Automatic or alive

Two paths available to all of us, that are an inherent part of being human.

(1) The automatic path

Our bodies and minds have an exquisite ability to learn something new and then reproduce it without our having to pay much attention to it. It’s what we rely on to get us around in the world. Navigating doors, cooking utensils, cars, speaking, phones, cities, social niceties, and paying for things would all be practically impossible were it not for this capacity. Without our automaticity we would have to learn and relearn how to interact with just about everything in the worlds we have invented.  Indeed, without our capacity to automatically respond to the vast and rich background of culture and tools in which we live, culture itself and tools themselves would be impossible.

(2) The responsive path

We also have an exquisite ability to make sense of and respond to the particular needs of the current moment. In any given situation we can find ourselves doing or saying something we’ve never done or said before. Sometimes our creative response can be surprising, sometimes clumsy, and sometimes we find ourselves able to respond with beautiful appropriateness to what’s happening. From this comes our capacity to invent, to respond with empathy and compassion to others, and to change the course of a conversation or meeting or conflict mid-flow. Without this capacity we’d hardly be human at all. We’d be machines.

But here’s a problem. We so often call on or demand the automatic path when what’s called for is the responsive path:

We fall into habits shaped by the strong feelings that arise in our emotions and bodies.

We tell ourselves ‘I don’t like that’ (and so don’t do it).

We say ‘I am this way’ (meaning I won’t countenance being any other way).

We insist other people stay the same as we know them, and put pressure on them to remain predictable in all kinds of overt and subtle ways.

We institutionalise or systematise basic, alive human interactions in our organisations, insisting on frameworks and codes and processes and procedures so that we won’t get surprised.

We repeat ourselves again and again – saying the same things, the same jokes, the same ideas, the same cliches.

We think rules, tools, tips and techniques will save us.

We form fixed judgements of ourselves and others which we can fall back upon when we’re in difficulty.

We turn away from anything that causes us anxiety or confusion. We prefer to know rather than not know. We’re hesitant to step beyond the bounds of what’s familiar, and comfortable.

We would often rather settle into the predicability and sense of safety that our automaticity allows. Sometimes we even call this professional or businesslike.

And all the while what’s most often called for in our dealings with others, in our businesses, in our work and in our organisations is the responsive path – our capacity to respond appropriately to the particular situation and its wider context; to be unpredictable, creative, exciting, unsettling, sensitive, nuanced and, above all, alive.

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Yes to what?

Many of us will say yes to anything.

If you observe closely for a while, you’ll discover that this is effectively a yes to nothing. Wrung out and over-extended, you find yourself in a half-hearted, resentful relationship with others and eventually with life itself. And although it might look to you like you’re only trying to help, it turns out that you’re serving your own sense of being needed more than really helping anyone.

The antidote to all of this is neither giving up nor retreating from the world. It’s finding a genuine, wholehearted yes which allows you to discriminate; a yes that goes beyond looking good, getting ahead, or feeling better about yourself; a yes which allows you to genuinely serve; a yes that at last allows some things to be more important than others.

Commit to a yes that comes from your deepest principles, your integrity, and your heartfelt longing to contribute to something bigger than yourself, and you’ll find that a new form of clarity emerges. Now it’s possible to respond with discernment, to say yes over and over again in a way that serves everything and everybody. To care for yourself and for others. And to say no, to what was never yours to do in the first place.

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Looking good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Five summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Accepting life

An unchangeable feature of life is that, at every moment, you find yourself inescapably in some situation or other – perhaps one that you did not choose.

And however magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living.

No manner of denial (and all the suffering that comes with it) can change that your life continues from this moment, this particular configuration, and not from another.

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is not ‘putting up with things’ but responding fully from where you are. Not pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere else.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

Many paths lead from this place.

Will you go to sleep to yourself, or step in to this, the one and only life you have?

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Enabling constraints

Often, our attachment to personal freedom becomes its own kind of slavery.

