On account of nothing we did

Ordinary life can seem so – ordinary – that it’s natural to slip into taking it for granted, as if it were obvious and straightforward that we’re here, and as if it will go on this way for ever.

Many traditions have practices to remind us that it’s anything but ordinary to be able to move, breathe, think, make breakfast, travel, work, love, argue, sleep, produce, write, speak. And that it’s anything but ordinary to have a body that can do all this again and again, which can heal itself so often without us having to do anything. And that none of it lasts nearly as long as we might hope.

Here’s a morning blessing from Judaism, said by some as they use the bathroom for the first time in the day, that I think is particularly brilliant for its combination of straightforwardness about life and death, piercing insight, and gentle humour.

Blessed are you, Eternal One, Creator of everything, who formed human beings in wisdom, creating within us openings and vessels. It is revealed and known before you that if any one of them is opened or closed it would be impossible to remain alive and stand before You. Blessed are you, Eternal One, who heals all flesh and performs such wonders.

Finding daily practices to remind us of our bodies’ unlikeliness and wonder – even in the most ordinary of circumstances – does not require religious belief of any kind of course (and in Judaism, by the way, belief is secondary to practice, the actions that shape the world of possibility and relationship again and again).

All it requires is opening to life. And reminding ourselves that we are each here on account of nothing that we did.

And that by one of the most unlikely miracles imaginable we each find ourselves for a brief time, embodied, in a world ready and waiting for our participation.

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Too short, too precious

Life is too precious, and too important for us to believe the stories of our own unworthiness, to plead that we have a special kind of suffering unknown to anyone else, to wallow in shame at our incompleteness, our falling short, our confusion, our lostness.

Yes, let’s feel it all, but let’s not take it to be the only truth about our situation. Because life is too short for us to wait until we feel better before we begin.

Let’s allow ourselves to look at life with childlike eyes that see again the wonder in things, and that live it all, fiercely and passionately. Let’s learn to drop our defences, to give it all away, and use our experiences, all of our joys and all of our sorrows, as a channel for aliveness.

Life is too short, too precious, and too important for us to waste our time doing anything else.

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Renewal

On Living and Working is four years old today.

When I started, on a warm April afternoon in 2013, I had no idea of the possibilities that writing here would open. I have learned much about myself, and about what I care about, by putting thoughts and questions into words, and making them available in the public domain. And I have started enriching conversations with people from many parts of the world who have contacted me in response to what I’ve written. It has been an enormous gift to be part of what a project like this can make possible.

Today I’m particularly aware of how dependent I am on the support of other people in having all of this happen. From people close-in: my friends, family and colleagues who offer advice and feedback and sometimes have searching questions to ask about what I’m saying. From those of you read, reply, comment and share with others. From those who have taught me, and those who have written the books and blogs, articles and lectures, podcasts and films that have inspired much of what’s here. From the countless others who designed, manufactured, shipped, sold, connected and maintain the technologies upon which we rely to communicate with one another so widely and effortlessly. And from all those who guided, raised, fed, clothed, paid and otherwise cared for all of these people in the ever-widening circles of support that surround us.

Many of us live in a culture that pays inordinate attention to individual achievement. It can lead us into narrow kind of self-obsession that in turn becomes a sense of entitlement – a belief that the world owes us a particular kind of life, and a particular kind of recognition for our efforts, as if what we do is solely the produce of our own hands, hearts and minds. Today, on the fourth anniversary of this piece of work, it seems to me that we have it the wrong way around.

I am, we all are, truly indebted to a vast network of living interactions upon which we absolutely depend. A network that holds us, nourishes us, and makes what we do possible, always – and which we did nothing to earn. In a world so obviously filled with troubles, it is nothing short of a miracle that such support unfolds around us and renews itself minute by minute with such unerring grace.

 

Blessings and Curses

At every moment in life, you can choose whether to be a blessing or a curse to others.

How you open the door to her when she comes come, how you reach across for him when you wake, how you speak when you order your coffee, how you move through a crowded train, how you are with a crying child, how you put out the bins.

How you answer the phone, how you begin a meeting with your pressured and anxious team, how you write the next email, how you announce your intentions, how you respond when you’re hurt, how you listen to the request of a lost stranger.

The capacity to bless will have its seeds in your capacity to bless yourself, which always means welcoming yourself and what you’re experiencing rather than denying it, raging against it, or judging yourself for it.

Will you turn towards that of you which loves without dismissing, or denigrating, or criticising it for its impracticality?

Will you turn towards your fear and acknowledge how afraid you are with dignity, rather than pretending it isn’t true?

