Hidden Valleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


Returning to myself

Here’s what I’m learning this week:

I need more sleep than I usually allow myself. Much more.

Solitude really matters. I really need sufficient time away from people, projects, words – even from books. The longer I am alone, the more I am able to let go of all the ways I’m bracing myself, clinging on, holding back. The less obsessive I am. The more keenly alive. And I’m kinder – to myself and others – when I’ve had time to encounter myself more fully.

There is little that is more opening than a wide sky – whether blue with high clouds or speckled with stars.

And there is little that restores me to myself more than trees, silence, and the sea.

Photo Credit: Tomodo89 via Compfight cc

No email in my pocket

Our tools shape us. I’ve argued this here before, most notably earlier this week.

And so, inspired by a blog post from Danielle Marchant, I have disabled email and facebook on my phone. It has been a revelation.

No longer do I carry in my pocket a device that calls to me in the way that it did. A smart-phone, I have found, beckons to me even when it is doing nothing. It lays out a pathway, a scaffold, for checking and rechecking, for wondering if anyone has tried to contact or me or if anyone needs me, and for addressing my longing – and my wish to help – in a very superficial way. I find myself drawn towards it, but left hollow and wanting from my interaction, and then checking again in the hope that the emptiness will be filled. A feeling of emptiness, itself, I see, that is brought about by the very pattern by which I try to assuage it.

As I let go of the neediness that my phone both invites and promises to resolve, I see why we have been hooked so absolutely by our amazing and life-altering devices. I do not wish to abandon technology that can serve to connect us in ways we could never have imagined. But I do wish to give up on the world that gets brought about by my being always-on, always-available, distant from myself and so often distracted.

I am checking my email only when with my laptop – a purposeful act, chosen consciously and deliberately around my other commitments, rather than a habitual, reactive interruption to them.

So, please, if you know me personally and need me urgently, a call or a text are the way to go.

And as a result of all this I find myself more present, more fully engaged in the simple contactfulness of conversation with others, more alive to the places I’m in and to what’s going on around me. I am less split, less distracted. My horizons have shifted, subtly, meaningfully, by spending less time looking down at a sliver of screen in front of me and more time looking up and out at the world and at other people.

And, in the way that such subtle but important shifts of perspective can bring about, the world feels bigger too.

Photo Credit: tinkerbrad via Compfight cc

Will, action, and driving on the left

It seems common sense to think of will-power – our capacity to do or not do the things that matter to us –  as coming only from within us. If I can’t start something or stop something, develop a new habit or take up a project, if I find myself procrastinating, then it must all be down to me, and me alone. And, if that’s the case then pushing harder, or harsh self-criticism, or both, seem to be the way to go in order to get myself started.

But self-punishing is hardly life giving, and barely supports our capacity to flourish and get up to what matters in a sustained way. And it’s based on a profound misunderstanding, deeply rooted in our culture, that we are essentially separate from the world. If I’m separate, if the world is essentially divided into me (my mind, my thinking) and everything out there which I have to move or push against, then when I find myself not moving or not pushing what other conclusion can I come to than (1) I’m not trying hard enough and (2) there’s something wrong with me?

But there is another way to look at this that takes into account how open to the world, how indivisible from the world, we are. When we see this we also start to see how much we are affected by who and what is around us. We discover that the world is an affordance for certain things – that different places and people draw out of us different kinds of action and inaction, and that this is often a better description of what’s happening than ‘I willed it’.

Chairs beckon me to sit, paths beckon me to walk, people who are open and receptive beckon me to speak, others beckon me to keep quiet. Place a stack of chocolate biscuits on my desk, and I am drawn to eat. Place a phone in my pocket, filled with incoming messages, tweets, emails, voicemail – and I am drawn to check.

Our whole physical and social world acts as a scaffold or a pathway for our action and inaction.

The startling corollary of this is that how we are in the world is not brought about by inner will alone. It is also, in large part, brought about by what and who we choose to surround ourselves with in our homes and work spaces. In this way the worlds we build for ourselves also make us.

