tiny circles, avoiding and hiding so that we don’t have to experience that which we don’t want to experience?

What could be if we could find practices – daily ways of living and cultivating ourselves – that bring us more fully into contact with the possibilities around us, with our own bodies and hearts, with the people with whom we’re in relationship, and with our lives?

What would it be to do this for ourselves? And what would it be to become more skilful at helping others do that too?

I’m thrilled to be leading our regular two-day Coaching to Excellence programmes in London in May and July, in which we’ll get into all these questions together.

Small steps

It’s tempting to think the change you’re longing for will come about through a single revolutionary step.

… somebody (usually not you) realising the error of their ways
… a new vision or mission statement for your company
… a new to-do list that will solve all problems, ease all ills

This is the kind of magical thinking that leads to the often-practiced and rarely effective tradition of team ‘away days’. Yes, a day of talking can take you a long way. And yes, a list of freshly-minted things-to-do can give you all a feeling of relief, perhaps even hope, for a few minutes at least.

But it should be no surprise that on return to the everyday world of your office or workplace, nothing seems to change as quickly or as radically as you had hoped.

From the ashes of magical thinking cynicism is easily born.

You might more helpfully think of most change – particularly change in relationships, trust or understanding – as a kind of titration. Drip followed by drip followed by drip.

Radical overnight revolutionary change of the kind that you’re hoping for, or promising, is the work of messiahs and magicians (and, sometimes, charlatans).

For the rest of us, the dedicated, consistent, purposeful, patient work of repeated speaking and listening, promising and requesting, messing up and correcting, talking and learning, practicing and practicing.

Small steps, now.

Small steps.

Poetry of the Storm

storm

Yes, there might well be a storm brewing. An economic storm. A social storm. A storm which will call on us to rethink ourselves, to undo ideas and categories we’ve become attached to. A storm that will at times have us be afraid. That will sometimes throw us apart from one another and at other times bring us in close.

We’re probably already in the storm.

In one way or another we’ve always been in it, even when life seemed calmer, more straightforward. Even when we were turned in the other direction.

It’s easy to understand the upending energy of the storm as an entirely negative or malevolent force. But as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in The Man Watching, the more turbulent and uncertain times in our lives are precisely when our concepts and sense of ourselves are most open to being reconfigured. In the storm, that which we thought had a solid name can become un-named, and from here we can find better names – more accurate, more compassionate, more useful – for what’s around us. And in learning that we are not omnipotent, in some sense by being defeated by the storm, there’s the possibility that we emerge limping but strengthened, more in touch with our essential qualities, capacities and inherent goodness.

Mary Oliver’s poem Hurricane concurs. When we find we can’t control the world any longer (could we ever?) it can feel as if the leaves are being stripped from the trees, as if all we know is bending. The back of the hand to everything. But it’s so often the case that if we turn towards what needs doing, if we turn towards one another, and if we tend to things, then the leaf-stripped trees push out their tiny buds even in the wrong season. They may look ‘like telephone poles’, as Oliver says, but they really don’t care. And after the leaves come blossoms. For some things there are no wrong seasons.

We can get so afraid facing the unknown not because we don’t know what will happen but because we are secretly sure we do know what will happen. The world will be worse. We will be unable to cope. That’s an under-interpretation of current events right when creative over-interpretation is called for. When we’re sure how things will go, and paralysed by our certainty, we need abundance of stories about what the future might hold and who we could be in it.

And Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems are a wonderful place to start.

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Glorious

Our glorious, exhilarating, revolutionary Coaching to Excellence programme – a two-day programme on working compassionately and wisely with ourselves and others to lessen difficulty and to step in more fully to our lives – is running again in July. I’ll be there, teaching, in London July 18-19.

We’d love you to join us.

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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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The Path

I’m reading, and loving, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s ‘The Path‘, a book about how ancient Chinese philosophy can help us understand ourselves and live our lives more fully. It’s concise, clear, and beautifully written. And, at the heart of it, is an important and wonderful idea from Confucius (echoed in the contemporary world by Martin Heidegger among others): that we largely become who we are through our everyday actions.

This apparently simple claim has some extraordinary consequences.

