Wild Geese

Lizzie and I were live again this morning, The source for this week’s conversation was Mary Oliver’s powerful poem ‘Wild Geese‘.

We talk about the constraining effects of inner criticism and the limits of our over-effort to be good or strong or loving or clever. And along the way we stumble into some realisations about what’s possible when we learn to trust something other than our own self-judgement, and reach out to others for help.

And if you’d like to join in with the growing community that’s forming around this project, and the lively conversation that’s taking part in the comments, you can do so here.

A billion miles

It’s a small shift, but a potentially profound one.

What if you choose to see what you’re in the middle of right now from the point of view of a year ahead? Or ten years? Or a hundred?

Or if you were to watch this moment in life from the viewpoint of the moon? Or from the far edge of the galaxy?

From here, what changes?

Do your worries and fears have the same hold?
Do the same things seem important?
From what are you freed?
What’s called for, now?

Sometimes, we need the perspective of a billion miles and an aeon in time to see what we’ve got caught up in that’s trivial. And that what really matters is quite different from what we’ve taken it to be.

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The Longing for Realness

Our Turning Towards Life conversation of Sunday 8th October Lizzie Winn and I took up the topic of our longing for realness, and the many ways in which we hold back from being real and truthful with ourselves and with the people around us.

You can join us live at 9am next Sunday morning here.

 

The source text for our conversation was written by Lizzie for her Sacred Rebellion blog:

The Longing for Realness.

As we commute with our hair washed and our smart clothes on,
Nothing is truly hidden of our flailing marriages, our domestic madness, our financial ruin, our anxious bodies.

Because we, ourselves can see it and feel it, even if we’ve become expert at hiding away and letting it all fester in our bodies and homes.

We get so lonely in our own, small worlds of circles upon circles of self criticism, questioning and confusion. Compensation, defensiveness, self-absorption.

We look good, like we should. Function well as the world tells us to do.
And mostly inside there’s much occurring, that doesn’t get to the light because keeping up appearances is safer in our world than being straight and honest.

What if we’ve got it horribly wrong?
What if our humanity has a requirement to be joined by other humanity, to remove the shame of our messed up minds, hearts and bodies?

What if our dark bits are there, calling us to bring them to the light, and we keep shutting them in. Until they make us ill, make the world ill?

What about us is really unacceptable? In truth, the full spectrum of our experience is acceptable. Surely it has to be.

Here’s to a world where we are each other’s acceptance as well as our own. A world where looking like we’ve got our shit together is less valued and approved of than being real, vulnerable, disclosive and open.

— Lizzie Winn

Balancing Judgement and Mercy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hubert Dreyfus 1929-2017

A treasured teacher of mine, Hubert Dreyfus, died this week.

I never met him in person. But his undergraduate course on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, given at the University of California at Berkeley and made available online, deeply inspired me.

Dreyfus was professor at Berkeley from 1968, after tenures at Brandeis and MIT, and was probably the most important interpreter of Heidegger we’ve known in the English language. He took what might otherwise be considered a confusing, marginal work and explained what he came to see through it with clarity, elegance, good humour and no shortage of critical thinking.

Through Dreyfus a deep and more humane understanding of what it is to be human has been made available to us. His work has had impact on many fields – medicine, therapy, education, anthropology, sociology, computer science and, I can say with gratitude, the particular field of coaching and adult development which has been a central project of my own life these last 12 years.

What I appreciate most, though, about Hubert Dreyfus is the love of teaching and learning of which he was an expression. In the recordings of his 2007 lecture course (which, for quite some while, was among the most popular available on iTunes University) it’s clear that this was not a man who had settled on a rigid understanding of his field, nor someone who considered himself ‘done’. Even after 30 or so years of studying and teaching Heidegger’s work, the lectures show him questioning himself with both wonder and joy, revising his understanding as he goes, being honest about what still mystified him and – most importantly – learning from his students. In the lecture that I love the most a student’s question leads him to decides he’s misunderstood a central principle in Heidegger’s work for decades. Hearing him revise his understanding mid-lecture is simply thrilling to hear.

According to his colleague, Sean Kelly, Dreyfus was committed to the profoundly risky and courageous project of only teaching what he did not yet understand. He clearly saw that teaching and learning are not separate activities.  In his hands, as you’ll hear if you ever take the opportunity to listen or if you watch him in the lovely documentary Being in the World, teaching was an opportunity to bring all of himself and to invite us to bring all of ourselves to our endeavours too. It was an opportunity to be alive together.

So it’s no wonder that his lectures were often full to capacity. It’s rare in our culture to find a teacher who could combine such wisdom with such love, and who was so open to being changed and brought to life by his students and by the subject he was teaching.