Many of the curses in the world arise from our denying our own very basic, vulnerable, mysterious, confusing humanity. Much of that comes from being afraid and pretending that we’re not – a curse upon ourselves which curses others as we go. And many blessings come from the discovery that this one, brief, precious life simply won’t go exactly how we want it.

Of course, it’s rarely as simple as just ‘deciding’ to bless as we go. Too much of us has been shaped by years of habit for that. But the good news is that the capacity to bless – which is given to all of us – grows with practice. And that you can start today.

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Losing it

This morning, after swimming, I overhear a conversation between two men who are sitting by the water. One has lost his sunglasses on an earlier swim and is quite distressed.

‘They were expensive. Armani.’ he says. ‘I paid a lot of money for them. And they are the third pair I’ve lost this summer’.

He is too agitated to be present with his friend who, after some minutes of listening, says ‘You seem really shaken up by this, too shaken up even to really be interested that I’m here with you. You’re saying the same thing, over and over again. But,’ and here he pauses, ‘tell me something. Did you enjoy having them? Did they bring you pleasure? Because although you’ve now lost them, for a while you did have them too’.

For a while, you did have them.

And at that moment it occurs to me that this is true for everything, and for all of us. We wail and fret about what we lose, and rightly, because our loss is so often a source of suffering for us. But we will all lose our sunglasses, eventually, just as we will lose all our possessions, our friendships, our bodies, and everything we know.

And because losing is terrible and difficult to bear, we can spend our lives fretting about what’s yet to lose, and clinging madly to it, or becoming consumed with longing or remorse for what we’ve lost.

And all the while forgetting that, for a time, we did have all of this, and missing the wonder that there is anything at all – sunglasses, friendships, work, life – worth having enough that its loss matters to us in the first place.

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On Ritual

“As an archaeologist, my father always used to talk about the origins of language, of communication, being around a fire. When you think of that in relation to a theatre you realise that the audience is exactly the same scale as a sustainable human community from prehistory onwards, whether of 100 people or of 10,000. We become part of a collective imagining, we laugh at the same things, we find we are not alone. It’s why religion and theatre are so closely entwined. Priests know how to put on a good show. They understand that we all need rituals, patterns.”
Simon McBurney, Playwright and Theatre Director

We’ve largely forgotten the power and importance of ritual. Perhaps because we’ve conflated ritual with religion, and taken religion to be superstition, something we ought to be over by now in a society founded on science and reason. Or maybe we have a hard time seeing what ritual can do in a cause-and-effect way. If we can’t make a straight line from the doing of a ritual to a measurable improvement in something, we dismiss it as a distraction from the important work of getting things done.

Maybe. I think these are our public stories, the stories of so many organisations and the story of so much marketing (where buying and consuming products and services becomes the new ritual to replace all others). But in our private spaces and in our quieter moments I think many of us long for the redemptive, grounding, relationship-shifting power of ritual. I agree with Simon McBurney that we need ritual to help us rediscover an orientation to life and to one another that can be more nourishing and more whole than the spun-apart, face-it-alone, get-ahead narrative that undergirds so much of our lives.

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh make the point eloquently when they describe how rituals allow us to rehearse a different relationship with life and with other people. In one example they outline the ritual qualities of hide-and-seek, which switches the usual order around, allowing the hiding adult to play at being vulnerable and small and the seeking child to rehearse being commanding, giant-sized, and powerful. Everyone knows that it is a game – games and play themselves are powerful rituals – and this is the very point. It’s the ‘constructed’ nature of the ritual that gives it its power to upend things and give us a first-hand experience of parts of ourselves that we might not usually encounter so easily. Vulnerability in the commanding adult. Power in the vulnerable child. And a reconfigured relationship between both.

I’ve long related to the rituals of my own Jewish tradition in this way, less as a matter of ‘belief’ but as practices honed and deepened over generations which, if carried out with intent, are very powerful invitations into a new standing with life. I know that when I pause with my family on a Friday night to say shabbat blessings over candle flames and sweet wine, I’m momentarily put back in contact with the part of myself that marvels at the existence of others, at the wonder of light, and at the good fortune of having food to eat and somewhere warm and dry that can shelter us. For a short while we share together in that aspect of us that can be grateful for all this, that knows that many people go short of their basic needs, that understands how small we are in a vast universe that we did not create, and that sees how little direct control we have over any of it coming our way.

