All that has come before is preparation

If you were parachuted into your life from outside – into your life and body as it is today – you might start to see what’s there through new eyes.

Perhaps you’d be more immediately grateful for the people around you, for the love, support and attention they bring you that you had to do nothing to earn. And perhaps you’d see the difficulties in your life for what they are – difficulties to be worked with, rather than confirmations of your inadequacy.

Enormous possibilities and freedom to act might come from inhabiting this world in which you’re both supported and have problems towards which you can bring the fulness of your mind, body and heart.

Being parachuted into your life might put an end to self-pity, because you’d come to see how the body you inhabit has been training, practicing all these years building skills, strength and an understanding of the life it’s been living and the difficulties it’s been facing. Maybe you’d see that you are precisely the one best equipped to deal with the detail and intricacy of this particular life. And perhaps you’d discover a way to look honestly at your situation and the resolve to deal with it, step by patient step.

Maybe if you were parachuted into your very own life, you’d understand that everything that has happened to you – so far – is not a shameful failure but the exact preparation you need for living today, tomorrow, and for the years to come.

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Ritual and culture

Our rituals give us an opportunity to rehearse a different kind of relationship to ourselves and to others than those in which we ordinarily find ourselves.

This is exactly what we’re doing with the ritual of a formal meeting where we take up assigned positions (chair, participants, etc) and give ourselves new ways of speaking with one another that are distinct from everyday conversation. It’s what we’re up to with the ritual of work appraisal conversations, which are intended to usher in a new kind of frankness and attentiveness than is usually present. It’s in the ritual of the restaurant, where the form and setting gives us, from the moment we enter, a set of understandings, commitments and actions shared with both other diners and with the staff. And it is, of course, present in all religious rituals when performed with due attention, which call us for a moment into a fresh relationship with the universe, or creation, or the rest of the living world.

The more we practice a ritual – especially if it’s one practiced with others – the more we develop the imagination and skilfulness to live in this new relationship in the midst of our ordinary lives.

It is for this reason that among the most powerful ways we have available to shift a culture – in a relationship, in a family, in an organisation – is to imagine and then diligently practice new rituals.

And by naming them as such, by declaring that they are ritual, we can help ourselves step in and be less overcome our inevitable resistance, our anxiety, at trying on new, unfamiliar and much needed ways of being together.

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Reimagining Ritual

We human beings need rituals, and we create them everywhere. We have rituals for getting up in the morning, rituals for brushing our teeth, rituals for making breakfast, rituals for leaving the house, rituals for speaking to our families, rituals for paying the bills. And our organisational life is brimming with them – rituals for checking our emails, and rituals for responding to them; rituals for interviewing, hiring and promotion; rituals for the presentation of documents and proposals; and rituals for meetings.

Each ritual, whether private or public, gives us a stable form for our actions and relationships – a way of navigating without having to reinvent ourselves again and again. But each is far more than just a repetition of particular behaviour. A ritual – with its particular structure and pace, style and mood, and with the specific roles taken up by those engaging in it – brings out and rehearses a kind of relationship with life and with one another. And the more we perform it, the more habitual and familiar that style of relating becomes for us.

This, in itself, can be a fascinating area for study. Who am I being when breakfast is a coffee grabbed on the run from a street vendor on the way to the train? And who would I be if I made time to prepare food for myself with care and attention, and with enough time to eat? Who are we being when we gather in the meeting room, rehearsing the familiar pretence that we’ve read the agenda already and checking for emails under the table? And who would we be if we set our devices and papers aside, looked one another in the eye and talked about something really important until we were done?

We don’t have to continue simply enacting the rituals we’ve inherited in a thoughtless way. We could make a start by understanding that even the existing rituals with which we’re familiar are fertile ground for reimagining – and that there are many interpretations available which could bring us into more truthful, engaged and alive relationships with ourselves and those around us.

We could sometimes take up the ritual of travel from place to place as a way of cultivating wonder at the world. We could reinterpret the rituals of getting up in the morning as a way of bringing out exquisite care for ourselves and those closest to us. We could take on our rituals for spending money as an opportunity for cultivating sacredness rather than running afraid or getting just want we want. And we could even take up the ritual of meetings as an opportunity to build welcome, truth and openness rather than as a way of reminding ourselves who’s in charge, how busy everyone is, and how in control of things we are.

