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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Remembering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The time it takes

In recent days I have been studying my relationship with time, and how much trouble it can bring me. Most often there is not enough time. And I become sure of this as I become sure of all the poor choices I have made, all the hours I have wasted.

Sometimes, if I’ll quiet myself and look afresh, I’ll see the questionable construct upon which all this stands. It starts with “there’s something wrong” and includes “there’s something wrong with me“. It assumes that time is inevitably in short supply – that whatever I have done can never be enough. It assumes that enough is not, in fact, possible. And that I must use whatever time I have left in an impossible game of catch up, an attempt to atone for my mistakes, to redeem uncountable time already squandered.

But what if it is the case that things just take the time they take? That trees take the time they take to grow? That the sun takes the time it takes to rise? That it takes the time it takes for human beings to live?

What if we were to live lives in which we learned to trust in time, to befriend it, rather than run from it as if it were an enemy, or something to be grabbed at with desperate hands? What if we learned to savour time, like we might a good wine?

And what if sometimes we trusted that we, and the work of our hands when attended to with diligence, attention and care, grow at a pace that is quite natural and not ours to control?

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A narrow bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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On Frustration

Frustration: a yearning for something that seems always just out of reach. It’s one part desire, and another part despair.

Intense, maddening, and in turns deflating, frustration brings the object of your desire to the centre of your attention. It shapes thoughts, tightens body. It has you thrash and complain. And it narrows your focus so that while it’s in full swing, the rest of life is registered only dimly.

Most surprising about frustration is its capacity to have you destroy the very thing you want so much:

The relationship in which you’re longing for respect and trust, undone by your judgments, accusations and harsh words.

The project you want to bring to the world derailed by your insistence and unreasonableness.

The art you’re creating undone by distraction and procrastination.

… which might not be as illogical as it sounds, at least at the moment of action, when destruction looks preferable to the despair of continual failure.

But, like all moods, frustration is an angle on the world, not the world itself. It conceals much, even as it reveals powerfully what you care about.

If you’re able to tell that you’re in it, you may be able to open yourself to the insight that it brings, and also to its narrowness. And from there, the possibility of seeing things from a wider perspective arises – the perspective that other moods such as gratitude, kindness, simple anger or hope could bring to the self-same situation.

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Missing

Aside from our projections (the aspects of ourselves we see in others when they are actually present in ourselves) we also miss the truth about other people when we hold on too tightly to our memories of them.

We so readily fill in the gaps in our experience with that we think we already know. But our stories are necessarily incomplete, and our memories are in many ways unreliable. And, added to that, people keep on changing, so that our certainty about others quickly becomes a way to have them be familiar to us rather than a way of meeting them. Often even a well-worn difficulty feels more inviting than the uncertainty and openness of not knowing.

And it may even be the case that the child, the friend, or the partner you said goodbye to this morning is not the same as the person who is walking back in through the door this evening.

Responding to this is not at all easy. We’d rather hang on to our stories than take the risk of being surprised, with all that could bring. It takes courage to set all that aside. But learning to see people more accurately (and with more kindness) might be our best source of hope for healing our relationships and finding the goodness in ourselves and others that we so urgently need.

With thanks to Jason for our recent conversation that brought this into view.

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Better off knowing this

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

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

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

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

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Frontiers. 3 years.

On Living and Working is 3 years old today.

Although the boundary between the end of year three and the start of year four is in some ways entirely arbitrary, it reminds me that we always find ourselves standing at a frontier of some sort. Whether we call it an anniversary, or a birthday, or just ‘today’, we’re deep in a conversation between what has come before and what comes next, between the known and the unknown. It’s what it is to be human.

At any frontier we have a profound choice, as Ursula K. Le Guin points out in her wonderful book of essays The Wave in the Mind. We can try to colonise the far side of the frontier with what’s known to us, imposing our already familiar way of being in the world onto it, forcing it to take on our own shape. Or we can be softer, more curious, allowing ourselves to be informed by the unknown, shaped by it, letting it be our teacher.

The colonising path seems so necessary and holds out the promise of freeing us from our fear. But it most often prolongs our anxiety, as it can never bring us what we ask of it. After a while it leaves us hardened and narrowed because it can only be achieved by shielding ourselves progressively from life’s influence, by insisting more and more that we have life our way and on our terms. At some point we find out that we can only appropriate the future in this way by doing violence to ourselves and others, as colonisers the world over have done to the cultures they destroyed or bent to their will.

