Good learning undoes us

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good learning undoes us.

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

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

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And For No Reason

In episode 35 of ‘Turning Towards Life‘, our weekly 30 minute deep dive into big questions of human living, Lizzie and I take up the topic of joy as a necessary orientation in human life.

What is it about joy, we wonder, that makes it different from ‘happiness’? How is it that the way we get obsessed with our difficulties, or with completing goals, interrupts our capacity to be in contact with the wonder of being alive? What were all the ways we got taught from a very young age that joy is somehow a distraction from the serious work of living and getting things done? And what if opening to joy is a radical political act, a deeper commitment that we can bring to everything as we start to be honest about the finite nature of our lives and our limited time?

In this weekly project from thirdspace coaching we dive deep in a live, inspiring, unscripted 30 minute conversation. Our aim – to learn as much as we teach, to discover as we go, and to give support to all of us in turning towards our lives with depth and creativity rather than turning away.

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation:

And For No Reason – Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

And
For no reason
I start skipping like a child.

And
For no reason
I turn into a leaf
That is carried so high
I kiss the Sun’s mouth
And dissolve.

And
For no reason
A thousand birds
Choose my head for a conference table,
Start passing their
Cups of wine
And their wild songbooks all around.

And
For every reason in existence
I begin to eternally,
To eternally laugh and love!

When I turn into a leaf
And start dancing,
I run to kiss our beautiful Friend
And I dissolve in the Truth
That I Am.

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.

Photo Credit: kaddisudhi via Compfight cc

 

Midrash

In the Jewish tradition, any story is an invitation to interpretation, to imagination, to invention. You read a story not so much for what’s true in it, as for what can be imagined into the spaces. So a straightforward story can become the launching point for wildly differing interpretations, all of which are held alongside one another even if they’re paradoxical, mysterious or downright contradictory.

It’s a tradition known as midrash and it embodies a commitment to see things from many angles, to have many different kinds of explanations for what might initially look obvious and simple. In midrash there’s no such thing as a story with a monopoly on the truth.

Often, it’s helpful to do midrash with your own life, with your work, with your relationships.

You probably already have habitual ways of explaining who you are, who others are, what’s happening, and what’s possible. Perhaps you currently have only one telling available to you, one that’s so familiar, so trusted, you can’t even tell that it’s there.

Making midrash from your own life involves starting to tell a different story from the one you’re currently telling. Maybe you’re not the righteous, wounded hero after all. Perhaps they’re not out to get you, but are trying to help. Maybe you’re not as in control of your life as you think – or perhaps you’re much more in control already than you knew. Maybe it is possible for you to be someone who asks for what you want. Perhaps there’s a contribution you’re making that you can’t see because of your self-critical stories. Maybe life has an invitation for you that’s not going to come from trying harder and harder until you work yourself into the ground.

These are just a few of the stories you might have about yourself and life, and a few of the alternatives you could start to imagine. You could also ask others how they’d tell the story of your situation – great midrash can begin simply from here.

Even if you have only one way of explaining your life, it’s already midrash, already just one interpretation of many that are possible.

So much opens, and so much suffering can be avoided, when you stop believing your own stories as the only truth.

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Con-trick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Convergent and Divergent

Convergent problems are the kind for which diligent, patient and repeated efforts produce answers we can trust. Many problems in mathematics, for example are convergent, as are the vast majority of engineering problems. Such problems are convergent because a suitable methodology and sufficient effort allow us to converge on a single, practical, true answer to the question at hand.

Convergent problems lend themselves to solution by technique and process. And once we know what to do with a convergent problem, we can repeat the technique and expect to find a reliable answer, every time.

Divergent problems are those for which, with diligent, patient and repeated efforts, we could expect to find many different answers. For example, in sentencing someone who has committed a crime, is justice or mercy more appropriate? Or, in the midst of many competing financial pressures, should we centralise our operation, seizing control of all the details, or should we decentralise, allowing the people with the most local expertise the opportunity to bring their own insights to bear? Is discipline or love more important in learning to do something well? Should we dedicate ourselves to conserving tradition, or supporting change? And in organising a society, is freedom to do what we each want most important, or responsibility to the wellbeing of others?

Divergent problems are divergent precisely because it is possible to hold so many different perspectives. The more we inquire – if we are prepared to do so with sincerity and rigour – the more possible responses we discover. And such problems are inherently the problems of living systems in general, and human circumstances in particular – circumstances in which our consciousness, values, commitments, cares and many interpretations enter the fray.

Divergent problems do not lend themselves to easy answers, to platitudes, or technique. Instead, divergent problems require us to make a transcendent move, in which we step out of the easy polarities of right or wrong, and good or bad. Such a move, which is clearly a developmental move in the sense that I have described previously, calls to the fore our capacity to live in the middle of polarities and complexity, uncertainty and fluidity. In the case of justice and mercy, this move might well be called wisdom. 

We run into enormous difficulty whenever we treat divergent problems as if they were convergent – as if there were some reliable process, however complex and sophisticated, by which to arrive at a correct answer. When we do this, we treat human situations as if they were mathematical or machine-like. And we strip ourselves of the possibility of cultivating discernment and genuine wisdom, reducing ourselves to rule-followers and automatons.

