Life’s incompleteness

There are millions of books that you’ll never read.
Millions of films you’ll never see.
Places you’ll never go to.
People you’ll never meet.
Experiences you’ll never have.

Do you chase after what’s unattainable with resentment and frustration, raging against life’s limits? Or open in gratitude at life’s richness?

Here’s George Steiner with a beautiful account of the move from fear to wonder on this very question, involving a fascinating story of the discovery and reburial of thousands of terracotta Chinese warriors.

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What the storm is all about

When you’re in the midst of a storm in life – some difficulty, confusion, fear, or uncertainty – it’s easy to imagine that something must have gone terribly wrong.

After all, aren’t you meant to be successful? Aren’t you meant to be on top of life? Aren’t you meant to be in control? To have it all figured out by now?

And if you’re in trouble isn’t it clear that it’s your fault?

The narrative of personal striving and personal success that so many of us have taken up as the benchmark for our lives doesn’t help here. It’s too individualistic, too solitary. It assumes you have infinite power to shape your life. And that your success or failure, your happiness or your despair are down to you alone. It’s not a big enough story to account for the kind of difficulty you’re in, to account for being a participant in a world that is so mysterious and so much bigger than you are.

No, there’s a bigger, more generous account of finding yourself in life’s storm that goes far beyond blame and fault, far beyond success and failure. Haruki Murakami has found the words to express it beautifully and clearly, in his Kafka On The Shore:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts.

Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you.

This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step…”

But the storm will pass, he assures us, and once it is over:

“You won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over.

But one thing is certain.

When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.

That’s what this storm’s all about.”

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Looking good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Five summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Accepting life

An unchangeable feature of life is that, at every moment, you find yourself inescapably in some situation or other – perhaps one that you did not choose.

And however magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living.

No manner of denial (and all the suffering that comes with it) can change that your life continues from this moment, this particular configuration, and not from another.

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is not ‘putting up with things’ but responding fully from where you are. Not pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere else.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

Many paths lead from this place.

Will you go to sleep to yourself, or step in to this, the one and only life you have?

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Welcoming Ourselves and Others

In this episode Lizzie and I talk about the radical possibility of welcoming ourselves, and others, just as we are.

To those of us with a more action-oriented stance or a commitment to improving things, welcoming in this way can look like an act of irresponsibility. After all, doesn’t making things better in some way entail rejecting how things are?

We explore this tension together, looking at how our surrounding culture of keeping up and comparison with others turns us away from ourselves. We consider the possibility of both welcoming and working to repair the world. And in the midst of things Lizzie’s niece joins us for a surprise visit.

The source is written by our friend and colleague Steve March:

Letting Be – A Poem to Welcome a Fellow Journeyer

Dear journeyer, you are welcome here exactly as you are.
No one here will try to change you according to their ideas or ideals.
No one here wants you to be otherwise.
We will let you be, just as you are.
Only then can we celebrate your perfect uniqueness.

Letting be is a gift of love that we give to you.
Love of your Truth.
Love of your Beauty.
Love of your Goodness.
Only then can we relish your luminous brilliance.

Letting be is a gift of love that you can give yourself too.
Letting be, your heart will melt, your mind will open, your body will release.
Letting be, your creativity will rocket forth.
Letting be, your innate resourcefulness will amaze you.
Only then can you behold your true magnificence.

The sun beams just for you.
The mountain salutes your majesty.
The river of life guides you within its currents.
The universe is your playground.
Welcome home, dear journeyer.

We’re live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time. You can join our facebook group to watch live, view archives, and join in the growing community and conversation that’s happening around this project.

Because I was scared

In the latest episode of ‘Turning Towards Life’ Lizzie and I talk about being afraid – how it paralyses us and turns us away from ourselves and others, and what comes from owning up to being scared and knowing others as afraid also. The source is a beautifully written and powerful piece from our friend Joy Reichart’s Blog Beginnerdom, and is called “Because I was Scared“.

We’re live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time. You can visit the website to join our members-only facebook group and watch live, view archives, and join in the growing community and conversation that’s happening around this project.