When we demand freedom with no bounds, our endless right to choose, it’s incredibly difficult to

enter into a relationship
make a promise we’ll have to keep
make a decision (because any decision closes off options)
publish a blog post, letter, report, book

Our demand that we keep everything open closes off the very possibility of taking many kinds of action. In this way freedom becomes its own kind of slavery, a trap disguised as liberation.

As a result it’s often only through willingly submitting ourselves to particular kinds of limitation that we find any kind of freedom at all. In order to

deeply commit to someone
take a stand on something that’s important
follow a path that takes dedication and focus

we have to discover that the truest freedom sometimes comes in the form of choosing, deliberately, to be bound by enabling constraints.

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What to Do When You’re Stuck

This week’s ‘Turning Towards Life’ conversation is now available here, on YouTube and on the website. In this episode Lizzie and I talk together about stuckness – what it is, how our efforts to deny it or overcome it can end up being unhelpful, and the deep quality of welcome that’s required for stuckness to flower into whatever it is that it is an opening for. The source for our conversation, written by Lizzie, is below.

See you next week

Lizzie & Justin

We’re live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time. You can join our facebook group to watch live, view archives, and join in the growing community and conversation that’s happening around this project.


What to do when you’re feeling completely stuck.

In all of our lives there are times when we feel stuck, paralysed or unable to shift a pattern or move forward. You know when you’re stuck because:

Your thinking is circular and you convince yourself of how bad things are or how there’s no way out.
You feel frustrated and even bored with the same old issue, person, circumstance or pattern.
You feel tension in your body, a compression of some kind that is nagging and underlying.
You’re unable to do anything to change this, it really does feel like you’re stuck, physically immobilised around whatever it is you’re facing.

I’ve discovered that being stuck is actually a huge invitation. You know there’s something more, something in the future that you just can’t get to – that there has to be something better than this stuck feeling of nothing moving, of not going anywhere.

And that’s because you are being invited deeper, and not forward. Forward is not what’s needed in this moment, but deepening, relaxing and seeing what the stuckness wants from you can be a graceful and conscious way through to whatever the gifts are that await you.

Being stuck, when we attend to it fully and stop trying to change it or avoid it, is a gift, a calling from inside of you to stop, go inwards, become intimate with this feeling inside and consciously relax into it to see what it wants.
You can even ask it some questions – Dear Stuck Feeling:

What is it that you want to say to me ?
Which part of my body can I relax a little more so I can get closer to you to really see what you are trying to communicate to me ?
How are you trying to serve me now ?
What am I denying or avoiding right now that would have you feel heard and seen ?

See where you get to. See what this stuck feeling wants to say. Treat it like a young child who is tugging on your skirt / trousers for some attention and a cuddle. Look into that child’s eyes and really, truly asks what would help, what the child needs, how you can attend to them.


What we pay attention to (and what we don’t)

So often what we are doing in our lives (and hence in every activity, relationship, project) is joining the dots, stringing together the phenomena we experience into coherent narratives and explanations. In other words, we are always interpreting – and which interpretations we choose (or which choose us) is of enormous significance.

Of equal significance in this is our choice of phenomena to pay attention to. What we notice, and what we take to be meaningful, is a matter of both choice and practice. Choice – because an infinity of phenomena reach us and we pay attention only to some. Practice – because the way we pay attention (which includes what we pay attention to) is both a matter of habit (we most easily pay attention to what is familiar to us) and skilfulness (our capacity to discern and discriminate between different phenomena is something that can be learned, and cultivated over time).

The current cultural background of scientific materialism in which most of us are deeply schooled without our knowing it does not help us well in developing life-giving interpretations from which to live life, nor in learning to pay attention to what might be meaningful to us. This is not through any fault in science, itself a powerful and rigorous method for discerning deep and fundamental patterns and truths about the material universe. But looking at our lives only this way has us pay attention only to certain kinds of experience. We look only at what can be reasoned about, logically and in a detached way. We treat as true only that which can be proved, measured, quantified.