Of course, once the ritual is ended, we return to the messiness and complexity of our lives. We find ourselves feeling separate from one another again, perhaps a little afraid at the state of the world rather than grateful, and maybe overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life rather than awash with wonder and awe. To expect anything different would be to misunderstand the nature of ritual. Because rituals are not talismans or magic spells, capable of changing reality in an instant, or shifting our bodies and minds in a simplistic way. When understood this way, they inevitably appear shaky and ultimately a disappointment. Rather they are practices. And if done with the right intention and sufficient attention they teach us, as we enact them repetitively over time, what it is to be in the world and be with one another in a deeper and more attuned way.

Good rituals, so sorely missing in our culture, reintroduce us to that which is out of view, and that which we have left out, and in this way they can be profoundly transformative, deeply healing, and powerfully developmental.

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Opening

As Mark Nepo points out, trying to bend the world to my own shape is not only exhausting and painful, it’s also ultimately self-defeating. The world is much too big, too mysterious, too deep to be shifted in this way. And it is an act of grandiosity – of trying to making myself into a god – to imagine that I can force life to be just the way I want it.

But this is not a cause for despair, because there is another way to meet the world. Instead of trying to make life like me, I can work on allowing myself to be like life. This means giving up trying to have the world be an imprint of my preferences and my wishes, and instead opening myself so I can include more and more of the world within me. In this way, development happens very naturally.

And the more of the world I can open to – the more people I can open to – the wider the possibility of responding to life not with frustration or resentment, but with acceptance, and grace, and wisdom and compassion. And there’s more of a possibility of also doing what’s really called for, rather than what would make me feel better, safer, or more self-satisfied.

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Simple Gratitude

This morning, simple gratitude.

For friendship. For brushing my teeth, for cups of tea, for sunlight on the slanting roof. For a body that can feel love, and joy, and sadness. For music. And for the uncountable generations who came before whose whose very lives bequeathed all of this exquisite ordinariness to us.

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An act of remembering

When it seems like the world is against me and everyone is judging me, when no matter where I turn I can’t find a place that I feel welcomed or loved, when every glance, or look, or email is a reminder that I’m falling short, I’ve found it helpful to remember that what unites all of these experiences, and all of these judgements, is me.

And that what looks, so obviously, to be a way the world is, is quite likely to be a way my relationship with the world is. Or, said another way, the way the world shows up for me is profoundly shaped by the kind of relationship I have with it.

And this is good to remember when I’m looking to the world to change, or convinced of my own inadequacy. Because while the whole world cannot easily be called into question, the nature of a relationship can indeed be questioned and shifted over time. It’s possible to take up new practices – gratitude and forgiveness among them – that radically shift a relationship with the world and in turn shift the world itself.

And while I forget, frequently, and mistake the world for my relationship with it, perhaps writing this today will be a small act of remembering. And one that might help you, if you’ve forgotten, to remember too.

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Overflowing

As David Steindl-Rast points out, we experience gratitude – we are able to be grateful – when we know our hearts as spilling over with appreciation for all that’s around us and within us.

And there’s no shortage of life to fill us up.

We needed do nothing to be given life, air, trees, sky, earth.

Other people dreamed up and made and brought us trains and cars, electricity and hot water, paper, pens, computers, steel and wooden beams to build our houses, and interlocking institutions, intentions, people and practices that teach us, care for our health and security, collect taxes, entertain us, feed us, sustain us.

We are inheritors of untold riches in the work of novelists, scientists, poets and philosophers. We needed do nothing to find ourselves in a world where all of this surrounds us, always.

But when we experience our hearts as spilling over, when our cup is full, we so often try to make the cup bigger. As if, now we’re filled, it’s necessary to be filled up with more. The bigger the cup gets, the more it needs filling, and the less of the spilling over of gratitude and gratefulness we experience.

We replace a life of wonder with a life of grasping. A life of what’s here, with a life of what isn’t. And a life in which we know ourselves and the world as enough, with a life in which we’re always disappointed and despairing, and always wanting more.

I’m writing about this today because I notice how often I fall into this way of seeing the world. And it seems to me that my work, perhaps the work of many of us, is to teach ourselves again and again to cultivate in us that which can love the world just as it is. To remember how to be cups that can spill over in response to the world, right at the same time as we strive, in all the ways we do, for there to be more of whatever it is to which we’ve dedicated ourselves.

And what seems wonderful about all this to me is that the more grateful I can be at what is, the more capacity and energy I find in myself to make right what is not.

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Going to sleep to ourselves

Sometimes, in the midst of our busyness and our fixation on having things work out just the way we want them, we forget that we’re alive.

This forgetfulness, it seems to me, is an inevitable part of our human condition. I like very much Martin Heidegger’s phrase for this – that we get ‘scattered into everydayness’. In our everyday coping with all that comes our way, we go to sleep to ourselves and what we’re really up to in our lives.