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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The life beyond our narrow concerns

We’re taught to ask ourselves the question ‘What do I want to do with my life?’.

But we’re much less familiar with asking ‘What does my life want to do with me?’.

Asking this question requires us to see that there is a something called ‘my life’ that is beyond the usual narrow, more self-interested concerns that we hold.

Beyond ego, beyond all the conditioning that comes from our culture, and beyond our familiar preferences lies something that is always calling to us, if we can quieten ourselves and be still for long enough.

Responding to our lives in this way no longer means that things will definitely ‘work out’ for us in the way we’ve been taught. But it does offer the possibility of making a bigger contribution to life. One that goes far beyond what’s possible when we only look for ways to be liked, to be safe, and to know how things are going to work out.

Photography by Lior Solomons-Wise

The peril of having one story

The problem with being sure of your story – the one you have that explains to you who you are, who other people are, and what’s happening – is what is inevitably left out.

Your confusion, longing, terrified waking in the quiet hours of the night, your disorientation –

A sign that it’s all over, and that you’re lost?

An inevitable part of the human condition (experienced by many more of us than will ever let on)?

The birth-pangs of something new? Some new way of living, thinking and relating that is emerging into life?

Each story about what you’re experiencing leads to a different place, to different possibilities.

Each story calls on a different way of relating to yourself and others.

Each story is sustained by different practices (what you’re doing repeatedly in your actions, your thinking that keeps it going).

And none of them is ever the whole story.

Part of the practice of a life fully lived – and leadership well done – is the practice of finding new ways of telling what we’re sure we’ve already understood.

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On Angst

Perhaps uniquely among living creatures, we have the capacity to sense beyond the particular details of the situation in which we’re living. We can see its limits, and perhaps more importantly we can see our limits. We can understand that there’s a ceiling to our power and capacity, that our time is finite, that the future is unknowable, that our understanding is small, and that much of what we depend upon is way more fragile than we’ll ever admit.

There’s a special word for the feeling this evokes – angst.

We mostly experience angst as a feeling of absence, because in coming up against the limits of our world, and the limits of our understanding, we quickly conclude that something is missing and that we must be responsible for it. We feel that we ought to change things, make them better, fix them up. We feel our inadequacy in doing so.

And so we build cultures, organisations and lives in such a way as to shore us up against experiencing angst. We imagine that if we don’t have to feel this way – perhaps if we don’t feel too much at all – then we can assure ourselves that everything will be just fine.

Of course, in the end this doesn’t work out, because behind all our busy activity, our habitual routines, and our constant affirmations that we’re doing ok, angst is still making itself felt. In a way our efforts make it more apparent, because living in such a way as to avoid angst means making our world small and tightly sealed. The feeling that we’re deceiving ourselves and imprisoning ourselves and that there is some bigger way of living becomes even more present, even as we try to hide it.

Running away from angst, it turns out, amplifies it and robs it of its biggest possibilities.

The way through this?

Firstly, giving up the idealised notion of an angst-free future. Angst is, it seems, built in to the human condition and comes as a consequence of our capacity to see beyond ourselves. And so there can be no world in which angst is fully absent.

Secondly seeing angst not as a terrible something to be avoided, but as an invitation, a reminder of the truth of our situation, which is that the world is much bigger, more mysterious, and more possibility-filled than we can usually imagine. And that even though there’s really nothing to stand on, there’s much that we can trust.

Angst is then not a signal to hide away, but a reminder of the uniqueness of our human situation. And a call to step more fully into life.

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Things to think

Some things to think that might help us do what we’re really here to do:

We’re here and so soon we’re gone.

In comparison to geological and even to historical time our individual lives are the briefest flash of energy and vitality, and then we’re done. For most of us it’s true also that our lives are the briefest flash in our own personal experience – done way before we’re ready.

We’re living longer than anyone previously in history.

Which, if we’re willing to seize the chance and to take our own development seriously, might just give us the time to develop the intelligence, sensitivity, and breadth of vision to solve the problems we’ve made for ourselves.

We’re going to have to get way more intentional about our development than we are now if we want this to happen.