 

What emotions are

Two different interpretations of your emotions:

1. Emotions are just something that happens. They sweep in, and sweep out again. There to be felt, but not to be obsessed over, worried over, analysed. Emotions simply are.

2. Emotions are of the deepest significance. They show you what you care about. They’re the surest route to understanding what matters to you. Far from being an interruption to reason they are a form of intelligent, meaning-laden reasoning, and the heart of what it is to be human.

So often we’re blinded by the particular interpretation of emotions that we cling to.

So perhaps if you find yourself obsessed with what you’re feeling, you might try out living in interpretation 1 for a while.

And if you treat your emotions as a nuisance, a distraction, and better left alone, how about a while treating interpretation 2 as if it’s true?

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My fantasy self

My fantasy self is perfect. He doesn’t cause any trouble. He can get things done in just the time they take, and no less. He never makes a mistake, and he’s always does exactly what other people really need him to do. He’s humble, self-effacing, kind. He can resolve the most intractable of disagreements simply and elegantly, with reasoned, calm speech and attentive listening. Never selfish, always wise, forever reasonable, he’s always perfectly attuned to the needs of others. People want to be with him, to praise him (quietly) for his sacrifices. They want him to rescue them from their difficulties. And he’s above all disdain and criticism. If people criticise him, they must, simply, be wrong.  My fantasy self is easily hurt, but would never show it.

My fantasy self isn’t me. I’m far messier than that. Often disorganised, late, frequently confused. I leave my umbrella on the bus. I love, fiercely and deeply and in complicated ways. I fall deeply into my passions – books, people, music, poetry, ideas. I’m often filled with self-criticism and self-doubt. I can bring deep, profound wisdom when I’m still enough and present enough. I can be as stubborn as hell. Funny. Over-serious. I make terrible mistakes, and beautiful ones. I know how to teach. I can be exquisitely tender and gentle. I rage.

And what suffering, what sorrow, for me and for others around me, when I confuse the two. When I pretend to be my fantasy self. When I live in ongoing comparison with his impossible standards. And when I defend him, fiercely, closing out the ones who love me because they have had the honesty and care to see me not as my fantasy, but as I am.

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Heaven and Earth

Two common errors that rob us of our freedom and our integrity.

The first is imprisoning ourselves with the facts of our lives.

I couldn’t possibly do that… I’m a teacher, a lawyer, a man, too old, shy, not funny, the vice-president of operations, a woman, embarrassed, a parent, unprepared, too important, not qualified, just following orders.

Live only from here, and we’re entirely defined by our history and circumstance, by the identity we’ve taken on or been handed by others. Held back from the freedom to step fully forward, we’re denied the opportunity to speak out, to surprise, and to shape new futures for ourselves and others.

The second error is imprisoning ourselves with what we can imagine.

I don’t have to face my responsibility. It’ll be ok… when I win the lottery; when I get promoted; when I become the next Steve Jobs; because I’m thinking positive thoughts (and the universe will answer me, just you wait).

Live only here, and life is forever suspended, awaiting the miraculous turn of events that will make everything alright. The wider culture we live in encourages this kind of magical thinking with its ceaseless search for novelty, its fixation on the lives of celebrities and millionaires and its obsession with quick-fixes.

To live fully, we need to be in both worlds: feet on the ground, mind in the heavens.

Our unique human capacity to transcend the facts of our situation allows us to imagine infinite possibilities for ourselves and for the people around us. But we abandon our responsibility when we forget that we inhabit the world through our physical bodies, in which we’re always in relationship with others and always in circumstances with very real constraints.

To be fully human is to be connected to both heaven and earth simultaneously: to imagine wild possibilities, and then pursue them with diligence, creativity, persistence, compassion and pragmatism.

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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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Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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The view from here isn’t the only view

The story you tell about this time in your life isn’t the only story. And the vantage point from which you’re looking is not the only vantage point.

Looking forwards, it might seem clear that you’re on the way to a great success, or an inevitable defeat. Maybe it looks like life is all sorted: you’ve arrived and there is not much more for you to do. Or perhaps, from the depths of your confusion, it appears that you’re lost and can never find your way back.

Life is so much bigger than each of us, and so much more mysterious, that any story you have is at best partial. Looking back, what feels now like inevitable defeat may turn out to be a time of building strength: the strength you’ll need to break out of the constraints that have been holding you back. What feels like being crushed by life could be the birth pangs of a new beginning. Maybe the solidity of your success so far turns out to be everything that will be taken from you.