When our forgetfulness goes on for too long, and if we don’t take steps to remember our aliveness, it starts to colour everything we’re doing. Workplaces in which people have forgotten they’re alive become places that pursue profit or targets with no sense of what they’re for. Families who have forgotten they’re alive lose sight of the preciousness and sacredness of the relationships between their members. There is always the washing-up to do, of course, but it can be a humdrum task to be endured or, when we’re awake to what being in a family is for, an expression of a much bigger commitment to the care of one another and the life that we share.

All of this is why it is vital that we have practices for remembering ourselves – practices that connect us to one another, to our aliveness, and to our relationship with all of life. Many of us have no such practices and those that we do have to deal with our scatteredness serve to numb us rather than bring us more fully to life.

One of the reasons this is difficult for many of us is that as we’ve pursued individualism we’ve abandoned so many of the shared rituals that come from being part of community: singing together; retelling shared stories, especially the founding myths of our families or culture; eating together; turning towards one another in appreciation and recognition. And we’ve been sold the line that entertainment will do all of this for us, but it mostly can’t reach deeply enough into our lives or into the lives of the people around us to wake us up to ourselves.

Writing is, for me, a powerful experience of self-remembering – a way in which I catch on to my aliveness. And that you are reading is part of it – though we may never have met we’re bound, you and I, for a moment. Reading – novels, poetry, philosophy, science. Walking too. Music. Meditation. Art. But nothing is as powerful a force for my own self-remembering as the web of Jewish practice that is woven through my life and which binds me in time, in place, and in a community. It has very little if anything to do with belief, and very much to do with what I’ve been talking about here – practices that remind me again and again of the feeling of being alive and connected to others in a vast universe of which I am, we are, a part.

Please understand that I’m not making an argument here for anyone to take up the forms of self-remembering that I’ve found so life-giving. But I am arguing for taking self-remembering seriously – that discovering and taking up practices that bring us to life again and again is foundational to a life well lived and good work well done.

Otherwise we’re just sleep-walking through.

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Frost

The roofs of nearby houses and the straight lines of the fences are frosty this morning, a welcome cold that counters December’s unseasonal warmth. They catch the early sun’s rising light, and I find myself in an inward smile.

And I see how easy it is for me to not be attentive, appreciative. How easily and often I slip into negative comparison – between a grey day and remembered morning like this, between what I fear will happen and some remembered happiness, between the time I have had and the lesser time I have left, between unreasonable utopian hopes and life simply as it is.

In this dawn glimpse of joy I see again how my familiar comparing blinds me, mutes me, freezes me, saddens me. How small, within it, my horizons become. And I remember the possibility of, step by step, giving up comparing and, instead, taking up welcoming the world.

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One step, and then one step

I have long loved the hopefulness of the Jewish tradition – the way it roots itself in the realness and responsibility of this momentunderstanding that the life we are living is the only one we can be sure of, that it’s vanishingly short, that there is much yet to do be done, and that each of us has the possibility of contributing.

And I appreciate very much how this hopefulness is informed by realism about what’s possible.

It is not your duty to complete the work [of improving the world]…‘, writes Rabbi Tarfon, a 2nd century sage, ‘…but neither are you free to desist from it‘.

There it is. What needs doing in the world is so much bigger than any one of us can muster – a realisation that could so easily be a source of despair. But in Tarfon’s hands it’s a call to possibility and responsibility. We have to begin, even though we may not quite understand what we are beginning, even though the results of our labours may only benefit those who come long after us, who we will never know. And when we find ourselves in the darkness, when nothing seems possible, when we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of things and floored by our smallness – one step.

And then one step.

And then one step.

But at the same time, we can lay a trap for ourselves with hope, which the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus understands well. Hope, particularly in the form of desire, he says, can be a source of great suffering. It can leave us permanently dissatisfied with the life we’re living, even when we have reason to be grateful.

Do not spoil what you have‘, he says, ‘by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

What you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

We know how that goes. We imagine a new car will make us happy, only to find a few days into owning it that we have our eye on a newer model. We imagine that power, or position, or a house, or a new relationship, or a change of government, or more money in our pocket will be the answer, only to find ourselves with the same emptiness and longing transposed to a new situation.

We so easily find our lives consumed by an endless and insatiable comparison between what is and what we imagine could be.

Epicurus’ own solution to this difficulty was a kind of radical simplicity and acceptance. He was an advocate of the virtues of living a life of obscurity – not trying to change too much, nor having dreams that are too big, so that we can appreciate and be genuinely grateful for what is already in front of us.