Remembering

In the Jewish world today it is Yom Hashoah, or the day of remembering the Holocaust.

Last night I joined a beautiful ceremony at the community which I call home. At one end of the room, a table filled with the shining light of tens of memorial candles. And in front of it, one by one, the testimonies of survivors and their families, woven together with prayers and with music composed by those who lived and died in the ghettoes and camps.

Already in the 1930s, one of the speakers who was a child survivor of Auschwitz reminded us, the seeds of dehumanisation were being planted in public discourse, and in law, in countries across Europe. By the time the genocide and its unspeakable horrors began in earnest there had been years of acclimatisation in language, and in speech, and in shifts in public culture. The Holocaust, as Marcus Zusak reminds us in his extraordinary novel The Book Thief, was built on words.

This year, perhaps more than any other I can remember, I was deeply moved by what I saw and heard. Something is cracking open within me. A certain turning away from the world, a well-practiced semblance of ‘being ok’ is dissolving. I felt, and feel, more open, more tender, more raw, more available, and more touched than I have done for a long time.

I’m grateful for this because, as I listened to the accounts of the people speaking with us, I was reminded once again how our turning away, our avoidance of life, is not so far from our capacity to dehumanise, to blind ourselves to the sacredness of the other, and to absolve ourselves of the responsibilities that come with our own goodness. And when we turn that way, collectively, it’s not as hard as we might think to turn towards the shallow rewards of exercising power over others, bringing back into the centre our apparently bottomless capacity for cruelty, disdain, destruction and death.

In this time when fear seems to have such a grip on the world, in Europe and the US in particular, I hope that remembering what’s come before can help us find out what we’re avoiding paying attention in us and around us. And I hope it can help us remember our own goodness, compassion and capacity to be of service – all of which are vital in steering a course together that points us towards life.

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Investing ritual with meaning

Of course, any of our rituals, even those already laden with meaning and significance in their structure and content, can be approached with cynicism, detachment and avoidance. It’s true of prayer, of meditation, and of the various rituals we have for loving our children, our partners, our friends.

Whether to invest our rituals with presence, aliveness, contact, wonder and truth; or whether to use them as a way to go to sleep our lives really is, to a large extent, something we each get to choose.

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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).

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One thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back to front

We over-imagine and we under-imagine and, curiously, much of the trouble we get into seems to come from having them back-to-front.

We over-imagine what surrounds us in time and space, worrying about future events that may not happen, inventing troubles and concerns that are far beyond our control and influence, and letting all this crowd out our sensing of where we are.

And we under-imagine our own capacity, becoming convinced of the judgements of our own inner-critics, taking our shame to be the only part of ourselves worth listening to, becoming transfixed by our fear. It’s what Adam Phillips, in his marvellous book Unforbidden Pleasures calls ‘a crisis of under-interpretation’.

What a beautiful response we could mount, in the midst of the turbulent ever-turning world, if we swapped this around from time to time. If we were pay attention to what’s right here, in front of us, that is calling for our care and attention. And if we could see that our shame, self-criticism and fear were but small parts of a vast inner landscape fired also with love, and creativity, and the strength to continue.

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Escaping our smartphone dependency

We human beings are profoundly shaped by, and drawn out from ourselves, by the things that are around us. And the smartphones that most of us carry are purposefully designed with this in mind.

It’s no accident that we find ourselves checking and re-checking email, messages and social media, before we even know quite why. We’re drawn in by the promise of a brief, welcome surge of expectation and hope. This is going to be the moment when we’ll find out that everything is OK, or that we’re wanted, or that we’re loved. This is the moment that we’ll be saved from our anxiety.

But shortly afterwards, we feel a familiar hollowness and emptiness. The hit was but for a moment. Our devices call to us, wink at us, and buzz us with the promise. And we willingly succumb, knowing it will not satisfy us but feeling unsure about whether we can do anything about it.

We have, as Seth Godin writes, a Pavlov in our pocket. An ‘optimised, tested and polished call-and-response machine’, that works every time. And, because we’re so bewitched by its presence, will-power alone is unlikely to help us.

If we want to live lives that aren’t so directed by the insistent call and the instant dopamine hit, we have to find ways that our devices can serve us rather than having us, unwittingly, serve them. Specifically, we have to take steps to have our devices support us in what’s life-giving and in what actually matters to us rather than in what distracts us and numbs us.

To help us do this, we could consider putting the features that draw us in to the cycle far out of reach.