Scientific materialism, in its deep commitment to understanding the material world (and in understanding the world only as material) has little scope for understanding what’s meaningful to people, what makes our hearts sing, how we are moved by encountering or making art, what it is to love and be loved, what it is to care about life, the world, others. Or, more accurately, when it does have something to say about these topics it can only say that love is a particular firing of neurons in the brain, or an evolutionary adaptation to make it more likely that we reproduce; or that art is simply an adaptation that allows us to build social status, or that our appreciation of it comes because of the transmission of pleasure signalling chemicals to reward centres of the brain. And while all of these might well have a kind of rigorous truth about them when looked at from a materialist perspective, they tell us nothing about the meaningful experience of being human – what it is to love, or be loved, to create art, or be moved by it, to open to the mysterious and endless wonder of finding ourselves alive, or to be a whole world – as each of us are – of relationships, language, meanings, longing, desire, sadness, grief, joy, hope and commitment.

When we treat ourselves or others as mere material objects and truth as only scientific truth – as we are encouraged to do in so many of our systems in organisations, education and government – we miss out on deeper interpretations that take into account that we are subjects too, living beings who act upon the world through our ability to care and make sense, and who possess an exquisite and precious consciousness and capacity for self- and other-awareness. Precious indeed, because as far as we can tell, compared to the abundance of matter in the universe, life is rare enough. And among all the life we know about, as far as we can tell, consciousness and self-awareness (the capacity to say ‘I’ and reflect on ourselves) even rarer.

Alongside our scientific materialism, we could support our understanding and care about being human by paying attention also to the insights of those cultures and peoples who came before us, many of which we have thrown out in our elevation of reason over wisdom. In treating only reason as valid, we’ve discarded ways of encountering truth that can include beauty, meaning and goodness alongside what can be logically proved to be true. Myth, art, poetry, music, legend and spiritual practices that bind us into communities of meaning and action are all worth studying and taking seriously here. They can teach us to pay attention not only to the deep insights of our logical minds but also to the wisdom of our hearts and bodies, and to our first-hand lived experience of being human among other human beings.

Which brings me back to the ‘dots’ we pay attention to – the phenomena we treat as meaningful in our lives. What we experience does not come labelled for us as important, or not, significant or not. We have to decide what’s worth noticing, and practice living lives in which we make matter what can matter. And it’s incumbent upon us to do this, by paying a deeper kind of attention to our lives and our experience, and to what we choose to care about.

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Every sorrow can be a form of love

When we’re feeling fear, sorrow, anger or emptiness at the world – or at any situation we find ourselves in the midst of – perhaps it would help us to remember:

That when we speak our fear we draw on the courage and dedication it takes to speak;

And when we express our sorrow it can arise from our love and care for what has been lost;

That we can speak about our anger best by finding the commitment to justice from which it comes;

And that our emptiness, our sense of what is still missing, is also the possibility from which something new can arise.

Every anguish, every sorrow, has its truest ground in a kind of dedication, hope and love. And when we can remember that, rather than just the anguish and sorrow, our chances of being able to contribute with dignity are deepened and widened and made more real.

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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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Feels just like me


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One thing

In recent months I have taken up reading printed newspapers instead of reading online. It’s a decidedly low-tech, tactile experience. And what I have most come to appreciate is the boundedness of the activity, the constraints imposed by a form which is, simply, just what it is. There are no hyperlinks, no pop-ups, no advertising or stories chosen on the basis of my previous browsing habits. A single edition contains just what it contains, and no more.

The effect on me of this particular, immutable, physical arrangement of words and ideas is often quite profound. I read with much greater attention, free of the urge to jump out and away any time a link catches my eye. I read about topics I don’t read about online, because the paper does not hide from me perspectives and ideas that are different from my own. I am called to step into other worlds – worlds distinct from those shared with me by my Facebook friends and by the advertisers who are determined to sell to me what they already know that I like.