And just as the road layout and road signs here in the UK are an affordance for driving on the left (they call for left-of-the-road driving), and those in mainland Europe or the US are an affordance for driving on the right, we can begin to lay out – with our choice of possessions, tools, spaces and relationships – paths that are an affordance for distraction and delay, or for doing what matters most to us.

Photo Credit: santiago nicolau via Compfight cc

Love, hate, inner, outer

It increasingly occurs to me

That my relationship to the parts of the world

(most significantly, others)

Is most often a reflection

Of my relationship to parts of myself.


And that until I learn how to give up

Hating, despising, fearing and judging my interior world

I can expect to have a tricky time

Loving the outer world, in which I live every day,

As fully as I could.

Photo Credit: j0sh (www.pixael.com) via Compfight cc

In praise of shadows

Although there are clearly constant qualities that each of us carry from place to place, relationship to relationship, there’s also much of us that gets expressed – drawn out of us – by the places we’re in and by who we’re with.

The offices, public areas, homes, living spaces, kitchens and meeting rooms we inhabit, each with their lighting and decor and furniture and equipment, afford us certain possibilities and deny us others. Some places bring out the possibility of being focussed and diligent, others bring out our playfulness, and in yet others we get attuned mostly to our boredom or agitation.

As we move from place to place, situation to situation, we might notice the different possibilities that are brought forth. But we rarely see that the entire cultural and architectural background in which we live is shaping us all the time. The very kind of people we come to be is, in large part, being produced by the built environment in which we live. And because it’s all pervasive – we’re born into it and, unless we immerse ourselves first-hand and deeply in other cultures we rarely escape from it – much of its shaping effect is completely invisible to us.

I have been reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows this week, which is all about this. Tanizaki shows us how, in the west, our contemporary buildings emphasise light. We build large windows to catch the sun, and where this is impossible we add bright electric lighting – fluorescent tubes, halogens, bright white bulbs – to illuminate and to banish darkness. And while this can be beautiful, and is at the least enormously practical, there is something profound about the possibilities of deep shadow that we rarely encounter, and so barely know.

On the traditional Japanese way of building a toilet, for example – so different from bright white, tile and porcelain constructions – he writes:

“There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and a quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.”

It is shadow around which the traditional Japanese interior world is constructed, and which Tanizaki describes so beautifully in his book. His attention ranges from the design of living rooms and bathrooms – and their affect on us – to the experience of eating steaming rice in the dimness of low-eaved, paper-walled dining rooms; from the practicalities of cleaning and heating our living and working spaces to the possibility of ordinary, everyday buildings as places of spiritual repose.

In Praise of Shadows is readable in one short sitting, and an exquisite way of seeing in a new way what’s possible for us, and hidden from us, in the contemporary world of work and home.

Photo Credit: jpellgen via Compfight cc

Who is to blame?

We assume that most, if not all, of our actions arise from within us. We talk about drivespreferencesgoals and intentions as if they are, without question, the only forces that move us. And as a result we pay little attention to the way we’re brought about by what’s around us – the people, places and things we encounter repeatedly in our lives.

The inner drive model gives much more weight than is due to our conscious selves – the explicit choice-making part of us that we most readily identify as ‘I’. Much of the time, it’s not this ‘I’ that’s in operation, but a much more automatic, habitual aspect of us that’s skilful at navigating through the world without needing our conscious intervention. This ‘I’ knows the world through its repeated interactions with it. It can navigate stairs, roads, chairs, doors, people, windows, showers, toothbrushes, pens, paper, phones, cars, trains… everything we have to do without really thinking about it.

The automatic ‘I’ is sophisticated enough to take part in conversations, guide our speech (once the conscious ‘I’ has set an intention or a direction) and drive us home. And, rather than being separate from the world, it relies on the world to orient it. It is drawn out by the affordances that surround us – the door handles, keyholes, street crossings, utensils, chairs, keyboards, and people that we have become skilful at responding to by years of apprenticeship.