As Cheryl Strayed writes to her despairing younger self in Tiny Beautiful Things, it can turn out that “the useless days will add up to something”, that “these things are your becoming.”

Everything changes. Nothing is ever just what it seems. And though you may feel sure you’ve understood your life, remember that it’s very difficult to see which are the important parts, and quite why they’re important, while you’re still in them.

Photograph by Justin Wise

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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We see what we project

So much of our difficulty with relationships comes because we’re projecting onto others what we won’t see in ourselves.

So you get angry and frustrated with a colleague because she’s tentative and hesitant, without seeing that it’s a cause of anger (rather than compassion or curiosity) precisely because you’re angry at all the ways that you are tentative and hesitant.

Or you get furious with your partner for leaving the kitchen table in a mess, not so much because of the mess but because your inner critic is eating into you for all the ways you struggle to keep things neat and in line.

Or you fall in love with another’s creativity and spontaneity, all the while because he reflects back to you all your own creativity and spontaneity with which you’ve lost touch.

Or you feel afraid of an entire group of people because they remind you of what you’re afraid about in yourself.

Our projections – if they illuminate anything about other people at all – leave so much of their true beauty and complexity shrouded in darkness, so that we’re often relating to what we project rather than to who they are.

None of this is so unusual. But it can be a huge source of difficulty and suffering for us. Because behind our projections is another human being, different from us, confounding, surprising, and worthy of both curiosity and wonder. Behind all our projections is another who we are sure we know, but perhaps barely know at all. And behind all our projections are aspects of ourselves – gifts and suffering – that we’re sure are out there in the world, but are in fact right here if we’ll only turn towards them and look.

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Necessary, essential, vital

Necessary, essential, vital – three words that we use interchangeably, but which have quite distinct meanings.

The necessary in a situation is the barest form of what’s needed, what we cannot do without. When we attend to what’s necessary we make sure that what we rely upon keeps going, that it does not fall apart.

What’s essential is to do with the essence of things – what is most true and particular to the situation at hand. There are many different ways of attending to what’s necessary, but attending to what’s essential in a situation calls on us bring exquisite sensitivity and a willingness to look and feel behind surface appearances. The essential requires saying no to many things in order to respond with beauty and precision to just what’s called for now and here.

And what’s vital is to do with what has vitality, that which is life giving – not what’s merely necessary, nor even what’s only essential, but what will breathe life into ourselves, into others, and into the matter at hand.

Too often, by conflating these different meanings, we do our work (or live our lives) in a flat way – busily or dutifully doing what is necessary and no more. But how much that is artful, beautiful, dignified, life-giving and joyful we could bring about if we were to pay equal attention to the essence of things and the life of things – the essential and the vital – and to the essence and life of the people around us too.

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Subjective, Objective

René Descartes’ method gave us a way to find truth by making a clear distinction between subjectivity and objectivity.

Subjectivity, the particular way of looking at the world that is unique to each of us, is to be roundly distrusted because of the way it distorts understanding: introducing errors of judgement, errors of perspective, and the errors that come from being confused by our emotions, bodily sensations, commitments and desires.

Objectivity, the way of looking at the world that comes from dispassionately observing and measuring the properties of things, can be trusted – as long as careful observations are made and conclusions formed by the step-by-step application of tried and tested methods of reason and logic.

By restricting what we take to be true to that which can be found in the objective and logical realm, Descartes gave us a powerful way of establishing truths that had previously eluded us. No longer did we have to believe that flames go upwards because it is of the essential nature of fire to rise above other kinds of matter, and no longer did we have to believe that the sun and stars went around the earth because it is the essential nature of human beings to be the centre of things. We could observe, and test, and reason and conclude, establishing cause and effect relationships free from superstition and free from prejudice.

It was a world-changing shift of perspective that moved reason to the centre after centuries during which it had been in the margins. At the same time, it established mathematics and physics as the central sciences. Mathematics took up a particular specialness because of its power to explain and predict without recourse to any subjectivity or, indeed, any need to rely even upon the physical, objective world in order to do its work.

It’s hard for those of us who have grown up in the world ushered in by Descartes and his enlightenment contemporaries to see what a radical change this was, so schooled have we been in its assumptions and its way of looking at things. But we can see it in the way we go about science and proof, in the way we look for particular kinds of facts or measurements before we’ll take something as true, in the way we make ‘objective’ more important or valid than ‘subjective’, and in the explosion of science and technology in our era. There’s no doubt that our world would be radically different, and in so many ways vastly impoverished, without our having taken up reason as the central project of the last few hundred years.