It can never be justice alone – for strict justice is harsh, and unforgiving, and has no concern for the particulars of a human life. And it can never be mercy alone – for mercy’s kindness without justice can be cruel and damaging to many in its wish to take care of the few. And it is never sufficient to say ‘well, it must be mercy and justice’ as if there were some simple, easy to understand combination or position between the two.

And all of this is why paying attention to development matters so much, because cultivating the capacity to respond with wisdom to the many divergent problems of our times must, surely, be an ethical responsibility for all of us.

Changing the path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

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

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

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

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

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

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

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

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

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey! I’m Talking to You!

In this episode, Lizzie and I talk about the inner ‘predator’ or ‘inner critic’ force that keeps us small and living – essentially – a life that’s not fully our own. We consider the kind of power that’s required from each of us to break free of this constraint so we can claim our own lives, and how this inner move is profoundly connected to our capacity to exercise power in healthy and life-giving ways in the world around us.

Along the way we consider how it’s only really possible to do this work in relationship with others (hence the importance of community, and the contribution of our profession of coaching), and we imagine a world in which the marketing messages that bombard us each day remind us of our dignity, goodness and nobility instead of trying to fuel the critic by showing us how we might ‘improve’ ourselves all the time.

Our source is Jose Enciso’s poem ‘I’m Talking to You!’, reproduced here with Jose’s permission.

You can find out more about Jose and his work on his website http://www.setthetruthfree.com

​I’m talking to you!

Long into the night
and still long to the dawn

Past the parade of losses
and betrayals of self
wrought of service to the wrong god.

Awoken from a fitful slumber
bathed in regret and remorse.
A protest profound arises
deep within my grief.
A holy howl
screaming at the thief.

Hey!  I’m talking to you!
Yes, you, in the corner,
slinking and smirking.

You, who kept me down all these years.

You, who gave me crumbs
and told me it was a life.

This is not my life!

This is insecurity,
apology,
I’m sorry if I offended thee.

This is grovel and hovel.
Bow down
that will keep you safe and sound.

You broke into my house
and rearranged all the furniture.
You stole my childhood
and made me a caricature.

Hey!  I’m talking to you!

I want my life back.
Not this check and double check,
doubt and re-doubt.

Me, the nice guy with no backbone.
Me, the nice guy who doesn’t even know if he wants Mexican or Chinese.
(mmm, I don’t know, what do you want?)
Me, the noble, beautiful, kind man
who only sees ugliness and embarrassment in your mirror.

I have given away too much.
I have lain down deep in despair.
I have – almost – given up hope.

But, you have not won yet.

Right now, I’m calling you out.

I am not ready to die
in a house decorated by someone else.

 -Jose Enciso

Lizzie Winn and I are live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time for the thirdspace coaching ‘Turning Towards Life‘ project. 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.

Practice, not events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Decades

I started my 49th year of life this week. Around 160 years ago (less than four of my current life spans laid end-to-end) a full third of my contemporaries would already have reached the end of their lives, and less than half of us could have expected to live beyond our late 50s (see source [1] below).

Today, at least in the UK, two-thirds of us will live into our late seventies and many into our eighties. What a blessing, if we’ll choose to appreciate it while we can. And what possibilities, if we’ll find a way to use our chances of vastly extended life in service of those around us and those yet to come.

Readers of my work here will know of my interest in ongoing adult development, which takes place through marked increases in our capacity to make sense of the world, to inhabit longer time horizons (knowing ourselves as inheritors of a deep past and contributors towards a long future), to be less ‘had’ by impulsivity and narcissism, to understand the world of others, to exercise more autonomy, and to take action in systems and contexts which are bigger than our own immediate concerns [2].

Such development is very natural, if the opportunities come our way and if we’re courageous enough and have enough support to take them. But it is quite different from the rote-learning, keeping up appearances, and getting ahead that so many of us are taught at school and in our workplaces. It typically requires facing into difficulty rather than turning away, welcoming back the parts of ourselves that we’ve disowned, failing and falling and getting back up again. It’s not served by looking good, or knowing the facts, or keeping it all together, or learning just what’s comfortable and familiar, or comparing ourselves with others.

And it’s probably the most important work we can do with the gift of these extra decades, if we’re lucky enough to have them. Because the world faces challenges of a complexity our ordinary way of speaking, thinking, acting and relating to one another are often ill-equipped to face. And perhaps we have been given these decades – through the long slow evolution of human beings as a species – precisely so that we can work on the problems our shorter-lived ancestors never got the chance to tackle.

References:

[1] Modal Age at Death: Mortality Trends in England and Wales 1841-2010, monograph available for download here
[2] In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan and Changing on the Job, Jennifer Garvey Berger

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Concentric Circles

Whereas development in children is easy to see, because of the obvious physiological changes that accompany it, our development as adults – if it happens – is more subtle, but no less profound.

One way of describing successive developmental stages is as a series of concentric circles. With each developmental shift the world we inhabit (the world of possibility, action ideas, responses) grows bigger, including rather than replacing the world in which we lived before. Another way of saying this is that we find ourselves inhabiting a world with bigger horizons than we had known. And along with that, usually, comes new language to describe our experience, new skills, and new ways of relating to others and everything.