We quite easily see that this is the case if we visit an unfamiliar culture where the tools, signs, symbols and practices make no sense – there we really have to think in order to get around (if we can get around at all). It’s incredibly hard work. There is little or nothing to draw out from us the skilful, embodied, habitual, automatic response upon which we rely so much. In these situations we feel most acutely our separateness from the world as conscious, thinking, deciding beings. The rest of the time, when we’re on automatic, in a culture with which we’re familiar, there really is very little separation between ourselves and the world to which we’re in the midst of skilfully responding.

And this is one of the reasons why so many of our ways of accounting for the actions people take in our organisations are so unhelpful. Individual performance reviews and targets locate agency solely in the separate conscious self – we are punished or rewarded, hired and fired, blamed and praised as if it’s only the separate inner world of thought and choice that’s relevant to the actions we take. As if what we are in the midst of has no part to play in what happens.

But we are, in significant part, being brought forth by what we’re surrounded by. Which is why it should be no surprise that when we force people to leave (‘manage them out’) we often find the very same problems recurring in the hands of the next person into the role. We are blind to the history that’s bringing about our difficulty. Which is because we’re blind to the surrounding world of people, objects, places and systems that’s bringing it about too.

And so when trouble arises in our organisations it’s enormously helpful to start looking systemically. Not simply ‘who is responsible for this?’, but also ‘what in this system is bringing about this difficulty?’. Instead of ‘let’s get rid of this troublemaker’ we could ask ourselves ‘how are we, collectively, and our whole situation with its tools, procedures, relationships and environments bringing about this trouble?’.

We’d save ourselves, and those we so easily blame, enormous heartache and practical difficulty if we were prepared take this seriously just a little more often.

For a powerful and practical exploration of this topic, you could take a look at Barry Oshry’s work, especially his book Seeing Systems.

Photo by Lior Solomons-Wise

Living all the way through

Listening this evening to a beautiful radio documentary ‘The Living Mountain‘ (based on an equally beautiful book of the same name) I am introduced to the idea of ‘living all the way through’ – living in such a way that we get to taste, smell, see, hear and touch the world.

In our lives of busyness and distraction, in our striving to get wherever it is we think we have to be in order to be happy, in the midst of the frequent harshness of our inner worlds, how often do we remember to do this? To taste, smell, see, hear and touch any of it deeply enough that it can register?

And in addition to all your plans to achieve, to get ahead, to get things done, how about the coming year being one in which to remember this as a possibility?

So that this year is not a year you miss in your frantic activity, but a year that you actually choose to live?

Photo Credit: blmiers2 via Compfight cc

Narrowed by our economic narrative

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

Today, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published a passionate and insistent talk by David Simon, writer of The Wire, on how all of this is looking in the USA at the moment. Wherever you live in the world, I urge you to read it.

Photo Credit: oscar juarez via Compfight cc

How place shapes us

I wrote a few days ago about how much of the time our actions – and our whole style of relating – are drawn out of us by what we’re around. The word I introduced to describe the things which draw us into action, “affordances, comes from the work of Martin Heidegger.

I pointed out then how physical environments and all the equipment that comes with them are affordances in this way. Being in the kitchen among the pots and pans and cutlery, or in an office with its desks and computers, in a nightclub with its lighting and bar and dance floor, or in a football stadium or on the side of a mountain each elicits from us a whole style of relating and interacting, as well as certain actions we take without having to think about them. We simply find ourselves acting in whatever way meets the situation before we’ve framed a conscious thought.

This is so important to see, because it can begin to show how much the places you spend your time in shape who you are as a person, and your ordinary, everyday, habitual comfortable reactions to everything. You’re constantly being drawn into ways of acting and relating by all of it, and over time this has a huge effect. 

What kind of person do you become, do you think, if you spend all of your time in the built environments of train, car, plane and office? Or if you spend all of your time outdoors? What kind of person is your home shaping you to be? Or the local shopping mall?

You and others really are not so separate from the places you’re in as you might have come to believe.

Photo Credit: cropped from an image by Bérenger ZYLA via Compfight cc