Mostly, though, I am freed by the containment of the form to be up to just one thing, and I experience this as enormously satisfying.

We have been sold powerfully on the freedom to choose whatever we want, whenever we want, and promised that realising this freedom is the pinnacle of human achievement and fulfilment. It’s a promise that often feeds our restlessness and rootlessness. Reading the newspaper reminds me of a parallel possibility, that of choosing to purposefully limit our own choices, of the beauty and dignity of commitment.

It is but a small example of a powerful principle by which we can live. Our willingness to bind ourselves by a promise, to give up a superficial freedom, uncovers a deeper, more significant freedom. It’s when we’re prepared to be up to one thing that we stop skimming across the surface of experience and find ourselves invited into a deepening engagement with the world.

And if it’s true of reading the newspaper, how much more true it becomes when we are willing to make life-defining commitments, those that bind us into a particular kind of care and attentiveness to the world, and have us set aside trying to do it all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not acting is acting

Not acting is a kind of action, with its own consequences.

Not choosing is itself a choice, a path followed that closes off other paths.

Not risking has risks all of its own.

It may look like disengagement from the world keeps you safe, but it’s not so.

Disengagement is its own kind of engagement.

Photography by Justin Wise

On Difficulty and Understanding

As we encounter each of life’s difficulties, we get to choose:

Consider ourselves cursed or mistreated, as if we are owed freedom from hurt, pain or confusion. As if life owes us happiness. As if we are meant to be in control of everything. This is, essentially, a fight against life as it is.

Or draw on difficulty as part of life’s path, an opportunity to turn more deeply into life rather than away from it.

And while, with each successive difficulty or joy, we find that we understand life’s movement less and less, perhaps this way we learn to live it more and more.

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[after Jules Renard – “As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more”]

The slavery of freedom

How important it is to discover that often it’s our very fixation with freedom that most enslaves us.

We easily think that we’re most free when we can choose whatever we want, whenever we want. Or when we’re free of binding, lasting ties (anything we can’t get out of when we choose).

But one of the defining qualities of our humanity is our capacity to care, deeply, about things. Care always implies commitment, and always implies dedication. How much can we say we care about anything or anyone if we can leave them behind when the whim takes us?

It’s a paradox, for sure. Our freedom to be completely free holds us back from dedicating ourselves. And the very act of narrowing our options, of choosing what we’ll commit to and what we won’t, opens up the widest freedom to participate in the life that’s in front of us.

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A difficult time with choice

We have a difficult time with choice (or, at least, with choosing) because we have a difficult time with death.

Choosing always involves the death of what is not chosen. The death of a possibility. The death of a particular future that will, now, not be.

And because choosing requires us to face death, many of us would rather not choose at all.

And then we can only live a life that is never quite our own, because in the absence of our own choice everything is effectively being chosen for us. There’s no less death here – we’ve simply turned our face away from it.

But there is much less dignity, and much less responsibility.

Stepping into our lives means, inevitably, that we step also into the death of things.

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From this place and no other

An unchangeable feature of life is that, at every moment, you find yourself inescapably in some situation or other – perhaps one that you did not choose.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. However magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

No manner of denial (and all the suffering that comes with it) can change that your life continues from this moment, this particular configuration, and not from another.

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is neither ‘putting up with things’, nor pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere you’re not, but responding fully from where you are, and knowing that many paths lead from this place.

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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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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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Waking or Sleeping?

Both attention and absorption can be cultivated with practice.

Absorption is not so difficult. We are presented with opportunities to practice it at every turn. Entire industries are devoted to selling us an easy, shallow kind of distraction that numbs us, keeps us from ourselves, throws us into self-judgement and comparison with others, and keeps us buying.