It seems to me that to be human is to inhabit the tension between Epicurus and Tarfon – learning to cherish the gifts we have, and at the same time hoping for and working towards something much better both for ourselves and for those around us. And it is, as far as I can tell from my own life, a genuine tension for many of us – pulled as we are between our deepest, most heartfelt unmet longings and our wish to feel happy or at least fulfilled right where we are.

It can be a confusing and painful place to be, particularly when we get caught up in the anguish of knowing we can’t have the world be just the way we want it. Or when our hope and acceptance are extinguished and smothered by resentment, fear, and despair at our inability to control things.

Perhaps the work of a human life is to learn to inhabit the tension between is and could be or, more fully, to be a bridge that unites both poles. Here maybe we can learn the craft of living in the world as it is, knowing we don’t have to save it, and at the same time being the ones who commit ourselves to the one next, hopeful, step.

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Seth Godin, Rojan Rajiv, William Defoe

An inspiration for my nearly three years of writing On Living and Working has been Seth Godin, who has been publishing daily for over a decade and who is such an invitation to bring our creative possibilities to the world. It was Seth’s book, The Icarus Deception, which convinced me it was time to stop imagining myself as a writer, and instead start to write. I’m extraordinarily grateful to him for that.

It’s for this reason that I’m continually interested in the work of others who take the step to share their learning and experience with us in an ongoing way – those who are prepared to risk enough to be our teachers and our guides. 

Today I want to share two such people with you.

One is Rojan Rajiv, currently an MBA student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Rojan’s Learning a Day blog is wide ranging and insightful, and I marvel at his optimism and his abundant curiosity about the world. Rojan’s commitment to teach us what he’s learning himself, and his clear, big-hearted writing, offer thought provoking, pragmatic, and often extremely useful insights. 

Another is William Defoe, whose work I’ve been following for many months now as he explores his struggles and ideas on identity, suffering, truth, sexuality, and the work of finding a home in the world when the public stories by which others know us differ profoundly from the private stories.

What William is doing, it seems to me, is an act of real generosity – describing from the inside the experience of discovering, anew, how to live. I found this recent post, on his deepening understanding of the inseparability of his mind and body, both moving and courageous, particularly when read in the light of earlier posts that recount the story of his awakening understanding of himself as a gay Catholic man inside a long-term marriage. I know there are many people in the world who’d be greatly supported by knowing that they’re not alone in the questions William is exploring.

As well as the writers above I’ve also been following educator Parker Palmer and musician Amanda Palmer (as far as I know they’re not related) who both have so much to say, in very different ways, about our tenuous, beautiful existence as human beings. 

There are of course many millions of other people doing the work of writing, exploring, and making themselves vulnerable and available – to all of our benefit – by teaching us through what and how they write. 

And as this year ends, I’m keenly aware of what a privilege it is to live in a time where it’s possible to write and share ideas and experience so freely and so widely.

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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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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.

The unseen chances of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blessings for all of it

In the Jewish tradition, as in other religious and spiritual traditions, there is a blessing that can be said for pretty much anything. A blessing for waking up, and a blessing for going to sleep. A blessing for sunsets and for lightning. Blessings for food and for rainbows. Blessings for new clothes, for reaching special days, and for anniversaries. Blessings for the bathroom. Blessings for encountering others. Blessings, even, for bad news and for dying.

The simplest way to understand blessings is as an act of thanks. But they’re also a practice in remembering what is so easily forgotten – that even the humdrum and mundane is neither humdrum nor mundane. And they’re a practice in noticing all those phenomena and entities which are often in the background for us but upon which all of life is standing. In this sense blessings require no belief in a deity but simply a commitment to marvel at life’s sheer beauty and complexity. They are a practice in staying awake. They are an invitation to live in a state of what Abraham Joshua Heschel called a state of ‘radical amazement’.

The rabbinic tradition invites people to say at least a hundred blessings a day. What would become possible, I wonder, if just now and again we each started to look at what’s become most ordinary and most unremarkable in our lives, perhaps even that which we’ve come to resent, and turned to wonder at the blessing within?

I’m republishing this today for P, a source of exquisite blessing in the lives of many

Where it comes from

It’s easy to relate to the objects which fill our world as if they were just there – a taken for granted, already existing feature of human life.

But the materials in everything you own or use – everything – had to either be grown by somebody or dug out of the ground first. Even the most synthetic and complex of products start out this way. Growing and mining, the source of it all.

That’s quite a thought to consider. Take any object around you, from the smallest bolt to the tallest building, and imagine back through the long and complex chain of people and interlocking processes to the raw materials that came from the earth itself.

Remembering the source of everything, and the commitment and ingenuity that makes it all possible, can be a way of cultivating deep gratitude and wonder that any of it is available to you in the first place.