After finding myself increasingly unwilling to tolerate the effects of all this, I am experimenting with the steps listed below. I have found each of them to be  liberating, not least in supporting me in exercising much more conscious choice about how this powerful technology affects me. I’m less distracted. I feel less needy. 

And – I’m still reachable. I still respond to emails. I am still asked to do work for people. And I still have friends.

On my phone

  1. Turning off all phone notifications (buzzes, beeps, lock-screen messages) apart from those that come from real human beings who are trying to contact me directly. WhatsApp, messenger, phone and text notifications are on. Newsfeed updates, tweets, and anything generated by a machine are off.
  2. Removing all unnecessary social media apps. If I really want to check something, I’ll wait until I’m in front of my laptop.
  3. Disabling my phone’s email applications, and asking people who need to contact me urgently to use WhatsApp or a text message.
  4. Creating a tools-only homescreen, which has the eight apps I use for quick and important tasks, and launching all other apps by typing their names from the phone’s search function. This adds an extra layer of conscious choice making before I get access to an app.
  5. Disabling fingerprint access to my phone and using a long password so that access to my phone as a whole is a more deliberate act than before.
  6. Charging my phone outside of my bedroom, so that I am not drawn to check it when it’s time to sleep, or to assuage my anxiety if I wake in the middle of the night.

On my laptop

  1. Checking my email and social media accounts only on my laptop, which means making deliberate decisions about when and where rather than reacting in the moment.
  2. Using an inbox batching system (BatchedInbox) which delivers email to me only at three specific times of day rather than the moment it is sent, and which completely takes away any potential hit from repeatedly checking for new mail.
  3. Disabling my Facebook news feed using the Chrome browser extension News Feed Eradicator, which allows me to check messages and post updates without getting drawn in. I can still check for updates from specific people and pages when I choose, by searching for them by name or by allowing notifications from their updates.
  4. Limiting access to the sites that hypnotise me, using the StayFocusd Chrome extension. This allows me to restrict access to websites (such as news and social media specifically) to certain times of day only, to constrain my total time on them to 10 minutes each day, and to completely block others that don’t add richness and depth to my life.

I know that not all of these will suit everyone’s life, responsibilities and commitments. But I encourage you to try some of them out, particularly those that seem most doable for you, and let me know how you get on.

For more support and information on all of these, you can read Khe Hy’s article ‘I was addicted to my iPhone‘  and read more at timewellspent.io

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We have to find a way to love our brokenness

We have to find a way to love our brokenness

No, not loving ourselves in spite of our failings
But loving the brokenness itself

We have to love all the ways we’re late
And all the ways we missed the point

We have to love that we were scared
And that we were ashamed to say it

We have to love that we didn’t get it all done
And love that we imagined it was doable in the first place

We have to love that we’re such a glorious mess
And how we struggle to meet our own standards

We have to learn to love, in short,
all the ways we fall short

Because our grace, courage and capacity to stand
Our care of what’s broken in the world around us

Is strongest when we’re carried
by that which we’ve learned to cherish

And not when we’re mired
in that which we’ve chosen to hate.

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A narrow bridge

Once again the feeling in my body is as it was the day after the UK referendum. Fear, and deep disappointment, and many imaginings (some wild, some not) about what is going to happen.

So I have spent the morning walking, among tall trees and beside water. It’s a practice that I rely on most to restore me to a sense of myself, and to a sense of my own capacity. And I’ve come to see (to be reminded, for I have seen this and forgotten this repeatedly) that there are at least two kinds of fear at play here.

The first is fear for the world – in this instance what will come of electing to high office (and military command) a man who has done so much to inflame tensions, to foster hate and distrust, to demonise anyone who is ‘other’. And the second fear is fear of myself – fear that I will not be able to respond, fear that I will not know what to do, fear that I will be overwhelmed.

Seeing that makes it all the more important, I think, that I learn to be good at feeling fear (because fear is always a reminder of what is at stake and there is so much at stake here) rather than being ruled by it, and that I keep on learning to be good at finding my own capacity, and courage, and hope.

Or, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said over two centuries ago about the world and what’s called for:

All the world is a very narrow bridge.
The most important thing is not to fear at all.

Whatever will come now will come in large part because of what many people decide to do. Small actions, taken with others, become big actions. And this is going to mean many of us waking up, stepping outside the small horizon of our immediate concerns, and doing things. Actually doing things, rather than talking about it or hoping someone else will do something. It will mean actively helping one another, helping others beyond our circle, taking a stand every single time we encounter injustice or indignity or bigotry in politics or home or work, teaching ourselves, writing, speaking up, teaching each other, making art, asking big questions, thinking and feeling deeply.