But attention – learning to pay sustained, close, awake attention to life – is more tricky and troublesome, and it’s perhaps for this reason that it’s more marginal in our culture.

It can be difficult to practice being awake in life because almost everything that could wake us can also be a path for going to sleep. The revolutionary success of mobile devices such as smartphones, for example, with their unparalleled capacity to connect us to the world, may be in large part attributable to their equal capacity to soothe us, to lull us into a distracted sense of busyness, being needed, and being entertained.

And this dual possibility of waking or turning away is inherent even the rich, deep mindfulness practices developed in many spiritual traditions. These practices, increasingly fashionable in the corporate world, could teach us to be extraordinarily attentive and sensitive to what’s around us, but are frequently presented as new methods for conforming to the status quo without being too troubled by it.

Practice mindfulness and feel calm. Practice mindfulness and find tranquility. Practice mindfulness and you’ll find your stressful job easier to bear. Practice mindfulness and you’ll fit in to where you are with less self-judgement and less complaining. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be less trouble. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be tranquil enough not to ask difficult questions. Practice mindfulness, and go to sleep to yourself.

Far less often do we see that mindfulness practices – a deep, rich, wide-open invitation into life – can help us develop deeper contact with our inner sense of justice and compassion. Rarely are we invited to see how this waking up to ourselves can lead us into to exactly the kind of trouble the world needs as we find ourselves disturbed, shaken, and enlivened by our attentive contact with life.

As we learn to pay more sustained, awake attention to what’s happening, we can find ourselves cultivating our capacity to speak up, to ask for what what we and others need, to stay in relationship as we explore deep and longstanding difficulties and disagreements, to stand out as different, to act on what’s called for rather than just what we like or what’s familiar, and to advocate on behalf of a life that’s bigger than our own personal concerns.

Both attention (waking up) and absorption (going to sleep) can be cultivated with practice.

Which do you think we should choose?

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An invitation…

An invitation is not an invitation unless the person invited is able to say no.

And, in addition, in the face of the no, everyone remains whole.

You remain whole.
They remain whole.
The relationship between you remains whole.

Without those conditions being met, it’s not an invitation at all. It’s a demand. A condition. A bribe. A form of coercion dressed up as a gift. And, like many forms of looking-good we can get into, it’s a way of being in control while pretending, perhaps to ourselves more than to anyone else, that it’s nothing of the sort.

[With thanks to Karen, who told me about this today]

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Choosing life

At every moment, we stand poised at a threshold, with a choice to make.

Do we choose life, awakeness, and responsibility for ourselves and those around us?

Or do we choose to be asleep, on automatic pilot, reacting out of habit, fear, familiarity?

Neither path is easy.

And it’s certainly not always straightforward to tell which is which.

The path of habit might give us reassurance, comfort, and apparent stability at the cost of our integrity and the longing of our hearts.

The path of awakeness might take us far from home before it brings us back again. We might have to face the mind-boggling consequences of our own aliveness. And we might have to experience uncertainty, confusion, shame, great joy, and the terrible and amazing wonder of writing our own stories.

Many times, despite our intentions, we will find ourselves choosing the path that we did not intend to choose, which always leads to another choice. Turn towards ourselves with kindness or harshness? Own up to our own responsibility, or pretend it’s nothing to do with us?

And all the way through we have to face that what happens in our lives has less to do with which path we’ve chosen than we’d like to think. The path of responsibility is no more certain to lead to riches, success, or security than the path of being asleep.

No, which path we choose is little to do with how life will turn out for us, and much to do with what kind of person each of us gets to be. And that is one of the aspects of being a human being in which we all get to have a say.

Standing at the Gate

In a famous story by Franz Kafka, a man who is searching for truth comes to a door, guarded by a powerful gatekeeper.

The two talk for a while, and the man discovers that what he seeks is within. But when he realises that this is only the first in a series of doors guarded by successively fierce and powerful gatekeepers, he decides to sit for a while and work out how he can obtain permission to enter.