The first is that there is not so much of a fixed way that each of us is. When I say ‘you know me, I hate being around company, I don’t know what to do in a crowd’ and then repeatedly take myself off to be on my own, I’m actively building myself into someone who is more skilful being with myself than being with others. I’m also becoming someone who knows myself in a particularly narrow way. I get to be the kind of person I am through the accretion of thousands upon thousands of actions, both internal and external, and the stories I tell about those actions, bringing some parts of me into view and pushing other parts towards the margins.

For Confucius this is an important ethical issue. My story about myself – that I am a particular way – is much too small, leaving out as it does all those aspects of me (less known, and perhaps less tolerated by me) that can be quite skilful at social relating and which, with purposeful cultivation, could help me live a life which has more connection with people and a greater possibility of moment-to-moment care for others around me.

The second consequence is that there is a profound and quite pragmatic developmental path to follow, one which can open up wide possibility, and that is the path of practice. Repeated, well-chosen practice – in my example above, the practice of being with and being attuned to others – not only builds skilfulness but allows me to rehearse a different kind of relationship to myself and to life than the one I’m used to. By choosing practice carefully I can gradually find out what it is like to be a social person as well as a solitary person, and cultivate those parts of me which (simply by being human) are quite able to be present with and take care of others.

The point made so beautifully by ‘The Path’ is that in a culture dominated by the detached world-view of Cartesianism, which privileges thinking and theorising about things over the day-to-day doing of things, we’ve largely forgotten the value of simple, everyday practices and rituals as a support for living well. And we’ve forgotten how they can widen our horizons, build our capacity to respond more fully to life’s inevitable unpredictability, and help us take care more skilfully of life’s needs.

 

Cracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Opening

As Mark Nepo points out, trying to bend the world to my own shape is not only exhausting and painful, it’s also ultimately self-defeating. The world is much too big, too mysterious, too deep to be shifted in this way. And it is an act of grandiosity – of trying to making myself into a god – to imagine that I can force life to be just the way I want it.

But this is not a cause for despair, because there is another way to meet the world. Instead of trying to make life like me, I can work on allowing myself to be like life. This means giving up trying to have the world be an imprint of my preferences and my wishes, and instead opening myself so I can include more and more of the world within me. In this way, development happens very naturally.

And the more of the world I can open to – the more people I can open to – the wider the possibility of responding to life not with frustration or resentment, but with acceptance, and grace, and wisdom and compassion. And there’s more of a possibility of also doing what’s really called for, rather than what would make me feel better, safer, or more self-satisfied.

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When only practice will do

When we rely on events to change things in our organisations – an executive residential, a training day on relationships, a session on ‘difficult conversations’ – we’re treating ourselves as if we’re machines. A new part, some oil in the right place, installing a patch to the operating system – that’ll do it.

When we imagine ourselves this way, we set ourselves up for such disappointment. We pour our hearts and our good intentions into the event, thinking that this time it will do the trick, this time the upgrade will work. And we wonder why things the next day seem pretty much the way they were before.

We’d be so much more effective, and so much kinder to ourselves, if we understood that we are living processes, shaped all the time by the practices we take up and by the relationships that surround us. We’d know then that events can help us, for sure, but that it’s not the events themselves that bring about the change we seek as much as our relationship to them. We’d see that unless we’re prepared to use events as an invitation to practice – with all of the uncertainty, all the learning that’s involved, all the letting go that practice entails, and all of the times that our practice goes awry and we have to commit to begin again once more – we can rightly expect our events to do very little at all.

And this point – that practice goes awry – is probably the most important. We know, intuitively, that a two-day event exploring the piano doesn’t make any of us a competent pianist. We’d expect to have many subsequent days of struggle and difficulty, with steps forward and setbacks, before we’d feel proficient. Before real music would be possible we’d expect days when our practice sounded disjointed or discordant, and to play many wrong notes from which we’d gradually learn the right ones. We’d expect to need help, and time to reflect on what’s happening. And we’d expect to experiment and practice again and again for many weeks.

It’s the same for the work of building trust between colleagues, for learning how to get out of our endless busyness and rushing so we can think, and for finding how to work together effectively, and skilfully, and joyfully.

If we understood this, I think we’d expect a lot less of events and see a lot more possibility in ourselves and in each other. And we’d know that our very difficulties are the path, not a reason to be discouraged, not proof that we’re getting it wrong, and certainly not a reason nor an excuse to avoid the difficult, life giving and essential work of practicing together what we say we most want to bring about.