There is another Jewish principle that I think can be illuminating here – that of tikkun olam, or repair of the world. The premise? That the world is incomplete, broken, and has been for longer than any of us can remember. That it can be repaired, by our day to day actions, or neglected, in which case the tear in the fabric of the world increases. That repair is possible.

It is this last part that I find so resonant today – just because so much is broken gives us no excuse to give up.

Indeed it may well be the case that the rise of hate, disdain, ridicule, indignity, violence and indifference in the world is always an opportunity to learn how to better ourselves if we choose – how to be more adult, how to be less narcissistic in our concerns, how to become more active, compassionate, wise, organised, connected to one another and impassioned about life.

I think we have an urgent responsibility to take up the practices that will have us be that in our homes, in our organisations, and in the wider world. And I think this can rightly be a cause for immense hope.

And I am sure that we have to start, right away.

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The state of the world

I am coming to see that what I take to be the state of ‘the world’ is frequently a slew of silent assessments that have little to do with the world at large and everything to do with whether I feel accepted or rejected, welcomed or abandoned, moment by moment.

I am coming to see how often my sense of self is shaped by these assessments: I’m ok if accepted, deficient if abandoned. And that my actions, even the most subtle expressions that cross my face, are often an attempt to gain acceptance and avoid rejection.

I have started to closely observe the flow of emotions and bodily sensation when I’m talking with people and I can see that this too often follows the scheme. A tightening in the gut if there’s dissent, a racing of the heart if it seems I’m not understood, a gentle and settling calmness if my partner in conversation ‘gets it’ and is welcoming me home.

My self-assessments are often narrow and prone to error. I get to feel alive when I take myself to be accepted by others, and diminished when I take myself to be rejected. Neither of these often have much to do with other people’s actual acceptance or rejection of me. They are more an ongoing acceptance or rejection of myself, by myself.

It may strike you that living in the midst of such a scaffold of assessments is a pale approximation of living fully in the world. It leaves out so much, particularly when the assessments themselves are inaccurate. But even when I’m right about how others see me it denies the full, rich, vibrant life that is possible when rejected and misunderstood. 

There are gifts in disturbance, in confusion, in disagreement, in screwing things up, in making a ruckus. There is life that comes from standing out, from being an annoyance, from having something fresh and challenging and different to say. The value of a human being has nothing to do with how we’re seen.

The more I study this, the more I find the parts of me that are afraid, scared of being abandoned, hyper-vigilant to acceptance are just parts doing their very best to protect me. And that their narrow self-assessments, born of a much earlier time and place, cannot truthfully define a life, nor truly value a life.

And it is a great relief to discover that there are other parts that know and trust life much more deeply, that understand that I do not need protection, and are dedicated to my bringing myself ever more fully forward into the world while there is still time.

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On the side of life

How about we get on the side of life, which means not being on the side of death?

The side of life: taking ourselves seriously, which means taking seriously all of these and more: aliveness, vibrancy, intimacy, vulnerability, openness, courage, integrity, play, joy, anger, sadness, dignity, compassion, wisdom, uncertainty, fear and freedom.

The side of death: turning away, suppressing, denying, avoiding, constraining, limiting or controlling anything on the side of life.

The side of death is alluring, comforting even. Deadening ourselves means we won’t have to feel what we don’t want to feel, or experience what we don’t want to experience. And perhaps if we can deaden others, they won’t bring us any of that either.

If we’re unlucky, we can live a whole life on the side of death, perhaps only waking up to life when it’s too late (see Tolstoy’s short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich for a stunning account of just this).

Whole organisations – their structures, processes, practices – can be dedicated to the side of death too (the difficulty here is that the side of death looks so respectable, so reasonable).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Life is never out of our reach, even in trying circumstances.

And the good news is that there are many people, and many organisations, whose commitment to life shines strongly, and who are just dying to share with us what they know.

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The end of things

Walking among tall oaks in London’s Hyde Park, my thoughts turn towards the end of things. Leaves are falling, their curled crisp edges crunching beneath my boots. There are still many trees clothed in green. The end of this will come soon, I can see, leaving the dark shape of curling branches clear against the sky.

One day, each of these trees, too, will be gone.

It is a relief to know that this is how it is. That things come to an end. Quite naturally. Quite ordinarily. And that it is true for us too.

How many mornings I have awoken with such deep lonely sadness at all this. That I will lose myself. That I will lose all of my faculties. That I will lose everyone I love, and they will lose all this too. That all this has already begun.