But I think it’s worth asking questions about where we have taken Descartes’ project too far. We routinely rely on it to produce truth in fields where its methods and its insistence on discarding the subjective lead us to look in a narrow way and can direct us into all kinds of confusion. How we educate our children and ourselves, and about what, working together in organisations, pursuing what’s meaningful rather than what’s simply useful, being in relationship, loving others, community, art – each of these are among the fields where the subjective, where our experience of things, is central, and no recourse to a subjectivity-free objectivity can hope to show us much. And reason, while vital in establishing truth (I would not want to do without it!) cannot help us alone with two other important human projects – beauty and goodness – both of which are vital if we are to have flourishing and ethical institutions, politics, education and organisations.

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

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

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

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

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

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

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

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

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

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

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

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories to live up to, to live in to, to let go to

As 2016 begins, two kinds of stories are on my mind.

Stories I try to live up to. And stories that I might start allowing myself to live into.

The live up to stories are the ones that keep going because they’re how I’m known by others, or because they’re a familiar way for me to know myself, or because they boost my self esteem. Some of them I created. Some of them were handed to me in the ongoing dance of relating to one another that is a given of human life.

Among the live up to stories: being the thoughtful (or deep thinking) one, the mysterious one, the one who has more important things to do than pay close attention to time, the intelligent one, the diligent one, the sensitive one, the one who cares, the one who knows about things.

It’s not that these stories are false. But when I take them up because they’re familiar, or because I think they’re expected, they easily become something of an act – a way of acting like someone who is like the way I’m known to myself and others. They become a proxy, a cover story. They reflect and refract much that is true, but they’re not me, myself. They’re neither who nor what I am.

Trying to live up to familiar stories is quite different to opening myself so that I can live into new stories – stories that might breathe life and possibility into the world.

And this is quite different again from letting go of how I know myself so that unfamiliar stories – stories I can barely imagine – can begin their work of living themselves into me.

Question 1 – If you had a minute?

Question 1 of 2.

I know, you’re stuck on a crowded bus, in a boring meeting, in a traffic jam, washing the dishes, doing your expenses, waiting for the cashier.

I know, from here, life seems pretty boring, mundane, lifeless even. I know, it seems like what matters is happening somewhere, to other people right now.

I know how often I am caught in seeing life that way.

But perhaps that’s mostly because we imagine, or at least feel like, we’re going to live forever.

But if you were dead, if you were no longer around, if you were offered just one minute more of life, and it had to be this moment in the queue, in the bus, in the meeting, with the dishes, would you take it?

I’m sure I would.

Then you might see this humdrum moment for the absolute wonder that it is – filled with enormous possibilities for curiosity, discovery, and purposeful action. Or for just looking in amazement. 

And if your answer was yes, is there any chance you might start seeing things this way, at least occasionally, in the life you already have?

With thanks to David Pearl, who brought up this question today as a way of explaining the origins of the Street Wisdom project. Thanks to their work I spent the afternoon walking the streets of central London, seeing them – and myself – through new eyes. More on this to follow.

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What’s in the news

What is ‘the news’ anyway?

Is ‘the news’ just that account of events in the world that we see on TV or read on the web?

What about the way a young woman tucked her children into bed last night with such grace and kindness? The volunteers from churches, synagogues and mosques who this week provided warmth, food and overnight shelter to people otherwise sleeping on London’s streets? The reconciliation between brother and sister, long separated and estranged, with hugs and tears? The words of guidance and wisdom shared between teacher and student that bring a new possibility into view? The volunteers who planted life-giving trees on a dry hillside providing shelter not for themselves but for the generations who will come after them? The music composed, books written, scientific discoveries made, art created? The acts of great compassion, kindness, and dignity that happen in ordinary lives, day by day.

When we think of ‘the world’ as if it’s the same as the highly selective narrative of events we see on ‘the news’ it’s no wonder our fear and isolation are what we mostly get to feel. And no wonder that we feel our hearts hardening, our despair growing, and our deepening sense that nothing can be done.

But while the many shocking, frightening, disturbing events that are in the news do happen, and require our response, what’s ‘new’ in the world each day is not just that. It is barely that.

And remembering this might help us respond with our own dignity, kindness, compassion and love right when the world most seems to need it from us.