In Robert Kegan’s language (and he is one of the most comprehensive, thoughtful, and grounded writers I know of on this topic) our development is always in some way a shift in subject-object relationships. Or, put more plainly, we come to a different understanding of what is me (subject) and what is in relationship to me (object). Often, we find that what we’d taken to be obviously ‘me’ is only a small part of what being ‘me’ really is – a shift in which we discover that ‘me’ actually includes more than we could have imagined before.

An example. In an earlier stage of our development we relate to our emotions as if they are a feature of the world, enveloping us like the air we breathe (and similarly invisible). We’re frustrated, and so it’s the world that is frustrating. We’re angry with another person, and conclude that they must be making us angry. We’re in love, joyful, and so the world is joyful. We feel despair and take it that the world is a despairing place.

In this way of being an adult the world, and we, are indistinguishable from the mood we are feeling. In this stage we’re subject to our emotions. It is almost as if, instead of having emotions we are being had by them. We can’t see that they might have something to do with us.

When the subject-object shift in our development comes we start to see that emotions are something we have. We’re able to say that we’re feeling anger about this or that, and feeling joy about something else or at some other moment. We see that although our despair or love seems all consuming it’s not the world that is despairing or lovely but a feature of our relating to it that has it be that way for us. We can understand too, maybe for the first time, that others really do often feel quite different from us – that we can feel anger about something while somebody else, quite legitimately and truthfully, feels joy. It’s not until our relationship to our emotions move from having us (being subject) to being something that we have (an object) that all this becomes apparent to us.

Concentric circles, widening, as we inhabit the world in a new way.

When emotions are object rather than subject many other possibilities open to us. We can question our feelings for their accuracy and appropriateness, rather than be swept up in them. We can open to the different experience of others, instead of insisting that they feel the same. We can start to wonder about our own relationship to our emotions in a way that simply was not possible when they were part of the invisible background that had us:

What is this emotion about?
What draws me more towards some emotions than others?
How is it that I’m participating in keeping sadness going, or joy, or longing, or despair, or frustration, or resentment?
What can I learn about others’ worlds in all of this?

Indeed, it’s only when such a developmental shift happens that we really start to understand that other people inhabit worlds that are related to, but not quite the same as, our own. The world, which we were previously subject to – the world that had us – seems much more like something we have or are at least participating in. And it’s from here that a deeper understanding of, and compassion for, others can grow.

Cultivating such shifts matters because, as perhaps you can see, a world in which we fully experience emotions as something we have rather than something we are had by is a world in which we have much more freedom to act. And a world in which we are less imprisoned by what seems – so obviously – beyond us.

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Because Even the Word ‘Obstacle’ is an Obstacle

In this episode of ‘Turning Towards Life’ Lizzie and I talk about how our stories about what’s happening can get in the way of our bringing ourselves fully into life. We consider how the very way in which we make sense of ourselves as ‘having to get somewhere’ with obstacles in our path that need to be overcome can throw us into an interpretation of life that’s riddled with fear, resentment, and comparison. We wonder together what it would be to ‘swim past obstacles without grudges or memory’ and to understand life as an unfolding story that changes itself in each moment and with each action – and what new possibilities for freedom and contribution that can bring.

Our source is the poem ‘Because Even the World Obstacle is and Obstacle’ by Alison Luterman, reproduced with permission from the author. You can find out more about Alison at www.alisonluterman.net

“Because Even the Word Obstacle is an Obstacle” by Alison Luterman

Try to love everything that gets in your way:
The Chinese women in flowered bathing caps
murmuring together in Mandarin doing leg exercises in your lane
while you execute thirty-six furious laps,
one for every item on your to-do list.
The heavy-bellied man who goes thrashing through the water
like a horse with a harpoon stuck in its side and
whose breathless tsunamis rock you from your course.
Teachers all. Learn to be small
and swim past obstacles like a minnow,
without grudges or memory. Dart
toward your goal, sperm to egg. Thinking, Obstacle,
is another obstacle. Try to love the teenage girl
lounging against the ladder, showing off her new tattoo:
Cette vie est la mienne, This life is mine,
in thick blue-black letters on her ivory instep.
Be glad she’ll have that to look at the rest of her life, and
keep going. Swim by an uncle
in the lane next to yours who is teaching his nephew
how to hold his breath underwater,
even though kids aren’t supposed
to be in the pool at this hour. Someday,
years from now, this boy
who is kicking and flailing in the exact place
you want to touch and turn
may be a young man at a wedding on a boat,
raising his champagne glass in a toast
when a huge wave hits, washing everyone overboard.
He’ll come up coughing and spitting like he is now,
but he’ll come up like a cork,
alive. So your moment
of impatience must bow in service to the larger story,
because if something is in your way, it is
going your way, the way
of all beings: toward darkness, toward light.

Photo Credit: bdrc Flickr via Compfight cc

Soul Food

In this episode Lizzie and I read and talk about ‘Soul Food’, a chapter of the ‘The Way and the Power of the Way‘ by Ursula Le Guin.