But here, among the trees, I am gladdened. Losing it all is not my fate alone. It is not a gross unfairness visited upon me. It is not something I always need to mourn. It is the way of life, and always has been. It is the condition of humanity, and always will be.

I am joined in this path by every living thing that has ever existed, and every living thing that will exist. I am unified with all of life, indivisible from it.

Yes, deep sadness at how all of this ends has its place, reminding me how I long to live and how much there is to lose. But equally appropriate is joy, and wonder, exhilaration and radical amazement that any of this is happening. That I get to take part. That I am, for now, here.

My heart quickens and my eyes widen at the beauty and fragility of life, at its preciousness, at how fleeting it is. I see that there is no time to waste. There is so much to do, so much I can do. Whatever contribution I am here to make, now is the time. Every moment until now has been preparation for this. Every moment to come, however many or few, calls with the promise and possibility of participation in life’s grand, beautiful, tragic, surprising, endlessly creative unfolding.

It is time, as it always is, to begin.

Dissolving

This summer I have taken up wild swimming, in the beautiful and tranquil swimming ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath.

It has been quite a practice in releasing myself into the unknown. The water is cold and murky and deep. It’s impossible to see more than a few centimetres below the surface, and so entering is an exercise in letting go, in welcoming what’s here, in giving up control.

Once in the cool water, eye-line level with that of the ducks and birds that frequent the pond, I notice how quickly any sense of inner pressure subsides. There is really nothing to do here, nowhere to get to, and I start to see how much my own inner life is still dominated by assessments that are often invisible to me.

Am I doing well enough? Being responsible enough? Getting enough done? Taking enough care? Being smart enough? Kind enough? Successful enough? 

I notice how often I feel sad, or deflated or frustrated because of an inner judgement that I’m falling short. And how often I rely on an equal and opposite assessment – that I did something well – in order to feel joy, or satisfaction or that I have anything to offer.

But here, in the coolness and stillness of the water, I am struck by my inner quietness and expansiveness. Held in a body of water that is vast and calm I am vast and calm too, my sense of separateness from the physical world dissolving as standards and self-assessment dissolve.

For a while I am the water itself, the trees, the birds and the sky. For a while I just am, and my beauty and value is the simple fact of being alive. And for a while I am reminded that I am not my assessments, even if I often live, quite unaware of it, as if they are what is most true.

The limits of happiness

This being human is a guesthouse, writes Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the 13th century Persian poet. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

I think Rumi’s right. To be human is to be visited by a stream of experiences, each arising and fading away after the other in a mysterious succession. We know only a little about how to influence the stream. Sometimes we find ourselves able to direct its course by being with certain people, or taking up certain activities, or by being in a place resonant with beauty or with memory. And we can sometimes influence the stream by trying to block it – holding on to sadness, or resentment, or anger through the stories we tell ourselves about life.

But, mostly, to be human is to have a stream coursing through us that arises of its own accord, without our volition. And when we seek to constrain the movement of the stream so that it consistently feels a particular way we also end up having to constrain some portion of our aliveness and freedom. Our fullest humanity comes when, as Rumi recommends, we learn to meet all our experiences at the door laughing, and invite them in. 

Each year, as I experience ongoing rivers of sadness, joy, tenderness, rage, sorrow, fear, longing, love, satisfaction, frustration, deep confusion and hopefulness that flow through me, Rumi’s advice seems more necessary, and more true. And it seems no more passing mood gets me in more trouble than the expectation of happiness. When happiness is the standard, almost anything else falls short. When I imagine that happy is the way I should most often feel, I can twist myself into all kinds of knots trying to bring it about, and invest myself in all kinds of comparisons, and standards, and unforgiving judgements about the life I’m already living. I can imagine that others have found the key to happiness – that they have it in a way that I don’t. And I have found out how easily I can end up narrowing my life in its pursuit, pushing away or disapproving of many other kinds of experience that arise, quite naturally, in day to day living.

Let me be clear – I think happiness is wonderful, and I love to feel it. And I’m also saying that I think there is a trap in making it life’s primary purpose, and in thinking that it’s even possible to cling onto it without in one way or another narrowing ourselves. Because happiness is just one of Rumi’s visitors, destined to be followed by all kinds of other experiences in any life that is allowed to breathe. And also because we ourselves are changing all the time, so that many of our attempts to generate future happiness are deeply flawed. The person we’ll be when the time comes for the happiness we’ve longed for to arrive will be different in so many ways, and may feel happy about different things, than the person who is making future happiness plans today.