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Looking up

hampsteadroof

Years ago, a good friend taught me to look up more as I walked the streets of London.

There is exquisite and fascinating architecture hidden, in plain view, above us.

I remember how important it was to discover that I look at my own city in a very particular, habitual way that hides surprising and important features of the world. And if it’s true for the way I look at a city, it’s equally true of the way I look at people, including myself, and at life.

There’s so much that I miss, and so much I choose not to see. And when I’m bored, or stuck, or frustrated, or desperate, or exasperated with people, the surprising, exhilarating, troubling, mysterious features of the world that could liberate and illuminate are invisible to me.

Not because they’re not there, but simply because I’m not looking.

 

Stories about Money

Money is rarely just money to us. Beyond being a means of exchange of goods or services, it’s also wrapped up with meaning – written through with stories and symbolism, emotions, hopes, dreams, possibilities and, often, fears.

And the story about money within which each of us lives profoundly shapes our lives, given that it is an inescapable feature of the way human culture has developed.

A few thoughts about what money can be:

  • A way of trying to stay safe. If I have enough money, I won’t have any worries any more. Of course, like so many money narratives, there is truth here – a certain amount of money is required to stave off hunger, or to provide a clean, warm, place to live. But how much money is required for safety? Once I’ve taken care of food and shelter, how much is needed to keep me safe from illness, loneliness, absence of meaning, risk of accident, death? Is there ever an amount at which the feeling of the essential, existential riskiness of life is soothed? Can I ever, actually, be safe?
  • A source of fear and shame – in which having it is greedy, but not having it is terrifying. In this narrative any move with money is fraught with difficulty, because both accumulating and spending are highly charged activities.
  • A way of accessing experiences and opportunities – education, travel, the arts, places to live. There’s no doubt that money can provide entry to many of these, and the absence of money can keep some experiences well out of reach.
  • A way of having a certain kind of power in the world – to buy or demand the attention of others, to convince, cajole, reward, threaten or influence others for whom money is an issue.
  • A way to bolster self-esteem, or to look good to others. When I have enough money, people will respect me, or love me, or look up to me. When I have enough money I’ll respect myself. A big question in this narrative – how much does it take? And how to deal with comparison – the inevitability that how ever much money I have, there will always be others who have more?
  • Like a stream of water flowing in and out and through – in which my responsibility, and opportunity, is not so much to be the one who determines what flows in, but rather the one who determines where to point the flow. What will the stream water today, this week, this year, over a lifetime? Will it collect in a pool, a reservoir, a lake? Will it water just myself, those close to me, or others further away, perhaps even very far away indeed?
  • A replacement for belonging, rootedness, home – with money comes the power to liquify what is solid, and to move it elsewhere.

There are of course, so many more stories about money in which we can live – stories that are handed to us by our families, and by our culture. And it’s from the narrative in which we live and act that we assess what is of value, what things cost, what is worth spending on, how much to accumulate, what kind of work we should do and not do, when to stop, when to forge on, how much to trust the world, how afraid to be, what kind of person we can be, how safe we feel, and whether we can rest.

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With thanks to Hilary K. who suggested this topic to me some months ago.

Projects for the imagination

Here are some projects to which it’s possible to turn your innate capacity for imagination.

All of these are meanings already given to us: handed to us by our families and culture, and made up – constructed – by other human beings.

Which means you, and I, and all of us, have as much possibility to imagine and declare new meanings and stories for each of these as anyone who has yet lived so far.

Close in

  1. Who am I – beyond or different to the roles and stories I’ve already taken up?
  2. Who might I be?
  3. What a feeling – bodily or emotional – means (ever noticed that feelings stir up familiar, habitual stories about what’s happening? Perhaps other stories would be more appropriate, life giving, possibility-filled).
  4. What’s possible for me to do?

A little further out

  1. What’s going on in the relationships I’m in (that might be different from the way I’ve imagined it so far)?
  2. Who are others – beyond the roles and stories I have about them?
  3. Who might others be?

Even bigger

  1. What is the organisation in which I work (a machine, a living organism, a pulsing-fluxing-pattern of conversations, a means to make money, a means to make meaning, a way of building community, a way of bringing about contribution)?
  2. What is work for?
  3. What’s the nature of the world I live in (a battleground, a competition to reach the top, a flourishing field of life, a flat dull expanse, a source of continuous disappointment and boredom, an endless wonder)?
  4. What is life?
  5. And what is life, itself, for?

