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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Flowers from the darkness

What struck me most at Sunday’s Yom Hashoah ceremony was the way in which each of the survivors who spoke had committed themselves to life.

One woman, who’d entered Auschwitz as a teenager, had dedicated herself in adulthood to teaching young people about the dangers that come with ignorance of one another. Now nearing her 90s, she was fiery and warm and loving and energetic. It was clear how passionately and completely she’d taken up both living and being of service to a life much bigger than her own.

Another speaker described how being exemplars of love and kindness had become central for her parents during the time after the genocide, when they’d chosen to raise a new family in the long shadow of those dark years, still unable to speak of their shattering personal experiences and their grief at the deportation and murder of their two-year old daughter.

A dear friend of mine told me recently that the artist Roman Halter, himself a survivor, used to say to her how important it is to trust life – to turn towards life’s goodness and not lose ourselves in self-doubt and worry.

And Etty Hillesum, who wrote diaries first from her home in the Netherlands during the early years of the oppression and, later, from Westerbork transit camp (the holding camp for Dutch Jews on their way to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1943) wrote from the camp about her sense that ‘that one day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb.’

I write all of this in no judgement of the countless millions who lived and died in those times – and in other horrors – and were irreparably broken by the experience. Which of us could be sure we’d be any different? But I’m struck by our responsibility in the light of all this, and how easily we can confuse ourselves about the times we are living in. 

This moment in the early 21st century is full of uncertainty and many dangers, yes. But however bad we fear things are, and however frightened we get about it, we can and must learn from those who found in themselves a way to live, and to turn towards life, in the midst of the most unimaginable horror and its aftermath.

That they were able to plant flowers that grew from the darkness leaves us, who right now live in not nearly such dark times, with the responsibility to find a way to do the same.

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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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Investing ritual with meaning

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

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

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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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Too short, too precious

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

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

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

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

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Helping ourselves, and others, learn to live

What if we gave up the idea that anyone else can have easy answers about how to live our lives? What would happen if we took up the project of cultivating our curiosity, our openness to life, our sense of wonder at ourselves and others?

What could be if we started to look for the ways we keep ourselves running in habitual, tiny circles, avoiding and hiding so that we don’t have to experience that which we don’t want to experience?

What could be if we could find practices – daily ways of living and cultivating ourselves – that bring us more fully into contact with the possibilities around us, with our own bodies and hearts, with the people with whom we’re in relationship, and with our lives?

What would it be to do this for ourselves? And what would it be to become more skilful at helping others do that too?

I’m thrilled to be leading our regular two-day Coaching to Excellence programmes in London in May and July, in which we’ll get into all these questions together.

Finding out that we are ordinary

Yesterday. ‘Be more, Do more’. The tag-line for a personal training company written on the back of a van in front of me on the drive into town. The narrative theme of our times, the poetry of our shared culture, as revealed by the advertising and marketing that surrounds us.

When we live in the narrative of ‘more’, every action, every conversation, every relationship becomes dedicated to an unending project for which we feel continuously responsible. More money, more stuff, more experiences, more trips, more friends, more relationships – yes. But also more capable, more powerful, more self-determining, more authentic, more persuasive, more reasonable, more peaceful, more compassionate, more successful, more loved, more happy, more fulfilled. When we orient towards ourselves this way we become the project, the objects of an unending self-improvement effort that requires our constant vigilance.

And anything can be appropriated in service of the project of self-improvement. Excellence, which once meant living a life as an expression of virtue, comes to mean standing out from the mass. Learning – a means of getting the best test results. Art – a way to look (and think of ourselves as) cultured. Meditation and other spiritual practice – a way to have an untroubled life of peace and tranquility. Exercise – a way to get a body that others will be attracted to. Our own development – a way to gain unlimited power to do what we want, when we want it, and to have others support us and love us for it.