So if happiness is transient, and if chasing it can so easily diminish us, what is worth pursuing? I think the answer almost certainly lies not in trying to feel a certain way but in the purposeful cultivation of what the ancient Greeks called the virtues – those capacities and qualities that allow us human beings to live in meaningful, vibrant, engaged ways, whatever our circumstances. There’s a wide freedom and much possibility in cultivating integrity, goodness, kindness, creativity, connectedness, flexibility, forgiveness, devotion, gratitude, resoluteness, intimacy, patience, truthfulness, warmth or wisdom, to name just a few.

Each of these virtues can be nurtured in an ongoing way through our everyday practices of speaking, listening, working, making, resting and expressing. Each may bring us happiness, yes, some of the time. And each may sometimes bring disappointment or frustration, or any other of Rumi’s guests. But it’s also the case that each of the virtues, if we’ll be disciplined enough to work on them and to attend to them, can also bring us deep opportunities for meaningful engagement with life, for belonging, and for contribution, whether we’re feeling happy, or sad, or despairing, or whatever else comes our way.

Photograph by Justin Wise

Secret superpower

Many of the most courageous people I know are also the most afraid.

Living with such an intense inner experience of fear – and surviving it – cultivates within them extraordinary capacities to keep going, to face things as they are, to take action when it’s called for, and to be present with others who are afraid.

I know how much I value having such a person by my side when there’s something genuinely terrifying to face. Someone who knows fear intimately. Someone who has found ways to work with it. Someone who already knows what to do.

Many of the most courageous people I know hardly see themselves as courageous at all.

They relate to their fear as a defect, a failing, a reason to judge themselves, as fuel for the harshest inner criticism. That they are afraid obscures the view, so that they’re blinded to the gifts they bring.

They do not see that the part of themselves they most wish to banish is the very source of blessings, the source of their secret superpower.

So it is in the best superhero origin stories, and so it is with all of us.

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Back to the garden

The myth of the Garden of Eden is so brilliant and powerful because it expresses our sense of having profoundly lost something essential and elemental from our lives, something we need.

We long to return to the peace and beauty of the garden. It’s a place we feel we once knew but from which we’ve been exiled, and we imagine there’s something we can do to get back so that everything can be alright once again. When we return we will at last stop feeling so separate from the world, so alienated from it. It will be a place where we’re fully welcomed and loved, where we don’t need to strive any more, where the resources of the world will effortlessly meet our needs, and where we no longer need to feel afraid or ashamed. And in this way the myth of the garden promises to fill an enormous hole that we don’t otherwise know how to address. 

Perhaps we’ll meet the right person, a friend or lover or saviour whose acceptance and care for us will be our return (maybe it’s this sense that draws us towards particular people in our lives in the first place). Or perhaps it will come through fame, a big enough bank balance, or through attaining a certain status or prominence in our work or our wider culture. We can become convinced we’ll be readmitted to the garden by following a spiritual path, by being kind, or by cultivating depth, integrity, knowledge, power, courage, or equanimity. Maybe receiving the right email in our inbox will do it (is this why we check so often?).

We wonder if we haven’t found our way back because we didn’t try hard enough. So we keep on with the same strategies, despairing that they don’t seem to work out.

Our suffering is magnified by our finding that nothing and no-one we encounter is able to return us as we’d hoped. We are terrified that it’s our own failing, and if not that then the unfairness of the world towards us, that keeps us away.

The story rings true because we all know Adam and Eve’s loss at loss first-hand. We began our lives in the wondrous and cushioned embrace of the womb, deeply connected to the being of another inside whose body we floated, totally and unquestioningly cared for. And now we find ourselves thrown into the messy physical world where nothing ever quite goes our way, where we don’t feel held, where we feel anguish as well as joy, and where we have to take responsibility for ourselves. The pain of leaving the garden is nothing less than the pain of living in the world with the memory of a once simpler time when we experienced only our oneness with all of it.

The Eden story’s brilliance is not only that it so perfectly describes our deep longing, but that it also calls into question our wish to return. Adam and Eve are children – barely aware of themselves, barely able to know anything, unable to distinguish between this and that, between actions that bring wholeness to the world and actions that destroy. They can remain in the garden only as long as this remains the case. Once they eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, once they develop the capacity to engage with the world in its fullness of both dark and light, once they grow up, the spell of the garden is broken and they have to face the world as it is. A return to the garden would not be the idyll we imagine because it would mean giving up the capacities and faculties that make us adults, most notably the capacity to discern, and the capacity to choose.