The other path invites us to become students of the far side of the frontier, apprentices to its mystery. If we’ll allow the unknown to reach us, if we’ll inhabit our uncertainty and anxiety without running, if we’ll allow our love and our difficulty, our wonder and our confusion to touch us, and if we’ll let ourselves be porous and available to the events of our lives, we can start to find out that we are inevitably of life. And who knows what possibilities for a compassionate, wise participation in all of it that might bring?

In this liminal space between three years and four, between now and next, I can see that the second path is the necessary path. That it takes a lot of letting go of things held very tightly. A great deal of courage. And much, much kindness.

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In the hours to come

In the hours and days to come may you know yourself as the sun, and the moon.
May you know yourself as shining star-light.

May you know yourself as the softness of earth
and as the strength of tall cedars.

May you know yourself always, inescapably, as loved.

And may you know yourself as the deep, entwined roots of vast forests
and as the waves of the sea.

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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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Two sides

In the ancient Jewish tradition, people are thought of as having two primary orientations to the world – an inclination towards good (yetzer hatov) and an inclination towards evil (yetzer harah).

The inclination towards good draws us out of ourselves towards what is most compassionate and most principled. And the inclination towards evil draws us towards our most self-centred interests, from which we care only for ourselves and not for others or the world.

Surely, in this way of thinking, the inclination towards good is itself good and should be cultivated, and the inclination towards evil is bad and should be extinguished? No, say the rabbis, they are both good, and both necessary.

How can this be?

With only the inclination to good we risk spending all our time basking in the wonder and awe of life. Many possibilities for action are denied to us, because they cannot beknown to have positive outcomes. The inclination to good, on its own, is noble but paralysed, unable to decide what to do when uncertain about consequences, when the world in all its complexity and unknowability becomes apparent.

And so we need the inclination to evil also. Given free rein, it dooms us to a life of self-centredness, of action purely for our own gain. But without it, say the rabbis, nobody would create anything. We would not build houses, bring children into the world, nor do the difficult and creative work of shaping the world around us. The inclination to evil, with its indignation and rage and cunning and huge creativity is what brings us into purposeful action.

Denying either side leads to trouble. It takes both inclinations in a constant dynamic tension to have us act in the most human, and most humane ways.

And this is the foundational task facing each of us if we want to act with integrity in the world: we must find a way of knowing ourselves fully so that we leave nothing of ourselves out. We have to stop denying and pushing away the parts of ourselves that we don’t understand, or don’t like so much. We have to take our fear and confusion as seriously as our hope and our joy. We have to stop pretending to have it all together.

Integrity is exactly that – integrating all of it. When we bring our hope and our fear, our nobility and selfishness, our love and our disdain, our serious adulthood and playful childishness, our light and our darkness, each informs and shapes the other in a constant dance of opposites. And this is what brings us into creative and purposeful and appropriate action in the complexity of the world.

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The non-obviousness of what’s obvious to us

When I feel ashamed, particularly by something someone else has said, my body quickly steps in to defend me. I tighten up, contract, shut down, back off, go silent, get out of the way. It protects me from the feeling of being wounded, but it makes staying in conversation and in relationship quite difficult.

Other people I know, in exactly the same circumstances, have bodies that have them rage, or puff up, or cry.  And some step in, opening, softening, allowing themselves to feel and be vulnerable, coming into closer contact and into questions and curiosity about the other person.

Knowing this reminds me that what seems so obvious and familiar in my body, because it’s been practiced for decades now, is not the only path. Seeing how other people are able to respond shows me that there many different responses to shame, many different stories about it to live. And not all of them involve freezing, or running.

And all of this is a source of hope for me, because I see that with diligence, and practice, and kindness, and some measure of courage – but mostly with practice – I, too, can find a way to stay in contact with feelings I really don’t like to feel. And, as a consequence, to be more open when I’m shaky, to be more present when I’m suffering, to maintain integrity even when I want to give in, and to be curious even when I want, most urgently, to get away.