Together we explore the ways in which certainty can make us rigid and closed to the world and to one another, how we try (unsuccessfully) to make the world and others into our own image (a huge part of the societal struggles we’re in at this time in history), and how the simple act of learning to load the dishwasher together can be a path towards the kind of humility and openness that’s life giving and makes for profound and responsive relationship. Along the way we come to a new understanding of what the name of our coaching company ‘thirdspace‘ might mean, and how coaching can be a way of helping ourselves and others open ever more fully to life.

Here’s the source for our conversation:

Soul Food

Everybody on earth knowing
that beauty is beautiful
makes ugliness.

Everybody knowing
that goodness is good
makes wickedness.

For being and non being
arise together;
hard and easy
complete each other;
long and short shape each other;
high and low
depend on each other;
note and voice
make the music together;
before and after
follow each other.

That’s why the wise soul
does without doing,
teaches without talking.

The things of this world
exist, they are;
you can’t refuse them.

To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim;
to do the work and let it go;
for just letting it go
is what makes it stay.

Ursula LeGuin – from ‘Tao Te Ching: The Way and The Power of The Way

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.

Declaring Meaning

When we find out how much of the world is made up – by us – it’s tempting to pull everything apart. We pull apart institutions – because we see how groundless their authority is. We pull apart politics – because as we see more into the ordinary lives of our politicians we discover that they are ordinary and flawed like us, and we no longer have reason to simplistically trust either their intentions or their abilities. We pull apart relationships – because we don’t feel any reason to commit, beyond our moment-to-moment likes and dislikes. And we pull apart beliefs and practices that can bind us together.

This step – using reason to see through what we’d taken to be unquestionably true is in so many ways a necessary developmental step for each of us and for our society. Indeed, it’s the step that allowed us to discover science and its methods of rigorous, grounded inquiry. And it made it possible to undo the divine right of kings to rule over us, and to bring about democracy.

But it’s also so easily the route to nihilism: the move to render everything meaningless, everything pointless, everything disposable as we discover that the structures and stories and roles we used to trust were made up by other people. And, as the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche warned us, this ends up with us tearing meaning apart too, as we find out that what meaning we encountered in the world was only there because other people declared it anyway.

And so the next step important after undoing it all is to find out that it’s also within our power to put things back together, to declare meaning for ourselves. To find out that there are many kinds of truth, including those that take into account goodness and beauty as well as just reason. That out of the fragments of what we have taken apart, we can still choose practices, people, relationships, stories, commitments and vows to live by that invest life with purposefulness, care, and dignity.  And that this is possible, and necessary, in every sphere of life – in work, home, community and politics – specifically because we’ve found out that without it there is so little for us to stand on.

Photo Credit: www.jeremylim.ca via Compfight cc

The Paradox of Change

On Sunday 15th March 2018 Lizzie and I talked about The Paradox of Change, inspired by a passage from Lawrence Kushner’s book ‘God Was in this Place and I,i Did Not Know‘. It’s a tricky and important subject we’re taking on here – how it is that our very efforts to change so easily end up being what imprisons us; how it’s the very effort to be a particular way that constricts and narrows the wider flow of creative life that we all, in the end, are; and how a kind of surrender is often called for if we’re to step into life fully, a letting life through rather than a trying to get life into a particular shape.

Here’s the source for our conversation:

The paradox of change

Not until we recognise our bondage can we begin to move toward freedom.

It is a paradox. Change begins not by trying to change. And what you imagine you must do in order to change yourself is often the very force that keeps you precisely the way you are. How else can you explain the years and decades of your own foiled plans for growth and broken resolutions. Consumed by an apparent passion to be “other” than who you are, you try to be who you are not, but in so doing succeed only in being a person who is trying to be other than who you are. Thus the goal […] is self-discovery—the discovery not of another self but of one’s true self. Beneath all the layers of wanting to be different, self-dissatisfaction, pretence, charade, and denial is a self. This self is a living dynamic force within everyone. And if you could remain still long enough here, now, in this very place, you would discover who you are. And by discovering who you are, you would at last be free to discover who you yet also might be.

You can be who you are, or you can pretend to be who you are not. If you choose the latter (as most of us have done since adolescence), an infinite variety of self-deceptions lie before you. You can pretend to be wise when you are ignorant, weak when you are strong, courageous when you are timid, confident when you are unsure. There is no end to the list. But remember this: none of these pretensions, no matter how noble, appropriate, or convincing, will fashion genuine change. They will instead require increasingly greater amounts of energy and enmesh you in increasingly complicated nets of deception. Or you can cease pretending to be someone you are not and discover at this moment who you are. Who am I writing these words? Who are you reading them?

Lawrence Kushner, from God Was in this Place and I,i Did Not Know

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.

This is your assignment. Focus.

On Sunday, 1st April 2018, Lizzie and Justin talked about making art, and about responding to the darkness and messiness of the world (and ourselves) with hope and transparency. Along the way we talk about fear, the way we keep ourselves stuck by trying to have it all together, and the importance of communities in which every part of us can feel welcomed. The entire episode is a call to the kind of hope expressed by Vaclav Havel – a hope that’s not dependent upon things getting better, but which comes from knowing that, even if our efforts fail, we have the capacities and qualities we need to improve things.

The book Lizzie talks about in this episode is Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.

The source for our conversation is from writer Courtney Martin and artist Wendy McNaughton. It’s reproduced in full above in a wonderful image that can be ordered as a poster – a reminder to us all of the necessary, life-giving and transforming power that comes from making art. You can read more about the source over at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings.