So, how should we live in the light of this? One path, for sure, is the path of nihilism, the certainty that all is lost and that, faced with the prospect that nothing ever works out apart from death, nothing is of meaning. The other path, which seems much more life giving to me, is one in which we simultaneously turn towards that of the garden which is already present in the world (beauty, love, compassion, the wonders of nature are just a few) and towards doing what we can to reduce the suffering that we know cannot be avoided completely. This second path also means learning to live with the hole-like feeling of incompleteness – perhaps to be human is always in some way to feel incomplete – and yet continuing to bring as much of our capacity for goodness and integrity as we can. The second path means giving up the idyllic myth of Eden for the much more grown up task of living with dignity and compassion with the world as it is and us as we are. And in order to do this, we have to give up on our fantasy of returning to the garden, a fantasy that adds difficulty to difficulty and so readily has us hold back what we could bring.

And, as well as this, there is another possibility, which is to look deeper into life than we are yet accustomed to doing. The separateness of our bodies so convinces us we are separate from everything and from one another – and it’s the very compelling feeling of distance that has us long so urgently to return. The anguish of this, and the longing of it, is very familiar to me as I write this today. But from another perspective, which I glimpse now and then, we all arise from a wholeness from which we have never been apart – call it the universe, ‘the one’, emptiness, God, life itself – there are many names. In those moments when we get to see that we’re all together an expression of something which has always been our home, perhaps we get to relax our desperation a little, and this in turn allows us to contribute without trying all the time to grasp too tightly something that is already here.

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Messiness

We like to think we’re over messiness. Done with it.

That the world – our families, the organisations we work in, found, lead – can be ordered by the sharpness of our reason, by the power of our technology, by our sophistication, categorisation, and strength.

That all disorderliness will be excised. That the world will bend to meet our will. That change – in ourselves, in others – will happen on our schedule, to our specifications. Like the world is a machine. Like we are too.

And when it does not happen – when the mess of it all seeps between the lines, bulges out around the edges of our spreadsheets and to-do lists, whips the corners of our carefully planned timetables and calendars, unravels our hard-planned goals – we think someone must be to blame.

We blame others, fuelling our frustration that they don’t get it, won’t get with the programme, won’t make themselves into the image we have for them.

We blame ourselves, turning the blade of self-doubt and of self-criticism. If the world can’t be kept to order then we must not be trying hard enough. So we redouble our efforts – the inner wheel of perfectionism, the outer wheel of agitation. We tighten the armour across our hearts another notch. And we feel our bodies grip as the mess spills out behind us, just when we’re not looking.

And what we’ve missed in all this is that messiness is inevitable. Messiness is the underpinning of the world. Messiness is life’s sacred heart. Messiness is the only way this crazy mix of quarks and protons, atoms and molecules, people and conversations, firing neurons and imagination, poetry, pulsing blood, falling rain, money, children being born, ethernets, tumbling rising markets, music, dust, pencils, love and egg-shells can be.

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Habit and flexibility

Once we see that it’s our everyday practices, and the stories that accompany them, that shape who we are (through the gradual bodily formation of habit and familiarity) many new paths can open up.

You can start to see how the inner and outer sigh you make when you see the sister who frustrates you reinforces your very sense that no progress can be made in your relationship. You’re an audience to your own sigh – the world shows up in a particular way in the light of it – and so is she. Each sigh sets out a narrow path for a particular kind of repetitive interaction that is reassuringly familiar even as it’s reassuringly frustrating. And once you see this, you can perhaps start to practice something else – a smile, or an embrace, or a simple and true expression of how you’re actually feeling which invites an equally truthful response from her.

Perhaps you can see that your repeated practice of criticising people (yourself, those close to you) invites a world in which nobody is ever enough, and there’s always something to fix. And that along with this practice comes a kind of vigilance in you and others, a way of constantly scanning the world to see what’s missing or what might be criticised, which has you on edge, and afraid, and pessimistic about what’s possible. And once you see this, perhaps you can start to practice something other than a judgement. A welcome, for example, or a breath that relaxes the tightness in your chest and the clenching of your jaw. Or a spoken appreciation of what’s good, and of value, and to be cherished here.

When we get too convinced by the familiarity produced by our existing practices, when we misunderstand the momentum of our habits as proof that we are such and such a way, we close off profound possibilities for ourselves and others – possibilities that come from our enormous capacity for flexibility, for attunement to the world, for generosity and compassion, and for creative and nuanced response.

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Better off knowing this

Behind all our attempts to manipulate and control the world so it’s just as we’d like it (and behind the pain, frustration, sorrow and disappointment that our inevitable failure brings), we’re just trying to find a way to feel safe and to feel at home. 

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

Then we’d set aside our mission to control what can’t be controlled. And we’d work on how to feel safe and at home in the world as it is – in this ever-changing, surprising, vast and mysterious life in which we find ourselves.

