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.

Photo Credit: John St John Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

Feels just like me

IMG_9403

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.

Photo Credit: Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) Flickr via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Yogesh Mhatre Flickr via Compfight cc

Stories

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Bardia Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Tyler Durdan_ via Compfight cc

[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.

Photo Credit: ShayneThomas via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Jose Gimenez Fotografía via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: olivierbxl via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Mikepaws via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: State Library Victoria Collections via Compfight cc

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?

Photo Credit: Dominic’s pics via Compfight cc

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]

Photo Credit: guccio@文房具社 via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Matthew Wilkinson via Compfight cc

 

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?

Photo Credit: krismadden via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Chris Maki via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Roy Cheung Photography via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: ebrandonje via Compfight cc

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]

Photo Credit: Shereen M via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: StephenMitchell via Compfight cc

Responding to life

On Thursday night of last week, at a celebration to mark 10 years of thirdspace coaching, the organisation I founded in 2005, I spoke a little about events in my own life that had given rise to its founding. And I talked about the some of the people who’d been influential in inviting me to step in, in spite of my own fears and confusions, to what was beginning to call to me.

Our contemporary culture, at least for most of the past 150 years or so, has not given much credence to the idea of responding to a calling. Our narratives about work, and the practices that support it, are mostly oriented towards how to fit in to what our culture has designed for us, and how to get ahead. We learn, more or less successfully, how to mould ourselves to the categories already on offer in the world – lawyer, factory worker, administrator, school teacher, manager etc – and how to use these to try to get what we want: status, money, recognition, security. We’re caught, in this late-capitalist phase of our society, in a promise that was hatched for us by the early pioneers of industrialism – fit into our scheme, work hard, do what’s asked of you, and you’ll eventually get what you want and what you need.

It’s not hard to see the many ways in which this promise often does not work out, and the suffering that it causes when either the material benefits do not arrive, or when our hearts and souls are stunted by the repeated self-abandonment that fitting in can require of us.

And, beyond that, splitting off parts of us that don’t fit in means that what we each have to bring – the unique contribution of gifts and talents – rarely gets brought to the world. That matters way beyond words, because in the multiple crises of our times – crises of ecology, economics, health, meaning, belonging, and community – we need all the art, science, insight, compassion, pragmatism and wisdom we can muster.

And so, I said, it’s vitally important that we simultaneously cultivate a different kind of narrative about us and the world, and the practices to go with it. We could pay more attention, I argued, to what life is asking of us, which might be quite different from what we had imagined we would do, and which could take us far from the path we thought we were following when we began.

Responding to life’s call, which means being sensitive enough to listen to it and courageous enough to take action on it, is the first step in bringing what is each of ours to bring to the world. And we’re blessed by an explosion in technology which, if we’re wise enough to use it well, offers an amazing opportunity for each of us to share our contributions widely. We have more ways of distributing our writing, ideas, art, music and thinking than have been available to any generation before us, if we’re willing to step in.

We also have many reasons to be afraid. We’re afraid of being rejected (we might be). Afraid of our own (inevitable) insecurity. Afraid of not fitting in. Afraid it won’t work out (it might not). Afraid when we see others respond more to life than we are currently doing, and keen to have them fit in so we don’t feel so troubled.

And, often, we’re afraid to love.

Though it turns out that love, with all its risks, all the ways it undoes things, and all of the wholeness it can bring, is a powerful source for our own action and our own unfolding, and for our own responding to life, even when – especially when – we are most terrified.

Photo Credit: yvg-nex via Compfight cc

Waiting for life to begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: GonzalezNovo via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: MTSOfan via Compfight cc

Widening Circles

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 2

If you and I are not living our lives in widening circles, it must be the case that the horizons of our lives are staying the same, or shrinking.

Which becomes possible has something to do with each of us. There is choice involved. Widening the circles of our own lives takes dedication, attention and effort. It cannot come to be without our active participation.

As Vincent Deary points out to us (more on his work in the next few days), we’re always actively participating in bringing about something. And if we’re not changing, we’re sameing.

Photo Credit: rebecca anne via Compfight cc

Zombies

A recent client counted up the number of hours he was spending in meetings per week. The total? Almost 25, many of which are meetings-of-obligation, in which there is little or nothing for him to contribute.

How many of the rest of us are eating up so much of our precious time and commitment in this way?

We’re turning ourselves into meeting zombies: dulled and silent, resentful and over-busy, saying yes to hours of commitment to which we bring nothing, and from which we expect nothing.

So, some simple rules to apply the when the next meeting invitation comes in (or, worse, when someone else simply books a meeting in your diary):

  1. If you ask me to join a meeting where I’m expected to be an observer, I’ll say no.
  2. I’ll automatically decline any meeting invitations where you have not made clear, in ways that I can act upon, why you want me there and what you think I can bring.
  3. If it’s still not clear to me, I’ll expect that we’ll talk about it before I decide to come (and, no, we will not schedule a meeting to talk about the meeting).
  4. I’ll only come to a meeting when I know that I can contribute.
  5. When I’m there, I promise to do exactly that.
  6. And if I’m not there, you can tell me what was learned or decided later.

What freedom – and productivity – could be generated if we applied these rules to our own meeting attendance, and to everyone else who joins us?

Photo Credit: Clearly Ambiguous via Compfight cc

Talking

You’re all so busy that there’s no time for a real conversation. Not a moment for the simple act of explaining something, or asking for what you need, or agreeing with someone else what needs to be done and not done.

And because there’s no time to talk you’re inundating each other with emails and voice messages. Nobody will pick up, because nobody has time. Everyone is too busy processing what’s in their inbox.

And so you’re duplicating effort, doing what’s not needed, having to work the same things out again and again – things that somebody already knows how to do.

And because you’re wasting so much of your effort, you’re busier than ever and convinced there’s no time for a real conversation.

And this is where the error lies. Because this rolling difficulty is solved only one way.

By talking.

Photo Credit: Wayne Large via Compfight cc

Needing a no

What we most need in order to support our own development is the capacity to say no to ourselves.

No to our habits, no to our preferences, no to our compulsions, no to doing the same thing we’ve done again and again because we like it, or because it’s familiar, or because of all of our explanations that the world and I are this way.

Our surrounding culture doesn’t do much to support this move. Mostly we’re socialised into saying yes – we come to believe that the answer to all our difficulties is saying yes to more activity (which leads us into busyness) or yes to more consumption (which numbs us to our more genuine needs).

Until we can start to muster a sufficiently strong no to ourselves, we find ourselves imprisoned in a repetitive cycle of our own making.

But if we want to be able to step into a bigger world of possibility for own lives and those around us, no to ourselves is the first and most necessary step.

Photo Credit: harold.lloyd via Compfight cc

Bad choices

A wonderful line from this week’s episode of Doctor Whowhich reminds me that the proper response to difficulty, confusion and anxiety is not to turn away, but to turn in:

“Sometimes there are only bad choices…

… But you still have to choose.”

Photo Credit: Great Beyond via Compfight cc