We’re live each 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.

Image Credit: Wendy MacNaughton and Courtney E. Martin

 

What the storm is all about

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But one thing is certain.

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

That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Photo Credit: Sergey Sus via Compfight cc

Beyond What Goes Wrong

In this episode from 4th March 2018 Lizzie and I talk about what’s beyond ‘what goes wrong’. We discuss how we might see, when we’re in the midst of difficulty, that’s it’s really part of us that’s caught up in the difficulty. And, even though we often know ourselves most readily as this part (which gives our lives familiarity, a role to play, something to do), to be human is also to be a kind of depth that’s beyond the immediacy of our experience, however troubling or delightful that experience is to us.

Along the way we encounter the possibility that one path to more fully inhabiting our lives comes from being with others who can know and welcome our depth and, in turn, learning the gift of recognising the depth in others as we find it in ourselves.

The source is for our conversation is from the poet, philosopher and teacher Mark Nepo.

Beyond What Goes Wrong

With each passing [and passage], there is a further wearing away of the layers or coverings that obscure our essential selves. And so, as we say “goodbye” again and again, we feel thinner, narrower more naked, more transparent, more vulnerable in a palpable, holy way.
— Elesa Commerse

When in the middle of difficulty, it’s easy to paint the whole world as difficult. When in pain, it’s easy to construct a worldview of pain. When lonely, it’s easy to subscribe to an alienating philosophy of existence. Then we spend hours and even years seeking to confirm the difficult existence we know. Or we rebound the other way, insisting on a much lighter, giving world, if we could only transcend the difficulties that surround us. Life has taught me that neither extreme is helpful, though I’ve spent many good hours lingering in each. Instead, I think we’re asked to face what we’re given, no matter how difficult, and to accept that life is always more than the moment we find ourselves in. In every instance, there’s the truth of what we’re going through and the resource of a larger, more enduring truth that’s always present beyond what goes wrong.

Ultimately, it’s the enduring truth that helps us through.

— Mark Nepo, from Things That Join The Sea and The Sky

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

Photo Credit: Quick Shot Photos Flickr via Compfight cc

 

Welcoming Ourselves and Others

In this episode Lizzie and I talk about the radical possibility of welcoming ourselves, and others, just as we are.

To those of us with a more action-oriented stance or a commitment to improving things, welcoming in this way can look like an act of irresponsibility. After all, doesn’t making things better in some way entail rejecting how things are?

We explore this tension together, looking at how our surrounding culture of keeping up and comparison with others turns us away from ourselves. We consider the possibility of both welcoming and working to repair the world. And in the midst of things Lizzie’s niece joins us for a surprise visit.

The source is written by our friend and colleague Steve March:

Letting Be – A Poem to Welcome a Fellow Journeyer

Dear journeyer, you are welcome here exactly as you are.
No one here will try to change you according to their ideas or ideals.
No one here wants you to be otherwise.
We will let you be, just as you are.
Only then can we celebrate your perfect uniqueness.

Letting be is a gift of love that we give to you.
Love of your Truth.
Love of your Beauty.
Love of your Goodness.
Only then can we relish your luminous brilliance.

Letting be is a gift of love that you can give yourself too.
Letting be, your heart will melt, your mind will open, your body will release.
Letting be, your creativity will rocket forth.
Letting be, your innate resourcefulness will amaze you.
Only then can you behold your true magnificence.

The sun beams just for you.
The mountain salutes your majesty.
The river of life guides you within its currents.
The universe is your playground.
Welcome home, dear journeyer.

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.

Undoing the spiral

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

And this is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

Photo Credit: [Jim] via Compfight cc

The right time to hope

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

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

Even when it hurts us.

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

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

At least we won’t be surprised.

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

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

Photo Credit: *- mika -* via Compfight cc

Things to think

Some things to think that might help us do what we’re really here to do:

We’re here and so soon we’re gone.

In comparison to geological and even to historical time our individual lives are the briefest flash of energy and vitality, and then we’re done. For most of us it’s true also that our lives are the briefest flash in our own personal experience – done way before we’re ready.

We’re living longer than anyone previously in history.

Which, if we’re willing to seize the chance and to take our own development seriously, might just give us the time to develop the intelligence, sensitivity, and breadth of vision to solve the problems we’ve made for ourselves.

We’re going to have to get way more intentional about our development than we are now if we want this to happen.

The world was here long before each of us arrived, and will be here long after we’ve left it.

Seeing ourselves as part of something much bigger in this way can help us give up our self-aggrandisement and also our self-obsession, both of which keep our concerns and our lives in very narrow bounds.

And maybe we can find out how much more there is than living a life in which we get comfortable or which is oriented first around our own likes and dislikes. Instead, seeing ourselves as the inheritors and custodians of a world can support us in having our lives serve everyone who’ll come after us.

There’s nobody coming to save us.

Many of us secretly wish for the moment we’ll get rescued from all our difficulty and all our worries – by a parent, a lottery win, a leader, a messiah. Our longing has us place wishful thinking above meaningful action. Let’s give this up and imagine that we are the ones sent to do what saving can be done.

Each of us is an expression of life itself.