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Returning to myself

Here’s what I’m learning this week:

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

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

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

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

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Knowing yourself

And so any of us who leads, or wishes to lead others, could do well to study ourselves closely through taking up (1) some kind of mindfulness meditation practice which brings us into repeated and sustained contact with our inner world, and (2) through taking up a reflective journalling or writing practice.

It’s simple, really. Until we start to know ourselves we’re mostly on automatic pilot, hardly a way to powerfully and responsively bring ourselves to what matters.

To be clear about what I am saying here: developing self-knowledge is really very different from using mindfulness or reflective practices as a way of tuning out, numbing ourselves, staying calm, trying to have a transcendent experience, or training ourselves to put up with the status quo without complaining too much – all of which seem to be fuelling the current hype around mindfulness at work.

Getting to know ourselves well is not easy to do, mostly because when we stop our busyness we quickly come into contact with our own inner turmoil which we’d rather get away from. But it’s necessary if we are to know our reactions and responses well enough to have them rather than be had by them.

And we also need to do this because it’s only by knowing the contours of our own inner worlds that we can get a glimpse of what others’ inner worlds are like. Until then, we just see others’ behaviour without any real idea of what they might be experiencing. In this way developing self-knowledge builds the foundations for the compassion and deep understanding that any of us need in order to work well with, cooperate with, take care of, and stay in productive and creative relationship with other people.

Rembrandt, luminosity, and the contribution of our gifts

Today, a visit to the Rembrandt exhibition at London’s National Gallery – a shimmering introduction to the work of a man who so clearly loved human beings and was deeply interested in understanding human life, emotion, and meaning in all their shades of light and dark, joy and suffering.

Such love for the world is much needed and yet, I think, for most of us very difficult to cultivate. Cynicism, judgement, resignation and despair about others (and about ourselves) are far easier for us to maintain. They are safer moods, less questioning, and with far less of a call on us to be open, vulnerable and affected by life than that called upon by love.

Walking from room to room, it was impossible to escape the sense that exploring and expressing this love and wonder was the point of Rembrandt’s life. Even in the midst of repeated personal tragedy, financial ruin, the ridicule of his peers and critics and his long fall from fame – even in the midst of all this, he never stopped painting.

The room with his very last works, completed very shortly before his death and when his personal life had fallen apart, was the most luminous and transcendent and generous of them all. A powerful reminder of what it is to dedicate life to the whole-hearted contribution of our gifts. And how different from a life in which all our effort is expended trying to have things work out for us just the way we want them to.

Image: Self-portrait with two circles, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What ought to be

“It’s different. It’s not like it used to be.”

or

“She’s different. She’s not like she used to be.”

Perhaps so.

When you’re so sure that the world, groups you’re part of or people changed in ways you don’t like (or find difficult to make sense of) it’s tempting to want to fix them, to pus them back into a form that’s familiar. This is the way of complaint, of resentment, of dissatisfaction, of judgement.

And it locates all the responsibility far away from you.

But maybe what’s happened is you’re not like you used to be.

If you were prepared to entertain the possibility that you’re the one who’s different now – that you’ve developed or grown or shifted in some way, or maybe that you’ve momentarily lost touch with something that used to be important to you – what would it open up to you?

Maybe a new kind of curiosity. Perhaps a new kind of acceptance. And maybe some new ways of engaging with what is rather than an outdated idea of what ought to be.

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Back to front

When you find yourself in genuine difficulty, which path you do choose?

The path of self-harshness? This is the way of criticism, loathing, comparison. And the way of pushing harder and harder.

Self-harshness, so familiar to so many of us that we don’t even see that it is what we are doing, has the surprising effect of increasing harshness everywhere in our lives.

Or the path of self-kindness? This is the way of taking exquisite care of yourself, asking for what you need, stepping into the deep bonds of support that are so often available to us, turning the loving attention of your own heart towards yourself in the midst of your difficulty.

Self-kindness, so unfamiliar to so many of us that we do not even consider it an option, has the surprising effect of making kindness possible towards many others, even in the darkest, most frightening, most disorientating of times.

Most of us are confused about this. We equate self-harshness with righteousness (perhaps we think we’ll redeem ourselves if we add to our suffering) and self-kindness with a moral softness (perhaps because we’re so convinced we’re broken and at fault already that kindness would be an act of irresponsibility).