When we live in this way, convinced that we’re always due an upgrade, there is nowhere to rest. But, more importantly, we distort ourselves with a gross misunderstanding of what it is to be human, a misunderstanding in which we secretly imagine that it’s possible to be a god. After all, who else but the mythical gods stand out, in all circumstances, from others? Who else has endless power, beauty, fulfilment? The capacity to summon abundance and tranquility upon a command, the ability to avoid suffering, accident and happenstance? Who but the gods have an existence in which there is no death, loss, disappointment, or illness? And who but the gods get just what they want, when they want it?

When we live as if we’re supposed to be gods, or entitled to be gods, we shouldn’t be surprised at the harshness of our disappointment and self-criticism, our endless comparison with the lives of others, and the way we’re hurled from grandiosity (I’ve made it, the all-powerful me) to deflation (I’m so small, and the world is so big, and there’s no hope) and back again. And we shouldn’t be surprised at what a fight we get into with our lives – lives that often surprise us, let us down, show us how little we know, throw us about, all without much regard for whether we’re getting what we want.

When we stop trying to improve ourselves (and often the people around us) all the time, we can start to appreciate in a new way the very natural and quite beautiful capacity of human beings to develop; to unfold like the buds of a rose. And we come to see, I am coming to think, that the path of our development is not trying to be gods, but finding out that we are ordinary.

To be ordinary is to discover that we share the same heritage and future as all human beings, and all living things – a heritage and future that we cannot escape. To know ourselves as ordinary is to find out that we have bottomless capacity for compassion, kindness, wisdom, beauty and contribution as well as for selfishness, cruelty, denial and stupidity. To know ourselves as ordinary is to understand that we’ll die, that there are consequences to our actions, that the earth’s resources are limited, that we can’t just have what we want because we say so. And to know ourselves as ordinary is to see that the vast world was here long before us and will be here long after us, and to find out that our contribution – if we’re willing to make it – ripples out through the other ordinary lives that our life touches, both those who are around us now and those who are to come.

To know ourselves as ordinary is to discover humility, finding out that we’re not bigger than life but neither are we smaller than it; to take up our place in the weave of living things in which we find ourselves.

When we know ourselves as ordinary we discover that we’re all in this together and, because of this, we have some justification for hope: the understanding that our skills, capacities and deepest commitments can be an immense source of help even when we cannot control the outcome. We have a reason to love and care for others who are as messy, conflicted, confused and life-filled as ourselves. And we find ourselves able to step in on behalf of life, rather than lose ourselves in fairy stories of optimism (it will magically all get better whether or not I take part) or pessimism (in which we’re all lost, whatever we do).

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Back to front

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

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

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

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

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Escaping our smartphone dependency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On my phone

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

On my laptop

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

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

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

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We have to find a way to love our brokenness

We have to find a way to love our brokenness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Increasing light

Today, the final day of 2016, is both the seventh day of Christmas and the seventh day of the Jewish festival of Chanukah. The two festivals coincide only about every 30 years or so, when a combination of factors pushes the Jewish year – in which the months turn by the cycles of the moon – later into the Gregorian calendar than usual.

Chanukah always falls in the week with the longest, darkest nights of the year, straddling the new moon that falls close to the winter solstice. As with winter festivals marked by many traditions, it’s concerned with our capacity and responsibility to bring light to the dark.

And so, after starting with one candle last Saturday and adding a candle each night, people all over the world will tonight be lighting eight candles to mark the final night of Chanukah and, coincidentally, the final night of this calendar year.

As the rabbis who shaped Chanukah some 1600 years ago said, it’s our responsibility to gather light, to increase light, and to be light. It’s harder to see this in those times when the world itself seems shining with hope and possibility. But in the darker hours, when the sun is down and even the moon is obscured from view, we see the darkness itself more clearly. And we see how easy it is, when we’re gripped by fear or self-righteousness, to wittingly or unwittingly contribute to its spread.

As we end a calendar year that has seen an upsurge in the politics of division and fear, a new legitimacy given to voices – in Western democracies at least – of prejudice and rage and suspicion of the ‘other’, and the election in the US of a powerful, narcissistic leader with a fragile ego, let’s remember our human responsibility to increase the light around us and between us.

Let’s increase it with art and poetry.