In the our disorientation and our confusion, it can help to see how each of us, all of us, are an expression of life doing what life does – experimenting, learning, and responding.

Seeing ourselves this way opens a huge opportunity to take responsibility. And perhaps to trust ourselves enough that we can participate in our lives rather than fight against them.

Photo Credit: Val Klavans via Compfight cc

A luminous garment

We’ve allowed ourselves to become obsessed by youth.

The way this has shaped our public lives is quite easy to see, from the relentless focus on youthful beauty in our media to the cruelty of causal ageism in the workplace.

What’s harder to see is how it is affecting the narratives we have about ourselves.

We see all the ways that growing old is a falling apart, an endless series of losses, a disintegration. And so we try to stave it off, denying what is happening to us. As we grow older and as the time remaining to us diminishes, we become diminished in our own eyes. In this way we rob ourselves and others of our dignity.

But here is an account of ageing from the Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, which points to a different possibility:

All the days of a person’s life are laid out above,
one by one they come soaring into this world…
If a person leaving the world merits,
he comes into those days of his life,
they become a luminous garment.

Such a different way of looking, this – our inevitable, inescapable ageing as a gathering and weaving of the days of our lives into a single luminous garment. We wear the sum of all we have been and done in our bodies, on our faces, in our entire way of being in the world.

This gives us growing older as an integration, a chance to unify ourselves, turning towards the shadow parts that we pushed away when we were younger.

And it invites us to give up our dependence upon looking good or being liked, so that we can have our ageing usher us into the fullness of our humanity.

Photo Credit: aka Jens Rost 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.

Finding out that we are ordinary

Yesterday. ‘Be more, Do more’. The tag-line for a personal training company written on the back of a van in front of me on the drive into town. The narrative theme of our times, the poetry of our shared culture, as revealed by the advertising and marketing that surrounds us.

When we live in the narrative of ‘more’, every action, every conversation, every relationship becomes dedicated to an unending project for which we feel continuously responsible. More money, more stuff, more experiences, more trips, more friends, more relationships – yes. But also more capable, more powerful, more self-determining, more authentic, more persuasive, more reasonable, more peaceful, more compassionate, more successful, more loved, more happy, more fulfilled. When we orient towards ourselves this way we become the project, the objects of an unending self-improvement effort that requires our constant vigilance.

And anything can be appropriated in service of the project of self-improvement. Excellence, which once meant living a life as an expression of virtue, comes to mean standing out from the mass. Learning – a means of getting the best test results. Art – a way to look (and think of ourselves as) cultured. Meditation and other spiritual practice – a way to have an untroubled life of peace and tranquility. Exercise – a way to get a body that others will be attracted to. Our own development – a way to gain unlimited power to do what we want, when we want it, and to have others support us and love us for it.

When we live in this way, convinced that we’re always due an upgrade, there is nowhere to rest. But, more importantly, we distort ourselves with a gross misunderstanding of what it is to be human, a misunderstanding in which we secretly imagine that it’s possible to be a god. After all, who else but the mythical gods stand out, in all circumstances, from others? Who else has endless power, beauty, fulfilment? The capacity to summon abundance and tranquility upon a command, the ability to avoid suffering, accident and happenstance? Who but the gods have an existence in which there is no death, loss, disappointment, or illness? And who but the gods get just what they want, when they want it?

When we live as if we’re supposed to be gods, or entitled to be gods, we shouldn’t be surprised at the harshness of our disappointment and self-criticism, our endless comparison with the lives of others, and the way we’re hurled from grandiosity (I’ve made it, the all-powerful me) to deflation (I’m so small, and the world is so big, and there’s no hope) and back again. And we shouldn’t be surprised at what a fight we get into with our lives – lives that often surprise us, let us down, show us how little we know, throw us about, all without much regard for whether we’re getting what we want.

When we stop trying to improve ourselves (and often the people around us) all the time, we can start to appreciate in a new way the very natural and quite beautiful capacity of human beings to develop; to unfold like the buds of a rose. And we come to see, I am coming to think, that the path of our development is not trying to be gods, but finding out that we are ordinary.

To be ordinary is to discover that we share the same heritage and future as all human beings, and all living things – a heritage and future that we cannot escape. To know ourselves as ordinary is to find out that we have bottomless capacity for compassion, kindness, wisdom, beauty and contribution as well as for selfishness, cruelty, denial and stupidity. To know ourselves as ordinary is to understand that we’ll die, that there are consequences to our actions, that the earth’s resources are limited, that we can’t just have what we want because we say so. And to know ourselves as ordinary is to see that the vast world was here long before us and will be here long after us, and to find out that our contribution – if we’re willing to make it – ripples out through the other ordinary lives that our life touches, both those who are around us now and those who are to come.

To know ourselves as ordinary is to discover humility, finding out that we’re not bigger than life but neither are we smaller than it; to take up our place in the weave of living things in which we find ourselves.

When we know ourselves as ordinary we discover that we’re all in this together and, because of this, we have some justification for hope: the understanding that our skills, capacities and deepest commitments can be an immense source of help even when we cannot control the outcome. We have a reason to love and care for others who are as messy, conflicted, confused and life-filled as ourselves. And we find ourselves able to step in on behalf of life, rather than lose ourselves in fairy stories of optimism (it will magically all get better whether or not I take part) or pessimism (in which we’re all lost, whatever we do).