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Practice, not events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overflowing

As David Steindl-Rast points out, we experience gratitude – we are able to be grateful – when we know our hearts as spilling over with appreciation for all that’s around us and within us.

And there’s no shortage of life to fill us up.

We needed do nothing to be given life, air, trees, sky, earth.

Other people dreamed up and made and brought us trains and cars, electricity and hot water, paper, pens, computers, steel and wooden beams to build our houses, and interlocking institutions, intentions, people and practices that teach us, care for our health and security, collect taxes, entertain us, feed us, sustain us.

We are inheritors of untold riches in the work of novelists, scientists, poets and philosophers. We needed do nothing to find ourselves in a world where all of this surrounds us, always.

But when we experience our hearts as spilling over, when our cup is full, we so often try to make the cup bigger. As if, now we’re filled, it’s necessary to be filled up with more. The bigger the cup gets, the more it needs filling, and the less of the spilling over of gratitude and gratefulness we experience.

We replace a life of wonder with a life of grasping. A life of what’s here, with a life of what isn’t. And a life in which we know ourselves and the world as enough, with a life in which we’re always disappointed and despairing, and always wanting more.

I’m writing about this today because I notice how often I fall into this way of seeing the world. And it seems to me that my work, perhaps the work of many of us, is to teach ourselves again and again to cultivate in us that which can love the world just as it is. To remember how to be cups that can spill over in response to the world, right at the same time as we strive, in all the ways we do, for there to be more of whatever it is to which we’ve dedicated ourselves.

And what seems wonderful about all this to me is that the more grateful I can be at what is, the more capacity and energy I find in myself to make right what is not.

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The right time to hope

There are a million ways to be. But we hold on tightly to the way of being that is most familiar to us – the one each of us thinks is who we are.

And so when we’re in trouble – or stressed, or feeling held back by the world or by ourselves, when we’re longing, wishing, wanting, despairing – we tend to do more of what we already know to do. What we always do.

Even when it hurts us.

Even when by doing this, we keep the world the same as it has been for so long.

We choose familiarity over our own growth, because familiarity seems to save us from risk. At least we know the world when it’s this size, this shape.

At least we won’t be surprised.

And, because of this, just when our habit is to rush to do something, it’s often just the right time to wait. When we’re certain we have to be certain, the right time to be curious. When we’re most familiar with holding back, it can be the time to act. When we’re sure we have to be strong, the right time to be vulnerable. When we’re most ready to judge can be time to suspend judgement. When we’re most harsh on ourselves it’s the time, instead, to be exquisitely kind.

And, when we’re most despairing, it’s often just the right time to hope.

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

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

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

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

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

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

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

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

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

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

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

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One step, and then one step

I have long loved the hopefulness of the Jewish tradition – the way it roots itself in the realness and responsibility of this momentunderstanding that the life we are living is the only one we can be sure of, that it’s vanishingly short, that there is much yet to do be done, and that each of us has the possibility of contributing.

And I appreciate very much how this hopefulness is informed by realism about what’s possible.

It is not your duty to complete the work [of improving the world]…‘, writes Rabbi Tarfon, a 2nd century sage, ‘…but neither are you free to desist from it‘.

There it is. What needs doing in the world is so much bigger than any one of us can muster – a realisation that could so easily be a source of despair. But in Tarfon’s hands it’s a call to possibility and responsibility. We have to begin, even though we may not quite understand what we are beginning, even though the results of our labours may only benefit those who come long after us, who we will never know. And when we find ourselves in the darkness, when nothing seems possible, when we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of things and floored by our smallness – one step.

And then one step.

And then one step.

But at the same time, we can lay a trap for ourselves with hope, which the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus understands well. Hope, particularly in the form of desire, he says, can be a source of great suffering. It can leave us permanently dissatisfied with the life we’re living, even when we have reason to be grateful.

Do not spoil what you have‘, he says, ‘by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

What you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

We know how that goes. We imagine a new car will make us happy, only to find a few days into owning it that we have our eye on a newer model. We imagine that power, or position, or a house, or a new relationship, or a change of government, or more money in our pocket will be the answer, only to find ourselves with the same emptiness and longing transposed to a new situation.