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Holding on, letting go

How long do you hold on to the hurt you feel when criticised, or judged, or when you don’t feel seen?

I know that I, first and most habitually, can interpret slights and hurts as a sign of the unravelling of a relationship, the beginning of the end. And so perhaps it’s little wonder that I have over time developed the kind of body and mind that easily holds onto them, feeling ‘the end’ again and again when I meet the people (usually those I love most) around whom I got hurt in the first place.

It was a revelation to discover that the world simply isn’t this way for everyone else. That there are people, close in, who care for me deeply and who have moved on within hours – and quite often within minutes – from the original intensity of encounter. For them, fierceness is just fierceness, disappointment just disappointment, anger just anger, gone when it’s gone and certainly not the end.

And so I’m learning, gradually, to pay better attention to what’s actually happening now and over time in a relationship rather than taking as true the story that my body and emotions – conditioned by years of practice and habit – hold on to.

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Chapter titles

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“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.”

— Dante, The Inferno

We often don’t know which chapter or season of life we’re living in while we’re living in it. And yet we give it a name, or a title – perhaps silently – all the same.

Every name disposes us to particular kinds of judgements, and particular kinds of action.

And so much of our difficulty, and our suffering, comes from mis-naming.

We imagine that this chapter is called ‘failure (meant to have made it by now)’ when it would be more accurate, more compassionate, and more possibility-filled to name it ‘still learning’.

We call this chapter ‘stuck’ when it would be more accurate to name it ‘seeds germinating, deep under ground’.

Or we name this chapter ‘lost my way’ when it would be more accurate to call it ‘first steps on a new path’.

Often we can only accurately name a chapter after it is done.

But perhaps we would give ourselves much greater capacity to live, and to flourish, if we took up the practice of reimagining, and renaming, as we go.

With thanks to Jamie, who gave me the idea for this in a recent conversation.

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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What to pay attention to

I wrote yesterday about the inevitability that what we are doing in our lives (and hence in every activity, relationship, project) is joining the dots, stringing together the phenomena we experience into coherent narratives and explanations. In other words, we are always interpreting – and which interpretations we choose (or which choose us) is of enormous significance.

Of equal significance in this is our choice of phenomena to pay attention to. What we notice, and what we take to be meaningful, is a matter of both choice and practice. Choice – because an infinity of phenomena reach us and we pay attention only to some. Practice – because the way we pay attention (which includes what we pay attention to) is both a matter of habit (we most easily pay attention to what is familiar to us) and skilfulness (our capacity to discern and discriminate between different phenomena is something that can be learned, and cultivated over time).

The current cultural background of scientific materialism in which most of us are deeply schooled without our knowing it does not help us well in developing life-giving interpretations from which to live life, nor in learning to pay attention to what might be meaningful to us. This is not through any fault in science, itself a powerful and rigorous method for discerning deep and fundamental patterns and truths about the material universe. But looking at our lives only this way has us pay attention only to certain kinds of experience. We look only at what can be reasoned about, logically and in a detached way. We treat as true only that which can be proved, measured, quantified.

Scientific materialism, in its deep commitment to understanding the material world (and in understanding the world only as material) has little scope for understanding what’s meaningful to people, what makes our hearts sing, how we are moved by encountering or making art, what it is to love and be loved, what it is to care about life, the world, others. Or, more accurately, when it does have something to say about these topics it can only say that love is a particular firing of neurons in the brain, or an evolutionary adaptation to make it more likely that we reproduce; or that art is simply an adaptation that allows us to build social status, or that our appreciation of it comes because of the transmission of pleasure signalling chemicals to reward centres of the brain. And while all of these might well have a kind of rigorous truth about them when looked at from a materialist perspective, they tell us nothing about the meaningful experience of being human – what it is to love, or be loved, to create art, or be moved by it, to open to the mysterious and endless wonder of finding ourselves alive, or to be a whole world – as each of us are – of relationships, language, meanings, longing, desire, sadness, grief, joy, hope and commitment.

When we treat ourselves or others as mere material objects and truth as only scientific truth – as we are encouraged to do in so many of our systems in organisations, education and government – we miss out on deeper interpretations that take into account that we are subjects too, living beings who act upon the world through our ability to care and make sense, and who possess an exquisite and precious consciousness and capacity for self- and other-awareness. Precious indeed, because as far as we can tell, compared to the abundance of matter in the universe, life is rare enough. And among all the life we know about, as far as we can tell, consciousness and self-awareness (the capacity to say ‘I’ and reflect on ourselves) even rarer.