Photo Credit: Kiwi Tom Flickr via Compfight cc

Increasing light

Today, the final day of 2016, is both the seventh day of Christmas and the seventh day of the Jewish festival of Chanukah. The two festivals coincide only about every 30 years or so, when a combination of factors pushes the Jewish year – in which the months turn by the cycles of the moon – later into the Gregorian calendar than usual.

Chanukah always falls in the week with the longest, darkest nights of the year, straddling the new moon that falls close to the winter solstice. As with winter festivals marked by many traditions, it’s concerned with our capacity and responsibility to bring light to the dark.

And so, after starting with one candle last Saturday and adding a candle each night, people all over the world will tonight be lighting eight candles to mark the final night of Chanukah and, coincidentally, the final night of this calendar year.

As the rabbis who shaped Chanukah some 1600 years ago said, it’s our responsibility to gather light, to increase light, and to be light. It’s harder to see this in those times when the world itself seems shining with hope and possibility. But in the darker hours, when the sun is down and even the moon is obscured from view, we see the darkness itself more clearly. And we see how easy it is, when we’re gripped by fear or self-righteousness, to wittingly or unwittingly contribute to its spread.

As we end a calendar year that has seen an upsurge in the politics of division and fear, a new legitimacy given to voices – in Western democracies at least – of prejudice and rage and suspicion of the ‘other’, and the election in the US of a powerful, narcissistic leader with a fragile ego, let’s remember our human responsibility to increase the light around us and between us.

Let’s increase it with art and poetry.

Let’s bring light by being fierce advocates for reason, critical thinking, and science. By learning, ceaselessly. By feeling, fully and truly. By reading, widely. By overcoming our self-diminishment enough to say what’s called for.

Let’s bring light by giving up treating ourselves and others as objects, or commodities, or means-to-an-end. By opening to one another.

Let’s bring light by giving up using language as a way to cover up truth in our organisations, our institutions, our schools, our families. And let’s do it by giving up the cover of ‘it’s only business’, or ‘that’s just the way politics goes’, or ‘it’s my truth’ as a way to gain power over others or to silence them.

Let’s bring light by finding out how to be ones around whom others’ hearts soar, around whom others can find out what’s uniquely theirs to bring and then bring it without shame, or self-reproach.

Let’s do it with song.

Let’s bring light by getting over our self-pity, our resentment, our sense of how unfair it is that our lives are whatever way they are.

Let’s bring light by learning how to listen to, and speak with, ever wider circles of people who have lives, commitments, and beliefs very different to our own. And by standing for kindness, and dignity, being a force for the elevation of life rather than the diminishment of it.

Let’s bring light by dedicating ourselves to projects and commitments that are bigger than our own comfort, and bigger than our own personal gain.

Let’s remember that we can only do this hard and necessary work by being committed to our ongoing development. And that we can be at our most wise and compassionate only when we do all this with the help of one another.

Photo Credit: ShellyS Flickr via Compfight cc

Eudaimonia

When we measure effort by results alone – return on investment, percentage growth, money made, units shipped – we easily forget that it’s the nature of human beings to be shaped by what we do. We’re profoundly affected by the actions we take, even if we choose to pretend that’s not the case. We become what we do.

And there are real consequences to our wilful blindness. Pushing ourselves ever harder to hit targets with no consideration of the bodily and emotional costs leaves us drained, anxious, depleted, and unwell. People die emotionally this way. Or our relationships shrivel. Or, frighteningly often, we lose our lives because we’ve attended so little to our own genuine care (in Japanese there is a special word, Karōshi – death from overwork – that names this phenomenon).

We’re equally traumatised and diminished when we repeatedly treat our colleagues or customers as if they are a means to an end, when we treat ourselves as if we’re a means to an end, when we speak corporate jargon that numbs and distances us from the truth of our experience, when we try to shoehorn our human fluidity and agility into rigid job descriptions and lists of corporately-sanctioned behaviour, when we mouth platitudes and sign up to ‘values’ in which we do not believe, when we turn up to meeting after meeting in which we have no role and no intent to contribute, when we abandon our cares and concerns in order to get ahead, when we live as if redemption will come in the future (when we get that promotion, job, car, or house), when we mute our own voice because we’re afraid, when we give up our artistry and integrity to serve a set of aims that are at odds with our own, and when we continually ignore the longing of our own hearts and the signals of our own bodies that we’re living at a remove from ourselves.

And yet all of these are what many of us have been taught is precisely what is required by the world of work. We’ve come to believe that success in these self-harming domains is the success we’re striving for. That productivity must always come ahead of care for ourselves and others. That this is simply what we have to put up with, or even that it’s good and necessary to have work be a means by which we absent ourselves from genuine flourishing. And by taking this to be true we enslave ourselves, willingly, to a convenient but destructive myth that has supported the kind of economy upon which many countries have relied for decades, a myth supported by the Cartesian premise that the human mind is separate from the body (so we don’t need to pay attention to the impact our work is having on us), that human beings are essentially broken (so we have to continually push harder to make up for our inadequacy), and that redemption will come from status or being able to buy more stuff (a premise which, itself, keeps the whole edifice going).