Let’s bring light by being fierce advocates for reason, critical thinking, and science. By learning, ceaselessly. By feeling, fully and truly. By reading, widely. By overcoming our self-diminishment enough to say what’s called for.

Let’s bring light by giving up treating ourselves and others as objects, or commodities, or means-to-an-end. By opening to one another.

Let’s bring light by giving up using language as a way to cover up truth in our organisations, our institutions, our schools, our families. And let’s do it by giving up the cover of ‘it’s only business’, or ‘that’s just the way politics goes’, or ‘it’s my truth’ as a way to gain power over others or to silence them.

Let’s bring light by finding out how to be ones around whom others’ hearts soar, around whom others can find out what’s uniquely theirs to bring and then bring it without shame, or self-reproach.

Let’s do it with song.

Let’s bring light by getting over our self-pity, our resentment, our sense of how unfair it is that our lives are whatever way they are.

Let’s bring light by learning how to listen to, and speak with, ever wider circles of people who have lives, commitments, and beliefs very different to our own. And by standing for kindness, and dignity, being a force for the elevation of life rather than the diminishment of it.

Let’s bring light by dedicating ourselves to projects and commitments that are bigger than our own comfort, and bigger than our own personal gain.

Let’s remember that we can only do this hard and necessary work by being committed to our ongoing development. And that we can be at our most wise and compassionate only when we do all this with the help of one another.

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A narrow bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The state of the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Naming

How strange and beautiful names are.

We know we are not our names. You and I are not a Justin or a Sue, a Peter or a Dan, a Zephaniah or a Helen, a Lucy or a Grace, even if that is what we have been called all our lives. Our names never capture us in our completeness, our wholeness, or our complexity.

And yet we also know that our names are powerful. With them we can be referenced, talked about, called to account, questioned, criticised, recalled, honoured, resented, planned for, dignified and loved in ways that would not have been possible before human beings had names for one another.

What we name becomes available to us. Naming brings us into relationship. Naming directly shapes who and what we’ll notice and pay attention to. And naming shapes who and what we have to take care of, just as avoiding names shapes what we’ll ignore.

And this is why it’s important we find out what we’re resisting naming – in our families, organisations and politics. And why finding accurate names for what we’re turning away from is a deep and necessary act of creativity, dignity, and responsibility for one another.

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On the side of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The end of things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest

river

It has been hard to write these past two months. The familiar flow of words and ideas have slowed to a trickle. My body has not moved into the work with the grace and flow with which I have become familiar. It’s as if some kind of gridlock has taken hold, with each part – mind, heart, body – pressing against the movement of the other.

It has been tempting to try to force myself into action, to believe the inner judgements and slurs that whisper into the vacated spaces. You’ll never be a writer this way. You’ve run out of anything to say. You’re not brave enough, smart enough, honest enough to do this.

But this time, I am not so convinced by all the inner chatter as I once might have been. This time, I’ve been waiting – patiently, quietly – to see what wants to write itself through me.

We make production and consumption the highest measure of value in our culture. But we are part of nature, born of nature, and we are subject to its cycles just as much as a field, or a tree, or a river.

I am remembering that fields must lie fallow in order to be fertile,

spring must turn to summer and autumn to have any chance of returning,

and human beings must rest and nurture themselves – often – in order to flourish.

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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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Losing it

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

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

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

For a while, you did have them.

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

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

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

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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

On Difficulty and Understanding

As we encounter each of life’s difficulties, we get to choose:

Consider ourselves cursed or mistreated, as if we are owed freedom from hurt, pain or confusion. As if life owes us happiness. As if we are meant to be in control of everything. This is, essentially, a fight against life as it is.

Or draw on difficulty as part of life’s path, an opportunity to turn more deeply into life rather than away from it.

And while, with each successive difficulty or joy, we find that we understand life’s movement less and less, perhaps this way we learn to live it more and more.

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[after Jules Renard – “As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more”]

What it takes to listen

It’s when we actually listen to another human being that they get to be human too. Listening allows a shift from I-It relating in which the other is essentially an object to us (an irritation, a way to get what I want, a way to feel good about myself) to I-You relating, in which the other gets to be a person.