The man sits, and he sits, occasionally striking up conversation with the gatekeeper, and the years pass. The man wonders what it will be like to eventually cross through the door, and why nobody else seems to have come by to gain entry.

And as the man finally reaches the end of his life – still waiting – the gatekeeper reaches out for the door. This door, he tells the man, was only for you, and now it is time for me to close it, for ever.

So much of our lives is exactly this way. Faced with a threshold to cross – as happens to each of us innumerable times – we easily hesitate. Waiting on the known side of the door feels so much better, and so much safer, for who knows what succession of trials and dangers awaits on the other side?

There, we will have to face our anxiety and fear, and an uncertain world in which much that we’ve come to rely on can no longer save us.

And while we know that our chances of living fully are much greater if we’re prepared to step in, we can see only how our lives would be safer staying just where we are, where the reassuring contours of the world as we know it can hold us.

And eventually, each of the doors in our life closes, as we knew they always would, and we find out that the safety of staying small, and quiet, and not bothering anyone – the safety of holding the horizons of the world tight and enclosing – was never any genuine safety at all.

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Projects for the imagination

Here are some projects to which it’s possible to turn your innate capacity for imagination.

All of these are meanings already given to us: handed to us by our families and culture, and made up – constructed – by other human beings.

Which means you, and I, and all of us, have as much possibility to imagine and declare new meanings and stories for each of these as anyone who has yet lived so far.

Close in

  1. Who am I – beyond or different to the roles and stories I’ve already taken up?
  2. Who might I be?
  3. What a feeling – bodily or emotional – means (ever noticed that feelings stir up familiar, habitual stories about what’s happening? Perhaps other stories would be more appropriate, life giving, possibility-filled).
  4. What’s possible for me to do?

A little further out

  1. What’s going on in the relationships I’m in (that might be different from the way I’ve imagined it so far)?
  2. Who are others – beyond the roles and stories I have about them?
  3. Who might others be?

Even bigger

  1. What is the organisation in which I work (a machine, a living organism, a pulsing-fluxing-pattern of conversations, a means to make money, a means to make meaning, a way of building community, a way of bringing about contribution)?
  2. What is work for?
  3. What’s the nature of the world I live in (a battleground, a competition to reach the top, a flourishing field of life, a flat dull expanse, a source of continuous disappointment and boredom, an endless wonder)?
  4. What is life?
  5. And what is life, itself, for?

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The unseen chances of life

I didn’t know what to do. I was tired, and deflated, and miserable in my work. But I didn’t know how to choose anything else.

It was Davina who first showed me that it might be possible to open to something new.

I thought for a while about studying law. But my friend Jonny, who I first met on a summer camp when we were sixteen, had been grappling with his own choices and suggested I speak to his friend Jane, who worked as an organisation development consultant – a field I’d been interested in for years.

Jane told me about a personal development course that she thought would help but I couldn’t make the dates. I remember how disappointed I felt, but I asked around about alternatives and Zahavit, who I knew from another part of my life, introduced me to Cheryl, who pointed me in the direction of Sue‘s wonderful programme on the same topic.

And at Sue’s programme I met Susan, who I happened to tell me over lunch that she thought I’d really enjoy the programmes at Roffey Park. And so within a couple of months I was there, beginning a Master’s Degree in Organisation Development, and where I met Paul, who ended up in the same programme design group as me. Paul invited a colleague of his, Deborah, to speak to us, and Deborah introduced me to a book that would change so much – James Flaherty’s “Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others“.

Two years later, I was a student on James’ programme in integral coaching, half-way across the world, hardly even really knowing how I’d ended up there. And James, seeing a possibility in me that I was only just starting to see in myself, invited me to become a leader-in-training for the extraordinary programmes that I now teach in London and which are among my greatest joys.