Alongside our scientific materialism, we could support our understanding and care about being human by paying attention also to the insights of those cultures and peoples who came before us, many of which we have thrown out in our elevation of reason over wisdom. In treating only reason as valid, we’ve discarded ways of encountering truth that can include beauty, meaning and goodness alongside what can be logically proved to be true. Myth, art, poetry, music, legend and spiritual practices that bind us into communities of meaning and action are all worth studying and taking seriously here. They can teach us to pay attention not only to the deep insights of our logical minds but also to the wisdom of our hearts and bodies, and to our first-hand lived experience of being human among other human beings.

Which brings me back to the ‘dots’ we pay attention to – the phenomena we treat as meaningful in our lives. What we experience does not come labelled for us as important, or not, significant or not. We have to decide what’s worth noticing, and practice living lives in which we make matter what can matter. And it’s incumbent upon us to do this, by paying a deeper kind of attention to our lives and our experience, and to what we choose to care about.

Joining the dots

We’re all joining the dots… connecting up what we observe and experience of our lives in ways that are coherent to us. And we each have preferred ways of doing so – habits of heart, mind and understanding that have the world show up the way it does for us.

I’ve noticed recently, for example, how familiar it is for to me to connect up other people’s action (or non-action) with a story of their current or impending withdrawal. I’ve done something wrong, I imagine, that they know about and disapprove of and of which I am hardly aware. A call not returned, a terse email, a silence, apparent distance during a social encounter – all of these are the dots I’m paying attention to in this way of making sense of the world. And the joining that I do has me be the outsider, the one who has to work and prove and be kind to get back in, the one who ought to feel ashamed of myself.

It’s a habit, this way of making sense, almost certainly born in my early years and practiced repeatedly since then. And, as I keep on finding out, not only is it just one way of joining up the phenomena I experience, it’s often far from accurate and rarely life giving to me or others. Moreover, when I fall into this habitual way of making sense I tend to pay attention to only some of the ‘dots’. Other phenomena – such as the enormous love and affection that comes my way, the contribution I’m making, or simple gratitude for being in the presence of others without my having to do anything – receive much less attention than they deserve.

I’m having to learn again how to join up the dots in a way that lets me see and feel the enormous love and support there is around me.

How you join the dots – how you interpret what happens – matters. As does the choice of which dots to notice. And each depends upon, and shapes, the other.

When you start to see that you are not experiencing life as it is but as an act of dot-joining, you can start to ask yourself some important questions about relationships, work, and about life itself.

It turns out that for any set of ‘facts’ (which is what we usually call the phenomena we’re choosing to observe) there are an infinity of interpretations, not all of them equal, and some filled with much greater possibility or much greater suffering than others.

And it also turns out that there are an infinity of ‘facts’, many of which are supremely significant in a life well-lived or in work well-done, that your current interpretation may be blinding you to.

So how you join the dots of your life is a significant question, as is the choice of dots you ignore as you do so. It can be difficult to see what you’re doing here without patient observation, because our habits of interpreting are most transparent to us – forming the usually hidden background to our lives and relationships. But the quality and possibility of your life, and all that you undertake, may hinge on your answer to this most invisible and most important of questions.

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On other people, and on ourselves

One of the most necessary liberations comes when you discover that what other people think of you is not the same as who you are. When you can stop identifying yourself with the stories and assessments of others, you can also free yourself from the constant inner pressure to appear as you think people want you to.

But once you know this, you have to understand that other people are not the same as your stories or assessments either. That means that whatever you think you know about them can only ever be partial, one angle on a situation way more complex than you’ve allowed for.

It means you’re going to have to learn to be way more imaginative and listen much more deeply, if you’re ever going to understand what’s going on when others are involved.

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Meaning and Mattering

Does it strike you how small an orientation to work, and to life, it is to focus only on efficiency or performance?

And how small an orientation to engaging with the world it is to demand knowledge rather than cultivate wisdom or discernment?

We are so convinced by our rush to produce, to measure, to attain and to know that we give little space to two deeply important human disciplines – the capacity to wonder and the capacity to be patient.

And the more convinced we are, the more we turn our organisations and ourselves away from an encounter with what could both be meaningful, and what could matter.

And it’s a tragedy, because meaning and mattering are two of the foundational requirements of a human life well lived.

Declaring Meaning

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

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

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

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

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