As Martin Buber points out, I-It relating is essentially a form of It-It relating, since it’s impossible for us to show up as full human beings, even to ourselves, when we are in the midst of making another, or a group of others, into a thing. To relate to another in an I-You way, to listen to them in their fullness, bestows dignity on everyone and opens wide horizons for understanding, compassion, truthfulness, and relationship.

Listening ought to be the easiest thing to do. After all, it requires no complex framework, no technique, no technology. And yet it can be so, so hard.

Most of us have a lot of practicing to do in order to drop our need to be right, to be ‘the one’, to be liked, and to hear only what we want to hear. In order to listen we have to relax our defensiveness, be skilful with the inner attacks of our own inner critic (which is ready to judge us even when there’s no judgement coming from the speaker), get over our wish to control everything, and be willing to welcome whatever we experience. We have to be able to question our own stories and accounts, be open to seeing things in a whole new way, and quiet our inner world sufficiently that what is being said can reach us. And we have to learn how to be in contact with ourselves, a fundamental prerequisite for being in contact with others.

Perhaps all of this is why real listening is so absent in our fearful, impatient culture. And why we could all benefit from doing some inner work if we want to do the vital outer work of listening well to the people around us.

Photography by Justin Wise

Imagining or listening?

imagining

Our capacity to imagine allows us to convince ourselves that we know other people – their intentions, their wishes, their inner worlds – when we hardly know them at all. But what we are sure we know can so easily turn out to be simply what we’ve invented. And once we’re sure, we quickly discount evidence to the contrary, reinforcing what we’ve imagined by the selective way in which we look and listen.

We can imagine grudges and resentments, frustrations and slights, judgements and failings, hurts and distances, all without even once checking that they are true. And we can go for years, thinking we know others, when what we know is our story about them.

We do this with lovers and enemies, children and parents, siblings and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We do this with people whose culture is different from our own, people who live or speak differently from us, people who vote differently.

And all of it feels so real.

There is one simple, and difficult, and necessary way to address the suffering, distance and estrangement that comes from our imaginings, and that is to listen.

Simple, because all of us are able to ask another ‘please, tell me about yourself, tell me what I need to know in order to understand you more fully’. We can do this with loved ones, with work colleagues, and across seemingly unresolvable divides. And we can start today, even if we have never had such a conversation before. All it takes is a willingness to be present and to hear, fully, what the other has to say.

Difficult, because listening in this way means we have to drop our defensiveness, our wish to hear things only on our terms, our fear that we won’t like what is said. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, available, open. This is not the same as giving up our own way of seeing the world or simply doing what another person asks, but it does require allowing ourselves to be changed by the encounter. And this calls on us to summon up reserves of courage and grace and compassion, and to give up being in control all the time.

And necessary because our imaginings so easily act as a wedge between us, prolonging our difficulties, denying us the creative and nourishing possibilities of relationship, and blinding us to suffering as well as to the light and goodness that is in us and all around us if we’ll only look.

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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

Back to the garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poetry of the Storm

storm

Yes, there might well be a storm brewing. An economic storm. A social storm. A storm which will call on us to rethink ourselves, to undo ideas and categories we’ve become attached to. A storm that will at times have us be afraid. That will sometimes throw us apart from one another and at other times bring us in close.

We’re probably already in the storm.

In one way or another we’ve always been in it, even when life seemed calmer, more straightforward. Even when we were turned in the other direction.

It’s easy to understand the upending energy of the storm as an entirely negative or malevolent force. But as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in The Man Watching, the more turbulent and uncertain times in our lives are precisely when our concepts and sense of ourselves are most open to being reconfigured. In the storm, that which we thought had a solid name can become un-named, and from here we can find better names – more accurate, more compassionate, more useful – for what’s around us. And in learning that we are not omnipotent, in some sense by being defeated by the storm, there’s the possibility that we emerge limping but strengthened, more in touch with our essential qualities, capacities and inherent goodness.