Had any link in the Davina-Jonny-Jane-Zahavit-Cheryl-Sue-Susan-Paul-Deborah-James chain not happened – and so many of them came from purely chance conversations – who knows what I would be doing now, and with whom?

And these are merely the chances that I know about. How many must be the other, unseen, coincidences that made what I have described here possible – the chances that brought people together, into the path of each others’ lives, so that any of what I’ve described here could come about.

This is the way life always is, even though so much of it is invisible to us.

It occurs to me on remembering this how illusory is any idea that I’m really in control of what happens in my life. And I’m humbled, and grateful, that life so often seems to have a way of bringing what needs to be brought, even when I can’t see it, fail to appreciate it, or fight it away.

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One choice you get to make

As we encounter each of life’s difficulties, we get to choose:

Consider ourselves cursed or mistreated, as if we are owed freedom from hurt, pain or confusion. As if life owes us happiness. As if we are meant to be in control of everything. This is, essentially, a fight against life as it is.

Or draw on difficulty as part of life’s path, an opportunity to turn more deeply into life rather than away from it.

And while, with each successive difficulty or joy, we find that we understand life’s movement less and less, perhaps this way we learn to live it more and more.

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Protector Parts, Defender Parts

We are rather less a single, unitary ‘I’ than a system or community of parts, each in relationship with one another. And it can be so very revealing, and practically useful, to get to know the parts – their intelligence, their blind-spots, and the very particular projects they’ve each taken up in our lives.

I’ve written before here about shame, a familiar background mood for me, as it is for so many people. It turns out that there are at least two parts of me that are actively involved in protecting me from shaming by others – one which pre-emptively shames me, and one which more directly defends me from shame. Each has its own form of good intention, and each often causes me difficulty.

The first part is an inner critic part. It’s so dedicated to me not being shamed by other people that it will frequently take pre-emptive action by shaming me itself. The logic is clear, and compelling: if I can be made to feel sufficient shame beforehand, then perhaps I’ll hold back from acting in a way that would cause others to shame me. It’s a simple exchange – the lesser pain of my own internally generated shame to protect against the more soul-searing shame that comes from the disapproval of other people.

This is the part which would have me hold back from speaking my mind, from becoming angry with other people, from showing too much love, from being a surprise or a disappointment or a bother or mystery. This is the part which, for years, held me back from dancing, having me be ashamed of myself even before I begin. It’s dedicated to forever scanning the horizon and keeping me within very tightly contained boundaries so as to avoid the kind of pain it knows I could, once, not tolerate. It is willing to exact quite a price in order to do this: the inner price of feeling some level of shame at all times, and the outer price of holding back what is, most truly, mine to bring.

The second part is a protector part. Should the antics of the inner critic fail, so that I actually get shamed by someone else, it throws itself into action. It’s not interested in waiting, nor does it have any time for curiosity or learning. What it most wants is the shame to go away. The protector part brings forward my defensiveness, my justifications, my denial. Insincere apologies, pretence, lengthy justifications for my actions, tuning out, disconnecting from people, freezing, abandoning my commitments, bending myself out of shape – all these are the order of the day for the protector part.

The protector part is also willing to pay a price to protect me from shame, most notably having me act at odds with myself, with a relationship I care about, or with my deepest, most sincere commitments.

And while both these parts have honourable and noble intentions, they are way out of date, having swung into action when I was very small and really needed some protection. They don’t take into account that I am an adult now, and that there is another part of me, more akin to the me-myself that exists over the entire span of my life, that no longer needs their help. This part, which could be called essence or self, is really quite able to be in the world alongside shame, and anger, and hate, and disappointment. It is vast enough, deep enough, alive enough, and quite strong enough to experience whatever comes its way. It is curious, open, timeless, and willing to learn.

Naming the parts has power. When I see that I am had by the inner critic or inner protector, I am increasingly able to ask them to relax, to step aside – to reassure them that I’m quite fine, whatever happens, and that I do not need them to protect me any more. And, in the space that this affords, I’m more able to step, willingly and without panic or rush, towards genuine relationship and inquiry, and into the world as it is rather than the world as smaller parts of me imagine it to be.