But the more I look at the results of my own self-harshness, and that of others, the more convinced I am that we’ve got it all, precisely, back to front.

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Taking responsibility for our stories

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

and given that we live totally, inescapably in the stories we tell;

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

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

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

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Ripples

Can you shift your orientation in life from what would be good for you to what would be good for the generation who’ll come after you, and the generation after that?

It’s not an easy question to address.

For a start, you own immediate needs are always right before you. And then there is the matter of your own likes and dislikes, the preferences you’ve built up over time which quietly influence your decisions, with you perhaps hardly noticing. And there’s the matter of prediction – you might hardly be able to tell how your actions are going to turn out in your own life over the next week or two let alone across decades.

So it’s far from a trivial matter to respond to a multi-generational responsibility towards your life or in your work.

But I think there are places you can start, and one of them is tracking the effect you have on the people around you who will, of course, go on to affect others. It’s one of the ways our own contribution, of whatever sort, ripples out across time.

Some questions you could take up in exploring this topic:

What kind of interactions did you have with each person you met – your colleagues, your customers, your friends, your family – today?

Did your speech, and how you made contact, have you and the other person feel more or less human? More or less dignified? More or less resourceful? More or less grateful? More or less generous? More or less alive?

How do you think the way you’ve left them will have them affect others they meet – straight after you, or later, when they go home?

Are you a force for dignity or diminishment in your interactions?

For the cultivation of life, or a chain of tiny deaths?

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A monster calls

“I didn’t mean it,” Conor said.
You did, the monster said, but you also did not.

Humans are complicated beasts, the monster said. How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can a person be wrong-thinking but good thinking? … The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day … Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for both.

From ‘A Monster Calls’, by Patrick Ness, a short, haunting, beautiful tale about human complexity and longing that’s far bigger in scope and reach than its ‘children’s fiction’ label might suggest.

It’s a story about love, and our longing and fear of being seen for who we are. And it’s about the innumerable ways we’ll twist ourselves out of shape in order to avoid saying what’s most true, because we’re scared of being judged, and ashamed at our own contradictions. And what might be possible when we nevertheless summon the necessary kindness and courage to speak.

And a hymn, to those moments in life when a fearsome choice is to be made between turning away from truth, or turning towards it – which are also moments where we choose between turning away from or towards ourselves, and the people around us.

It reminded me how often we prefer the illusory security of holding back, even at great consequence to our lives, rather than the vulnerability of speaking up.

And just how much of our lives, and how many of our institutions, can be elaborate constructions for distancing ourselves, right when we most need – and most fear – turning towards one another.

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Heaven and Hell

In the The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales written by my friend Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is “Heaven and Hell”, a gorgeous story for children and adults about how our interpretations and practices are constantly shaping the world around us.

In the story, an elderly woman named Ariella is given a tour of each of two possible after-lives. Hell, to her surprise, is an elegant palace nestling in beautiful gardens. Tables are set with delicious food and everyone is gathered for a feast. But as Ariella looks closely she sees that they are all frail, desperate, and starving. Their arms are held straight by long splints and because of this they are unable to bend their elbows to bring food to their mouths.

Hell is a beautiful paradise filled with longing, sadness, meanness and misery.

Isn’t much of the world this way?

Heaven, even more surprisingly, looks exactly the same. Same palace, same food, same splints. But here everyone is well fed, and happy. The difference? The residents of heaven know about kindness, and have learned to feed one another. The very same physical situation with a change in narrative and different practices brings forth a radically different world.

It’s so easy for us to imagine that the world we inhabit is fixed, solid. We come to believe that we are a certain way, and the world is a certain way too. But it’s more accurate to say that we’re always making the world together through our interpretations and actions – what’s ‘real’ about the human world is much more fluid than at first it might seem.

And of course the worlds we bring into being in turn change us. The narcissistic, individualistic, cynical world brought about by the residents of hell keeps their meanness and their resentment going, and their starvation. And the world brought about by the residents of heaven amplifies their kindness.

When we head off the possibility of change by claiming the world is, simply, “the way it is”, or when we say “but in the real world this could never happen”, we need to understand that we are active participants in having the world stay fixed in its current configuration. The world is never only the way it appears. And that ought to be a reason for great hope for our families, organisations and society. And a call for our vigorous action on behalf of an improved future for all of us.