These must be more possibility-filled moods than the resentment or frustration we can so readily feel at all the products that don’t work as expected, at the chaos of the world, at the sheer everyday humdrum repetitive ordinariness of things. And gratitude, for this aspect of life’s many wonders, can go a long way to awakening the sense of possibility, responsibility and focussed commitment we need in order to do our best work and inspire others.

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Irritating or Irritated?

Your team weren’t nearly as excited as you wanted them to be about your proposal.

Your colleagues didn’t deliver the report you were relying on.

The company changed its plans and now some of the work you did isn’t needed.

There were 300 mails in your inbox this morning.

The shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall.

You’re leaving the house in a hurry and you can’t find your keys.

The train was three minutes late.

An accident ahead of you held you up on the way to work.

You got ill and had to stop everything for a while.

Isn’t the world supremely irritating at times? Sometimes it’s downright exasperating. And there are times – perhaps often – when you just know that everybody and everything is out to get you.

A huge move, that will free up so much, is to begin to distinguish between what’sobservable in the world, and what’s your assessment of it. What’s observable is what you could bank on others being able to see too, even those with very different personality or preferences to you. And your assessment is the interpretation that you bring to bear on it.

You can start to see just what a powerful role your assessments have by considering how other people would be in the same situation.

Stuck in the car, in traffic, you might rage at the frustration, the unfairness, the sheer wilfulness of others to get in your way. All of which does much to stir you up and little to address the situation. Or perhaps you’ll take the jam to be part of a much bigger picture that’s far beyond your control, and figure out how to use the time for something that’s genuinely of value.

When your team didn’t go for your proposal, you could blame them, judge them for their incompetence and laziness, and let them have the full force of your disapproval – all of which is likely to stir up judgement, blame and resentment in them too. Or you can get curious. Find out what your part is in it all (perhaps you didn’t make your original request skilfully) and what’s going on for them that had them take up something else they felt was important.

When the shoes aren’t lined up neatly in the hall, you can strop and strut and despair that nobody in your family seems to care about the home you live in, or start to look for the myriad other ways they’re already expressing their love and commitment to family life.

In every case, start to see that it’s not the world that is irritating, but that it’s you who is irritated. The arrangement of the world (observable). Your irritation (an assessment).

When you can own your assessments as yours, you can find out that there are assessments that bind you up tight and others that free you to act. And when you have your assessments rather than being had by them, you’ll find you’re way more flexible and powerful in moving the world than you’ve realised so far.

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Silent disco, camp fire

Moods happen, sweeping in and out of our lives, but they don’t just happen by themselves. We are always, in one way or another, participants in them.

Each mood shapes our engagement with what we experience, bringing forward some features of the world and obscuring others; and each mood opens or closes a particular space of possibility for us. And because of this we each have the opportunity – the responsibility – to understand how to shift our moods, so that we can respond appropriately to what the world is bringing us.

I’m writing this tonight because I’ve found myself, since this morning’s first light, most prominently in a mood of despair. It had crept up on me overnight, as such moods often do, and although it brings with it a certain attunement to the troubles of the world, it also robs me of joy, and of connection to others, and of hope.

And then, tonight, I find myself dancing with increasing abandon at a silent disco, around a blazing campfire, on a programme I’m working on this week. Being in company, sharing in an activity with others, thrilling music, flames and smoke mingling and lighting us, the deepening mid-summer sky – all of these bring out in me an intense joy at being alive, at being in relationship, at being in human.

And I’m overjoyed by my joy. Without it, I would long ago – and in a very constrained, held-in kind of way – have slipped away to bed.

My darker moods often obscure this very possibility. That, for me, dancing, walking outdoors, a blue or starlit sky, the ocean, holding hands, writing, poetry, music, looking into the eyes of a person I care about, studying something I love, a mountain – that all of these bring me to life again. All of these restore me to joy, and gratitude, and wonder.

And they remind me that life is very precious, and very very short, and that joy and gratitude and wonder, at least some of the time, are pre-requisites for a life well lived and good work well done.

Undoing

Delight and relief this evening at earning my next kick-boxing belt – 5th grade, red-white.

For years I walked past the dojo at the end of my street, filled with unexamined judgements about the obviously aggressive, uncontained people who’d take up such a thoughtless and damaging sport. But over time I began to see how my criticisms arose mostly from a shadow part of myself about which I was in denial – a part that wants to rage, and act forcefully, that wants to express anger rather than hold it back, that does not want to be contained. A part of which I was afraid – both for its destructive power and for its capacity to upset the careful balance of my life so far.