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Planning for dinner

On the way home from work, you decide that you’d like to go out for dinner.

You mention it to your partner, who hasn’t thought about it until now but, on reflection, is willing to set aside the evening’s plans to join you.

You’re in the mood for something spicy – noodles perhaps – but your partner isn’t so keen. ‘Perhaps pizza?’. But that really isn’t what you feel like at all.

And so an hour later you find yourselves in a restaurant that neither of you really wished for. And the mood between you is cooler than the joyful celebration you’d hoped, after the rather unexpected twists and turns of your conversation.

A simple plan to go out to dinner… what could be difficult about that? And yet your plans, upon meeting those of another, turn out to be far from straightforward to bring about in the way you’d imagined.

It would be so easy – predictable – if you didn’t have other, self-directing, confusing, unpredictable human beings with their own wishes, intentions, and cares to deal with. And this is why planning for the future is so hard, and our plans in practice so unreliable.  It’s hard enough to be sure what will happen with one other involved, let alone a hundred, or a thousand, or the millions and billions whose lives impact on our own.

The longer the time period our plans address, and the more people they rely on, the less we can be sure of them. And so we would be wise to relate with lightness and openness to our plans, especially in the complex world of organisational life, and to see that often when we make detailed predictions over long periods of time we’re doing so because they settle us and others – because they make us feel better. And that, despite what we tell ourselves, having planned is hardly a guarantee that any of what we imagine will happen will actually come to pass.

[With thanks to Professor Ralph Stacy, whose work inspired this post]

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Joining the dots

We’re all joining the dots… connecting up what we observe and experience of our lives in ways that are coherent to us. And we each have preferred ways of doing so – habits of heart, mind and understanding that have the world show up the way it does for us.

I’ve noticed recently, for example, how familiar it is for to me to connect up other people’s action (or non-action) with a story of their current or impending withdrawal. I’ve done something wrong, I imagine, that they know about and disapprove of and of which I am hardly aware. A call not returned, a terse email, a silence, apparent distance during a social encounter – all of these are the dots I’m paying attention to in this way of making sense of the world. And the joining that I do has me be the outsider, the one who has to work and prove and be kind to get back in, the one who ought to feel ashamed of myself.

It’s a habit, this way of making sense, almost certainly born in my early years and practiced repeatedly since then. And, as I keep on finding out, not only is it just one way of joining up the phenomena I experience, it’s often far from accurate and rarely life giving to me or others. Moreover, when I fall into this habitual way of making sense I tend to pay attention to only some of the ‘dots’. Other phenomena – such as the enormous love and affection that comes my way, the contribution I’m making, or simple gratitude for being in the presence of others without my having to do anything – receive much less attention than they deserve.

I’m having to learn again how to join up the dots in a way that lets me see and feel the enormous love and support there is around me.

How you join the dots – how you interpret what happens – matters. As does the choice of which dots to notice. And each depends upon, and shapes, the other.

When you start to see that you are not experiencing life as it is but as an act of dot-joining, you can start to ask yourself some important questions about relationships, work, and about life itself.

It turns out that for any set of ‘facts’ (which is what we usually call the phenomena we’re choosing to observe) there are an infinity of interpretations, not all of them equal, and some filled with much greater possibility or much greater suffering than others.

And it also turns out that there are an infinity of ‘facts’, many of which are supremely significant in a life well-lived or in work well-done, that your current interpretation may be blinding you to.

So how you join the dots of your life is a significant question, as is the choice of dots you ignore as you do so. It can be difficult to see what you’re doing here without patient observation, because our habits of interpreting are most transparent to us – forming the usually hidden background to our lives and relationships. But the quality and possibility of your life, and all that you undertake, may hinge on your answer to this most invisible and most important of questions.

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