With thanks to Lizzie for pointing this out to me today.

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The slavery of freedom

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

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

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

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

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Questioning our stories

Given that we are the only creatures (that we know of) that can tell stories about ourselves;

and given that we live bound up in the stories we tell;

and given that stories of any kind can be more or less truthful, more or less kind, more or less generous, more or less creative, more or less freeing of our enormous potential…

… given all of this, don’t we have a profound responsibility to question the stories we were handed? To not just take things ‘as they are’?

And to actively find – and consciously live by – the most truthful, kind, generous, creative, possibility-freeing stories about ourselves, about others, and about life that we can?

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A difficult time with choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The right time to hope

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

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

Even when it hurts us.

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

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

At least we won’t be surprised.

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

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

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Art that helps

On a trip to Madrid to visit my friend Robert Poynton, he hands me this.

“It’s a robot*,” he says, “You carry it with you. It offers you outrageous compliments.”

(*one of over 27,000 made by Gary Hirsch)

What a gift for each of us to hold – a crazy joyful robot that offers us outrageous compliments. It’s such a contrast to the outrageous criticism that so many of us bring everywhere within us – the part that demands that we be perfect, go faster, get loved, get appreciated, be better. The part that’s sure we’re not, ever, enough.

As Robert writes, the gift of the robot is that it ‘knows that you are not the imposter,
that the real imposters are the shadows you chase’.

Perhaps my little robot can remind me of my own goodness more often, and help to question what the critic stands for, whether it helps, and if it’s now time to do without the suffering and holding back that is its ‘gift’ to each of us.

And perhaps you might just make one you can carry yourself.

A quiet and genuine joy

I remember the moment with gratitude, though it was tough at the time.

“You have no idea how self-judgemental you are”, Andy had said to me. And it had cut like a knife. But he was right. I was thirty-five years old and had over many years become seasoned to the harshness of the world.

I didn’t know it as harshness to be so filled with self-doubt and such worry about how I was doing all the time. It was just the way the world was. Unquestionable. Invisible. And I had no idea that it wasn’t so much the world that was harsh but my own inner experience.

Andy’s carefully timed observation was one of those moments when what had been in the background for so long came crashing into the foreground – when what I had been swimming in for so long was made apparent to me.

It was a doorway into a profoundly new world in which I began to see that most of what I thought others were thinking about me was actually what I was thinking about myself. And that I no longer had to believe everything I thought so completely.

Eleven years later, I’m still sometimes out-foxed by the shape-shifting cleverness of my inner critic. But I am more often, and more quickly, able to spot it and see through its ways of holding me back and of pulling me apart.

And, more and more, in the space that envelops me when it steps aside, I’m able to feel a quiet and genuine kind of joy.

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What causes what?

What’s your understanding of the cause of your actions and other people’s actions?

Mostly we’ve been taught to think that it’s something within that produces what we do. We talk about motivation, or goals, or drive, or inspiration. We think of ourselves as separate from the world and that our actions and relationship to everything comes from inside us out into the world. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.

But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

We’re not as separate from the world as all that. Much of the time what’s happening is that we’re being drawn towards situations, equipment, or possibilities that we meet.

So, when there’s a chair in the room we’re drawn to sit down when we’re tired. Or when it’s time to go out of the room we’re drawn towards the door and reach for the handle, which draws us too.

This is different from the way you might think you relate to doors and chairs.

It’s not so much that before we act there’s a thinking process by which we first decide to find a door and then reach for the handle in a series of discrete steps. In the middle of everyday human life all of this just flows out of us, from the everyday familiarity and skilfulness in being in the world that we’ve embodied over a long time.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger called such features of the world that draw us out in particular ways affordances.

Being around different kinds of affordance draws us out of ourselves in different ways. Perhaps you’ll see this most clearly if you start to watch for a while what you’re drawn into – what you find yourself automatically doing, before you’ve even thought about it – in particular places.

What do the affordances of the kitchen draw you towards?
The lounge or sitting room with sofas and perhaps a TV?
A meeting room at work with a big boardroom table?
The bus-stop or the inside of a train?
A cathedral?
The waiting room for a doctor’s surgery?

If you watch for a while you’ll see that each place draws from you not just actions but a particular style of engaging with and relating to what’s around you that includes how you relate to others.  It’s all happening long before you’ve even thought about how to respond in this or that place.

This is an important topic because it shows us quickly how much place affects us and because equipment (whether paintbrushes, books, teacups or desks) and people are affordances too.

And there are huge practical consequences of this for all of us, that mostly we’re not paying attention to.

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