We so easily find our lives consumed by an endless and insatiable comparison between what is and what we imagine could be.

Epicurus’ own solution to this difficulty was a kind of radical simplicity and acceptance. He was an advocate of the virtues of living a life of obscurity – not trying to change too much, nor having dreams that are too big, so that we can appreciate and be genuinely grateful for what is already in front of us.

It seems to me that to be human is to inhabit the tension between Epicurus and Tarfon – learning to cherish the gifts we have, and at the same time hoping for and working towards something much better both for ourselves and for those around us. And it is, as far as I can tell from my own life, a genuine tension for many of us – pulled as we are between our deepest, most heartfelt unmet longings and our wish to feel happy or at least fulfilled right where we are.

It can be a confusing and painful place to be, particularly when we get caught up in the anguish of knowing we can’t have the world be just the way we want it. Or when our hope and acceptance are extinguished and smothered by resentment, fear, and despair at our inability to control things.

Perhaps the work of a human life is to learn to inhabit the tension between is and could be or, more fully, to be a bridge that unites both poles. Here maybe we can learn the craft of living in the world as it is, knowing we don’t have to save it, and at the same time being the ones who commit ourselves to the one next, hopeful, step.

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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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No giant machine

And so it’s understandable, but disheartening, to see how often we’re moved to respond to situations that are simple, complicated, complex and chaotic as if straightforward cause and effect would explain it, or as if it’s possible to know exactly what to do.

Explaining the world by this-caused-that or pretending to be an expert who knows the answer, or saying that there is no answer ignores the complexity and chaos that is the nature of so much of the world.

Doing this makes us feel better. Perhaps it dulls our fear and uncertainty.

But it robs us of so much of the human ingenuity, care and creativity we need.

It keeps us small.

Responding to terrorism, and war, and climate change, and poverty, and social justice… and loving, and being in a relationship, or in a family, and working with colleagues, and leading an organisation… all of these require our ability to respond to complexity and chaos, as well as our expertise. All require our capacity to experiment, create, listen deeply, take risks, and learn as we go. And none of these are easy while we’re committed to reducing the world to a giant machine where someone or something is to blame for all the difficulties that face us.

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The enigma of insight, and the Dept. Store for the Mind

Sophie Howarth’s wonderful Department Store for the Mind arrives in the world today, and I’m thrilled that she asked me to write about the relationship between insight and coaching for the launch. I wanted to capture something of the exquisite possibility that arises when we meet someone who’s dedicated to helping us see ourselves and our lives more deeply.

Head over to the store to read more on insight by poets, scientists and philosophers, and to see the range of beautiful and inspiring things that Sophie and her team are bringing to the world.

Coaching, and the enigma of insight – for Dept. Store for the Mind

So much of who we are is invisible, hidden in the vast background of our minds, the familiar habits of our bodies, and the culture in which we swim. It’s as if the conscious mind, which we usually think of as ‘I’, is one tiny part of a deep and mysterious ocean that is more truly who we are. Because of this, insight can be difficult for us to come to alone. And so when we’re in difficulty we can benefit enormously from having a coach alongside us – another human being with the language, courage, and kindness to show us who we are, bring what’s hidden into the light, and help us work with what we find about ourselves in fresh and life-giving ways.

More here…

 

Planetary Bodies

Finding out how much you’re shaped by the others who are around you could easily be a cause for resignation.

After all, if it’s not all down to you, what’s the point of taking any responsibility for what you do? From here it’s all too easy to attribute everything that happens to ‘the system’ or ‘the culture’.

But that would be too narrow a position to take, by far. Because – even in a complex situation such as an organisation, or a community, or a family – everyone is bringing everyone into being. Like the bodies in a planetary system, each of us is not only subject to the pull and push of others, but is an active part of bringing ourselves and others into our orbits around one another. We don’t have unlimited power to shape what happens around us, but we’re not at all powerless either.

This requires us to take more responsibility, not less. To see change for the better as the result of many small acts of choice – choices that can only start with each of us.

And this is why attending to our development is so important. Because development always includes learning to move from reacting to responding – seeing through our automaticity and becoming more able to be the authors of what we do as the world presents itself to us.

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Changing the path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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