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Wounding others

We all have those moments when, perhaps even before we’ve thought about it, we’ve wounded others – with a well-chosen barb, a dose of sarcastic humour, by locking them out or turning away, by yelling or insulting, by shaming.

Perhaps it happens for you often.

Maybe it’s worth checking what the source of this is.

So often we’re wounding other people because we just got wounded ourselves, sometimes by a thought or a memory rising quietly inside that nobody else can even see. We deal with our own pain by swinging it out onto somebody else.

And sometimes we wound others because, to put it simply, it’s what happened to us repeatedly along the way and now it’s their turn for a share of it.

Whatever the cause, if you’re regularly wounding your colleagues, your team, or the people close to you as a way of handling your own suffering, it might be time to consider an alternative.

You can’t avoid having been wounded. It’s an inescapable part of reaching adulthood. And just as this is true for you, it’s true for everyone around you.

Knowing this, perhaps you can catch on to what you’re really up to each time you lash out. And then, by cultivating ongoing tenderness and kindness – first to yourself – you can work more and more on having your wounds become a gift of understanding to others and not an excuse to act out.

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Irritated

Next time you’re super-irritated by someone else, consider this: perhaps it’s something in yourself that you can’t stand, rather than them.

The inner critic can play games like this, disguising self-judgement and turning it into judgement of others.

And then what you’re really doing is projecting a part of you onto them, where it’s more comfortable and where you can pretend it’s nothing to do with you.

Your irritation won’t resolve by insisting they change. But it might when you start to welcome all the shadow parts of you that, in the end, make you human.

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Telling the truth

The more I look, the more it seems to me that among the most personally damaging acts each of us can take is that of turning away from truth.

I’m not talking grand universal truths here – the kind that people claim apply across time and space and across people. It’s quite easy to see that establishing truth in this way is fraught with difficulty.

No, I’m talking about something more basic and immediate: what’s true about this moment, this experience, from the place in which you stand.

If you pay attention, it’s not so difficult to tell when you’re turning away from truth in this way. The truth that you are sad, or joyful, or angry, or despondent, touched or numb, feeling whole or split apart. The truth that this is difficult or painful for you. Or the truth that this is bringing you to life.

The truth that these thoughts you are thinking, whatever they are, are what you are thinking. The truth that what you’re feeling in your body is what you’re feeling. The truth that this place is where you are, and that what you are doing is what you are doing.

When we deny these simple, basic truths to ourselves and others – when we speak of ourselves inwardly or publicly with deliberate inaccuracy – we assault our own integrity. And we cause ourselves tangible harm, in our minds and in our bodies, by putting ourselves at odds with ourselves, fuelling the inner battles that pull us apart.

And then being whole again requires a kind of return, a turning back to the part of ourselves that understands how things really are. A turning back to something simple, and straightforward, the heart of which we’ve known all along.

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Appeasement

One thing to know about the inner critic is that it cannot be appeased.

So:

It doesn’t help to reason. Whatever the facts you produce, however tight your reasoning, the critic can always come back with a question, or a doubt, an objection, or a demand for more evidence.

It doesn’t help to collapse, imagining the inner-critic will settle down once it sees you’re beaten. Because the moment you rouse yourself from your fall, it will be back, baying for more.

It doesn’t help to join in the fight, trading blows, getting into battle. The critic has more energy and more persistence than you know – it’s been around as part of humanity for much longer than you have.

Two ways to go that might support you:

The first is to understand that having an inner-critic is human, and that it’s being stirred is a sign that you’re up to something stirring. All art, all creativity, all speaking wholehearted truth, all genuine self-expression, all standing out, all taking the risk of saying what needs to be said, all stirs the critic into its defensive action. Reinterpret the critic – not as a sign of your failure and your brokenness, but of your aliveness. The very aliveness it wants to have you keep in check.

The second is to give it lots of space. Yes, let it rage, let it complain, let it hurl accusations at you. But, instead of having your face pressed up against the bars of your cage while it takes chunks out of you… instead if you can feel your enormity, your spaciousness, it’s less like being trapped in a small space with a tiger and more like being the whole zoo, or the whole city. How much can it hurt you when you’ve that room within you? How much can it eat you, or throttle you, or force your collapse?