The world was here long before each of us arrived, and will be here long after we’ve left it.

Seeing ourselves as part of something much bigger in this way can help us give up our self-aggrandisement and also our self-obsession, both of which keep our concerns and our lives in very narrow bounds.

And maybe we can find out how much more there is than living a life in which we get comfortable or which is oriented first around our own likes and dislikes. Instead, seeing ourselves as the inheritors and custodians of a world can support us in having our lives serve everyone who’ll come after us.

There’s nobody coming to save us.

Many of us secretly wish for the moment we’ll get rescued from all our difficulty and all our worries – by a parent, a lottery win, a leader, a messiah. Our longing has us place wishful thinking above meaningful action. Let’s give this up and imagine that we are the ones sent to do what saving can be done.

Each of us is an expression of life itself.

In the our disorientation and our confusion, it can help to see how each of us, all of us, are an expression of life doing what life does – experimenting, learning, and responding.

Seeing ourselves this way opens a huge opportunity to take responsibility. And perhaps to trust ourselves enough that we can participate in our lives rather than fight against them.

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A luminous garment

We’ve allowed ourselves to become obsessed by youth.

The way this has shaped our public lives is quite easy to see, from the relentless focus on youthful beauty in our media to the cruelty of causal ageism in the workplace.

What’s harder to see is how it is affecting the narratives we have about ourselves.

We see all the ways that growing old is a falling apart, an endless series of losses, a disintegration. And so we try to stave it off, denying what is happening to us. As we grow older and as the time remaining to us diminishes, we become diminished in our own eyes. In this way we rob ourselves and others of our dignity.

But here is an account of ageing from the Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, which points to a different possibility:

All the days of a person’s life are laid out above,
one by one they come soaring into this world…
If a person leaving the world merits,
he comes into those days of his life,
they become a luminous garment.

Such a different way of looking, this – our inevitable, inescapable ageing as a gathering and weaving of the days of our lives into a single luminous garment. We wear the sum of all we have been and done in our bodies, on our faces, in our entire way of being in the world.

This gives us growing older as an integration, a chance to unify ourselves, turning towards the shadow parts that we pushed away when we were younger.

And it invites us to give up our dependence upon looking good or being liked, so that we can have our ageing usher us into the fullness of our humanity.

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Oh Beautiful Sky, and The Cradling

Episodes 11 and 12 of ‘Turning Towards Life’ are now available on our new Turning Towards YouTube channel, and are also included below. We’ll be live on facebook here as usual at 9am UK time each Sunday morning.

In Oh Beautiful Sky we begin with a poem written by Lizzie’s husband Matthew for his daughter. Our conversation turned into the topic of power – how we try to have power over others and over the world, and the difficulty this brings. And how cultivating awe and connection with something bigger than ourselves – the sky, nature – can remind us of a much truer power we have, power-with, in which we turn towards others and bring ourselves in a way that brings out the possibility of mutual commitment. And what different world of organisations, family, community and politics we’d cultivate if power-with was our central commitment in the world?

And in The Cradling we begin with a beautiful and powerful meditation from the work of Joanna Macy. We ask ourselves what possibilities there are when we remember the extraordinary and unlikely evolutionary background from which all human beings come, and when we remember also that everyone – even those people we judge most or are most afraid of – arises from exactly the same background and shares with each of us the same biology. Would we respond so easily with the impulse to hurt, or distance ourselves, or turn away? And if we did not, what then?

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What we pay attention to (and what we don’t)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Invisible Tug Between You and Everything

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.

– Ellen Bass

It’s so easy to feel our separateness from everything.

For a start, we always experience ourselves at the centre of our lives, right where our body is, while people and things come and go around us. We can easily conclude that we are the only solid something in the world, while everything else is transient.

And few of us live in the midst of community. We have practices that shape how we work, how we take care of ourselves, how we attend to our lives that emphasise how alone we are, and how self-reliant we must be in order to survive. It’s rare to find ourselves bound up in the midst of communities of depth, support and care that remind us in each moment how held we can be.