In the midst of all of this, it’s no wonder that so many people feel only half-alive, and that so few of us can imagine that work or life could be any different.

But there are other ways of being available to us, and we know them already.

The ancient Greeks had a word – eudaimonia – for the living and working practices of a life well-lived. It means living in accordance with life’s good spirit, living with a commitment to flourishing as well as to excellence in our endeavours. Specifically it means living in a way that cultivates virtues in ourselves and others – those qualities which themselves bring life into the world. Cultivating virtues cultivates our sensitivity to the needs of life and our capacity to do the pragmatic work needed in order for us to live well.

Indeed for the ancient Greek philosophers it was the very definition of excellence and an ethical responsibility to attend to the kind of human beings we become, even as we pursue our other aims and goals. To attend patiently to our practices, becoming more and more able to cultivate hope, compassion, wisdom, beauty, justice, mercy, patience, enthusiasm, peace, creativity and any number of other of virtues. And as we do so, becoming the kind of presence that makes it more and more possible for others us to do the same.

To actively work on the expression of virtues is to actively work on being an expression of life, which in turn breathes life into the people around us. And it’s not a luxury or an option either – we always need these qualities in the world, in the brightest of times and in the darkest.

Of course, cultivating virtue in ourselves is far from easy. We simultaneously have to work on our willingness to step forward and take risks, to work productively with our own inner demons, shame and self-criticism, to be able to let go of our preferences (giving up doing what we like and instead doing what’s called for), and to develop sensitivity for the needs of others and for the needs of the world. There isn’t much in the world of work for most people that encourages us to do that. Most of the time we’re more comfortable staying small, and afraid, and within the familiar bounds within which we know ourselves. And most of the time the culture we’ve cultivated in our organisations would have us do the same (even while we publicly extol the value of ‘thinking outside the box’ and run corporate wellness programmes that serve to cover up the difficulty we’re in).

Today, as we face a wide range of difficulties and tensions that are tearing at the way we’ve done things so far we could, if we wish, reimagine how we work, and reimagine leadership as we do so. We could define leadership in eudaimonic terms, making the work of ‘cultivating virtue in ourselves and others’ the primary task.

And we could, as we do so, find out how much more able we can be in responding to the world in ways that serve everybody, rather than only a narrow set of concerns shaped by targets, unquestioned growth, or our wish to fit in.

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Boundaries

So many of our troubles come from our insistence that there is an us and a them. ‘Us’ – the people who share something important with us. ‘Them’ – the ones who don’t.

Us – the managers of this organisation. Them – everyone else.
Us – my company. Them – the competition.
Us – the people already living in my country. Them – everyone else.
Us – those who agree with me. Them – those that don’t.

Once we have an us and a them, we have reasons to be fearful, distrustful, suspicious, defensive. After all they might try to take what we have.

Where we draw the boundary between us and them is, in many ways, arbitrary. It depends entirely upon what we take ourselves to hold in common with others, and what not. At its smallest, us is a category of one, the person who inhabits my own body. Now everyone else is them, potentially out to get me. Many people live this way. We could draw the boundary at family, at community, at nationhood. But us could also be as big as all of humanity (all that shares a human body) – or indeed all life (all that shares the mysterious quality we call life) – and then there is nobody and nothing to be them.

The smaller us is, the bigger our fear, mistrust, and apprehension of others. The bigger us is, the more of the world we feel bound to take care of.

It’s ironic that at a time in history when there is more material abundance available than ever before, we seem so committed to shrinking us in a way that shrinks our care for the world.

The last 200 years have given us unprecedented technology, science, and understanding of what it is to be a human being. We are more and more appreciating the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. I wonder what would happen if instead of shrinking the world we used that understanding to grow our sense of us, and in doing so grew our capacity and responsibility to take care of things.

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The perfect mistake

My school German teacher would not tolerate mistakes. His way of teaching was to interrupt us, every time, if we made a grammatical error, even if we were halfway through a sentence. And so while I learned German just fine as an academic subject, a detached exercise in reading and writing, I never learned to speak with any facility. My body – faced with a real German-speaking human being – simply wouldn’t do it.

It’s this that clearly illuminates the difference between learning about a subject and developing ongoing, embodied skilfulness to do something with it. Learning a skill always requires risk and the possibility of getting it wrong. Indeed, we become skilful in the very process of messing up, feeling ashamed and confused, and then trying again in the light of what happened. Making mistakes, and the possibility of shame, call from us the kind of engaged involvement that’s required for our activity to have sufficient power to disorganise and reorganise us, which is the mark of any lasting learning.

As Hubert Dreyfus argues in On the Internet, this is why online learning (now so in vogue in the world of organisations) is fabulous for learning facts but not good at all for learning to master any complex or sophisticated skill – there simply is not enough contact with the bodily presence of others and insufficient social risk to have our mistakes (or the risk of mistakes) affect us.

It’s also why author William Westney argues (in The Perfect Wrong Note) that our fumbling errors made when learning a musical instrument are so constructive, useful, and enlightening, especially if they happen in the presence of a teacher or group of peers.

And it’s why my teacher showed us German, brilliantly, as an exam subject but did not – because he would not let us fail – teach us how to speak.

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