Mary Oliver’s poem Hurricane concurs. When we find we can’t control the world any longer (could we ever?) it can feel as if the leaves are being stripped from the trees, as if all we know is bending. The back of the hand to everything. But it’s so often the case that if we turn towards what needs doing, if we turn towards one another, and if we tend to things, then the leaf-stripped trees push out their tiny buds even in the wrong season. They may look ‘like telephone poles’, as Oliver says, but they really don’t care. And after the leaves come blossoms. For some things there are no wrong seasons.

We can get so afraid facing the unknown not because we don’t know what will happen but because we are secretly sure we do know what will happen. The world will be worse. We will be unable to cope. That’s an under-interpretation of current events right when creative over-interpretation is called for. When we’re sure how things will go, and paralysed by our certainty, we need abundance of stories about what the future might hold and who we could be in it.

And Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems are a wonderful place to start.

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On Aliveness

Important questions for any of us who care about our work:

  • Do the daily practices and rituals of my workplace cultivate aliveness and soul in me? In others? Or do they stifle life and squash the soul? (hint: it’s often our attempts to control that squash the very aliveness we need).
  • If they stifle, am I really prepared to live with the consequences of work that’s forgotten how to live? Really?
  • If I’m not willing to live with this, what am I going to do about it? What will I stop? What will I ask others to stop? What practices will I invent and initiate – even as an experiment – that could have things be different?
  • And am I ready to take the risky and vital step of leading… of being someone who treats this as with at least as much dedication as I show to our productivity, or to how much money we make?

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Leaving

I’ve been in Majorca this week with my family. As I walk down the cool stairs of our villa for the last time, that familiar feeling comes. A twist in my gut, a pain and a longing, a knowing that I may well never visit here again. It’s quite possibly another in life’s inevitable series of goodbyes.

It’s tempting to resolve the feeling by booking, right away, to come back. And it’s possible that we’ll choose to do that. But let me not act out of a wish to avoid losses and leavings. Let me at least have this be part of the continued practice of learning to let go – with dignity and humility.

Because, in the end, it’s letting go gracefully when I most want to hold on – to places, experiences, the people I love – that I am most going to need. And it’s letting go that life will unquestioningly, with no malice, before long and repeatedly, call on all of us to do.

Decades

I start my 47th year of life today. Around 160 years ago (less than four of my current life spans laid end-to-end) a full third of my contemporaries would already have reached the end of their lives, and less than half of us could have expected to live beyond our late 50s (see source [1] below).

Today, at least in the UK, two-thirds of us will live into our late seventies and many into our eighties. What a blessing, if we’ll choose to appreciate it while we can. And what possibilities, if we’ll find a way to use our chances of vastly extended life in service of those around us and those yet to come.

Readers of my work here will know of my interest in ongoing adult development, which takes place through marked increases in our capacity to make sense of the world, to inhabit longer time horizons (knowing ourselves as inheritors of a deep past and contributors towards a long future), to be less ‘had’ by impulsivity and narcissism, to understand the world of others, to exercise more autonomy, and to take action in systems and contexts which are bigger than our own immediate concerns [2].

Such development is very natural, if the opportunities come our way and if we’re courageous enough and have enough support to take them. But it is quite different from the rote-learning, keeping up appearances, and getting ahead that so many of us are taught at school and in our workplaces. It typically requires facing into difficulty rather than turning away, welcoming back the parts of ourselves that we’ve disowned, failing and falling and getting back up again. It’s not served by looking good, or knowing the facts, or keeping it all together, or learning just what’s comfortable and familiar, or comparing ourselves with others.

And it’s probably the most important work we can do with the gift of these extra decades, if we’re lucky enough to have them. Because the world faces challenges of a complexity our ordinary way of speaking, thinking, acting and relating to one another are often ill-equipped to face. And perhaps we have been given these decades – through the long slow evolution of human beings as a species – precisely so that we can work on the problems our shorter-lived ancestors never got the chance to tackle.

References:

[1] Modal Age at Death: Mortality Trends in England and Wales 1841-2010, monograph available for download here
[2] In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan and Changing on the Job, Jennifer Garvey Berger

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