And the more I saw this, the more I saw that kick-boxing could be a practice that would support me in undoing myself or, at least, undoing the very particular calm, held-together, gentle presence I’d cultivated both for public view and for myself. The immediate reaction of most people who are close to me – surprise, shock, and “that’s not like you” – showed me I was on to something. Because in all development, in all that we do to allow life to flow though us with less interruption, there’s quite some undoing to do, quite some getting out of the way.

And so it’s joyful to find myself in the midst of a regular practice that supports me in having the body of someone who can act with vigour, and with speed, and with power. A privilege to be subject to such rigorous standards so that earning a new belt stretches me, confronts me what I’m still struggling with, shows me with some surprise what I can do, and calls me onward. And a wonderful surprise to discover that far from being filled with thoughtlessness, this is a discipline taught by people who embody both great wisdom, and great love.

Perfect world

You want a perfect world.

You want a world in which you no longer have to experience longing or confusion. You want a world in which all your needs get met, all your desires.

You want a world in which you get to be peaceful, undisturbed – in which you don’t have to fight or disagree with others; or in which you know yourself always to be loved; a world in which you achieve unparalleled success and the recognition it affords; or a world in which your uniqueness is understood, treated always with respect and dignity.

You want a world that will teach you, in which you can pursue a topic uninterrupted to its very end; or a world in which you feel no fear, a world in which you can trust. You want a world which will allow you to do just what you want; or a world you can control.

All these wants, these hopes, the pursuit of which can carry you so far – and the pursuit of which can lock you in an unending cycle of desperation, resignation, comparison, cynicism and suspension (for, perhaps, you’ve decided that you cannot really live until you get what you want).

So perhaps as well as wanting to bring about a perfect world, you could also attend just as vigorously to learning how to live in the imperfect, messy, always incomplete world. A world where people won’t always show their love (but in which there is love, just the same). A world in which you will fail, repeatedly and painfully. A world which will not always seem to see you, and which cannot always reassure you. A world which will constrain you, and over which you cannot be in control. In short, a world just like the one in which we all live. And a world which, perhaps, alongside all your efforts to change or get away, you might find the possibility of loving, just as it is.

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2nd Birthday

Whether pride is considered to be a vice or a virtue has changed radically over time. Which it is depends largely on what you contrast it with.

In the middle ages, in Europe at least, the opposite of pride was humility. It was in this sense that it became known as a vice or a sin – an improper inflation of one’s self, a taking up of a position that was reserved only for God.

But in ancient Greece pride was held to be the opposite of shame. Pride, in its proper place, was a way of standing tall in one’s achievements, in appropriately valuing and honouring what it is that you have to bring to the world. Without pride, understood this way, we collapse into shadows of ourselves, holding back a contribution that, perhaps, nobody else will bring.

Today is the second birthday of this project, On Living and Working, and I am proud of what’s here so far. Writing these 655 posts has been illuminating, stretching, sometimes frustrating, and a daily practice of deep, heartfelt joy. And, it turns out, writing is a wonderful way to learn.

From those of you who have written back to me, or who I have met, I also get a sense of the meaning this work has had for others, and of its practical use in the world. I’m enormously grateful to the many hundreds of you read and who share what’s written here with people who are important to you.

It’s an enormous privilege to find that my voice in the world has an audience to whom it matters.

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A five-fold symmetry

You step off the train, in a hurry. So much to do.

Will you get it all done? What will other people think? Will you keep your job? Where will you be in a year, five years? Can you pay the bills? Will you get what you want? When will you get to rest? Will you find fulfilment? Satisfaction? Will you have to keep on pushing, putting in such huge effort? Can you stay in control of it all?

So many things to worry about.

And, as always, the platform meets your foot with exactly the right amount of resistance so that you can stand. Gravity holds you. Generations of human invention and discovery make possible the lighting, the locomotive pull of the train, the sliding doors, the clothes you are wearing. The air composed of just the balance of oxygen and other gases that you can breathe. And the lives of your billions of ancestors in oceans and on land, together with the extraordinary creativity of evolution, give you your eyes, mind, heart, body – the five-fold symmetry of your hands and feet.

All so that this, you, and your life, are possible.

So what if, as well as your fear and worry, you oriented to the day with the sense of wonder invited by this extraordinarily unlikely confluence of circumstances?

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Your glorious ordinariness

There’s a certain harshness in wanting change, transformation, improvement all the time.

Does it arise from feeling ashamed at how things are? At ourselves?

A response to the gnawing of the inner critic – its demand that we do better every day?