And, each time it gets to you, please remember to be kind to yourself. Being caught in an attack by the critic is not proof that you deserve the attack – just that, this time, you didn’t find a way to separate yourself from it.

There will be a next time, and a time after, and a time after that. And over time, in no rush, perhaps a tiny bit more space will open, and a bit more, and a bit more – with many steps back along the way.

And each step, forward or back, is part of the necessary and life-giving work of becoming free to speak, act, lead and contribute with your whole heart.

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Frustration

Frustration: a yearning for something that seems always just out of reach. It’s one part desire, and another part despair.

Intense, maddening, and in turns deflating, frustration brings the object of your desire to the centre of your attention. It shapes thoughts, tightens body. It has you thrash and complain. And it narrows your focus so that while it’s in full swing, the rest of life is registered only dimly.

Most surprising about frustration is its capacity to have you destroy the very thing you want so much:

The relationship in which you’re longing for respect and trust, undone by your judgments, accusations and harsh words.

The project you want to bring to the world derailed by your insistence and unreasonableness.

The art you’re creating undone by distraction and procrastination.

… which might not be as illogical as it sounds, at least at the moment of action, when destruction looks preferable to the despair of continual failure.

But, like all moods, frustration is an angle on the world, not the world itself. It conceals much, even as it reveals powerfully what you care about.

If you’re able to tell that you’re in it, you may be able to open yourself to the insight that it brings, and also to its narrowness. And from there, the possibility of seeing things from a wider perspective arises – the perspective that other moods such as gratitude, kindness, simple anger or hope could bring to the self-same situation.

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What’s hard about kindness

George Saunders has written beautifully about the importance of kindness – a topic I’ve taken up here a number of times before. His article is recommended reading.

One of the reasons kindness is so hard for many people, I think, is the harshness of our own inner lives. There’s a vast world we choose not to show others, and it’s often woven through with self-criticism, anxiety, unmet longing, fear, comparison, judgement, and a feeling of alienation from the world – of not yet being ‘at home’.

Because encountering ourselves can be so painful and difficult we learn to wait and hope and stay apart from one another, fearing what will happen if people see how we really are inside. And since kindness necessarily brings us into close contact with others, and with ourselves, it opens us and makes us feel vulnerable. And so we hold back.

It’s from here that our cynicism about kindness arises too. We confuse kindness with ‘niceness’, and rightly understand that niceness will never be sufficient to ease our suffering, or that of others, and so had best be avoided. But where niceness is inconstant, soft, and all about earning approval from others, genuine kindness is sharp and powerful and requires sincerity and courage. It comes from no longer making ourselves the centre of the universe, and it’s far more significant and necessary than anything niceness can muster.

In our holding back we imagine kindness will become possible only when our inner difficulty eases. But this is to misunderstand kindness and how it grows. The path to the inner kindness we need is paved with outer kindness to others: we have to get over ourselves, and our own self-pity, in order to extend ourselves genuinely to other human beings. And that’s exactly what supports the transformation of the inner world too.

And of course, by extending kindness to others we quickly find out that pretty much everyone is suffering as we are. And then we discover most viscerally how vital our kindness is, and that all our years of holding back were in vain.

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What we leave behind

My grandfather died nearly twenty years ago.

For most of his adult life he owned and ran a very small, very modest clothing shop in suburban North London, like many second-generation Jewish immigrants of his time. And as he grew older, his clientele grew older with him. No flashy refits or rebrandings to reach a wider audience. Just years of dedicated service to the people he’d served for so long already.

When he died, and we gathered around the graveside, I looked back to see a long line of mourners stretching back from the grave to the prayer hall. Many spoke of his care for them, of his commitment, and also of his friendship.

I realised then that he was leaving behind him something that many of us never achieve, but which is worth more than status, high office, the construction of big buildings, and the making of millions (each of which, certainly, have their worth). He left behind him scores of lives touched, for the better, by the kindness and constancy of his presence in the world.

And, I wonder, what would become possible if you worked on this alongside all the other important and ambitious projects you’ve dedicated yourself to already?

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What life wants

Instead of wondering when life will work out for you, or figuring out how to get the life you want, you could try asking what life wants from you.

Perhaps an entirely different orientation to what matters, what’s possible, and what’s called for might emerge. And who knows what courage, kindness, wisdom and work you might discover.

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