Today, can you allow yourself to know your glorious ordinariness? And the wonder of a messy, incomplete, everyday life? To feel the simple weight of the dishes as you wash them? To marvel that you can breathe, move, experience? To gaze into the eyes of your glorious, ordinary loved ones?

There’s much to be said for turning our attention away, some of the time, from what we imagine needs to happen and into the exquisite texture of what is here already.

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Taking wing

Perhaps it’s no surprise that our endless and often invisible self-judgement is quickly projected out into to the world and onto others.

We build family cultures and organisation cultures around our wish to find, and correct, the faults we find in everyone. And we can easily make the central project of our lives comparing people to standards and finding all the ways they (and we) fall short.

So how about a different project?

What if you were to see and show people the possibility inherent in them that they barely know themselves? Not platitudes, not untruths, not clichés, not making-them-feel-better. Instead, the difficult and important work of noticing and naming what is waiting to come into the world through them.

Who could you be if you dedicated yourself to finding the as yet unborn goodness in others – that which is struggling to free itself – and naming it for them so that it can take wing?

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With thanks to both Parker Palmer and
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg for the ideas that inspired this post.

On waking

You wake.

The sky is dark outside, just the faintest glow of dawn lights the edges and crests of the rooftops.

You have been returned to yourself, as you are each morning.

What greater faithfulness and what greater love could life show you than this, the everyday wonder of returning? Or the miracle by which you find yourself aware, feeling, inhabiting your own body once again?

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For its own sake

To be a consumer (as we’re all told we are these days) is to look at the world with ever-judging eyes. Too hot, or too cold, not fast enough, or productive enough, helpful enough, entertaining enough, loving enough, committed enough, or rewarding enough… We come to look at our relationships, our employees, our colleagues, our every experience of life as if framed always by potential disappointment. This is what a consumer, in the end, is – the one who reserves the right to complain or withdraw at any moment.

It only takes a little thought about this to see how inappropriate a consumer orientation is for most of what’s important in life. In friendship, in intimate relationships, in a marriage and in a family being ‘consumer’ reduces us to an endless stream of demands and the thinly disguised threat that if we’re not pleased any more we’ll leave and look for something better. It’s perhaps harder to see that a consumer orientation to the people who work with us (in which they are only ever really ok if delivering to the targets and standards upon which we’ve insisted) is equally limited. The problem in all these cases is that being a consumer means replacing commitment with a demand. We stay in relationship only as long as we feel satisfied, a stand which seriously undermines the very trust upon which all meaningful relationship rests.

Our encounter with just about everything else in the world can be similarly compromised by being a consumer. We stop experiencing the inherent wonders of nature, technology, art and relate not to the thing in itself but to our own momentary like or dislike of what we’re experiencing.

What possibilities we can open when we look at life, and all it brings, with much bigger eyes than this. And what would we discover if we were willing to see beyond our like and dislike, our demand that every experience and every person do something for us, and appreciate each part of our lives – people, objects and all – simply for its own sake?

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Gratitude

We are systematically schooled away from gratitude.

It begins as soon as we start comparing ourselves with each other. We learn to do this at school (there’s always a better grade we should be getting). And, later, our workplaces often draw on our comparisons with others as a way of having us push harder (forced-distribution performance ratings set this up in particular, see here for more on this).

Add to this the deeply ingrained understanding, in the West at least, that human beings are intrinsically broken and not to be trusted, expressed most fully in the work of Augustine (see this post for more). In an increasingly secular society we hardly see how much we’ve internalised this orientation, even as we feel and fear and hide our sense of incompleteness from others.

And we’re subject to an endless wheel of media and marketing that gnaws and needles at our capacity to trust what we have. There’s always something newer, cheaper, more fashionable to own, and a whole set of comparisons which go along with this. How back-to-front is it that the American festival of thanksgiving has – at least in the UK where I’m writing – been expressed entirely as Black Friday, a chance to buy more and fuel our sense of lack? It’s a manipulative reversal of the opening to life that giving thanks is intended to inspire.

Gratitude can be hard to find in all of this. We get caught up in our self-pity and comparison and fear, drawn to everything that is missing, all that somehow was denied to us. We find ourselves in the grip of an enormous misunderstanding that we keep under wraps because we’re afraid of admitting just how afraid it has us become.

But… we have more resources and more freedom than just about anyone before us in human history.

… we live in a period of unprecedented geological stability that greatly increases the otherwise infinitesimally small chances of any of us being here (see Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything for more on this).

… and we are given the gift of a life that we had to do nothing to get, and a body with which to move and express and feel and love and contribute.

Are we really going to keep on fueling our cynicism and despair? Or are we prepared to wake up to just how great are the treasures we are always in the midst of receiving?

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