And then there’s the whole way our systems of knowing and learning are constructed, deeply influenced by the Cartesian view that we are essentially minds, separate from the world. And our economic system, which deems us useless unless we can prove our productivity.

It’s no wonder we can feel so alone, so afraid, so distant from everything. It’s no wonder it’s so hard for us to feel the way in which each of us matters, in which the world and we depend each upon the other.

But we do matter. And the world does depend upon each of us. And when we’re able to remember this, we have a much better chance of doing what we’re here to do.

This is the topic we took up in this week’s Turning Towards Life conversation, which begins with Ellen Bass’s beautiful poem The World Has Need of You, and which you can watch below.

We’ll be live again on Sunday morning at 9am UK time. you can join us here.

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Primary and Secondary Needs

Our primary needs as human beings:

Warmth, shelter, food.

and then:

Touch. The loving gaze of others.
Being welcomed by smiling faces, simply for being alive.
A way to express our feelings and experiences truthfully, and to be heard.
People with whom to celebrate, and with whom to grieve.
Intimacy with others, and with the world.
A way to belong.
Being of service.
Beauty, wonder.
Encounters with the sacredness of things.

It is the nature of our primary needs that, when met, we feel filled, complete, connected. Nothing more is called for.

The consumer economy in which we live is dedicated to meeting secondary needs – which are a pale imitation of what is primary. Our secondary needs, even when met, can’t fill us. They leave us wanting more. And as such they are ripe for the sale, for the making of profit.

So it should be no wonder that our primary needs are marginalised, often ridiculed, in our education system, organisations, and politics. Why have real contact with others when there’s no money in it? Beauty, when it will satiate rather then create demand? Intimacy, when it interrupts our addiction to the latest products? Deep joy, or deep sorrow, and contact with what’s sacred, when it stops us from feeling like empty vessels that need continual filling? Why do anything if it can’t be linked to productivity, or profit, or economic growth? Why do anything that will have us stop our restless, rootless consumption?

You could say that it’s the systematic marginalisation of our primary needs, and the worship of the secondary, that keeps our whole economy going in its current form.

But it’s in meeting one another’s primary needs, needs that can never be met in the form of a transaction, that we are most fulfilled, and most able to take care of what really needs our care.

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A billion miles

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

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

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

From here, what changes?

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

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

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Fuel for Your Fire

In just a month over 350 people have joined our new Turning Towards Life project on FaceBook. It’s been thrilling to find a new way to talk about many of the concerns, ideas and possibilities that are still an inspiration for the On Living and Working blog, and I think it’s likely that our conversations will in turn be the inspiration for more writing over the coming months.

I was particularly touched by our latest conversation on Sunday morning, which took John Neméth’s song ‘Fuel for Your Fire‘ as its starting point. The question we wanted to address is both simple and central to many people – how can we have our difficulties be a source of life for us, rather than a reason to turn away in shame, fear, or avoidance?

It’s certainly a profound question for me. It’s easy for me when I’m in some kind of trouble to imagine that I am somehow special, the only one experiencing life in this particularly challenging kind of way. And when I take on this relationship to my troubles what I notice most is my separateness from everyone and everything – as if I am uniquely cursed, isolated from others and from the possibilities of care and help.

All of this, it turns out, is a profound misunderstanding. If anything, it’s our troubles that show us how human we are, how essentially alike we are. None of us are free from disappointments, mistakes, changes to our circumstances both within and beyond our control. None of us is free from loss. And when we know this to be an essential truth of our human condition, perhaps we can give up self-pity and instead take on the dignifying work of contribution. This – that contribution is often the most dignified and life-giving path for working with our difficulties – has in recent months, and when I remember it, been such a blessing in my own life.

We’d be really delighted if you’d join us in the 30 minute conversation below, which takes up all these themes and asks ‘How can our troubles be part of the path?’.

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

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The Longing for Realness

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

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


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

The Longing for Realness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Lizzie Winn

What will it take to give up our busyness?

Even when we see that our endless busyness is stifling us, holding back our creativity and contribution, narrowing us – even when we see that in many ways it’s killing us – it’s so hard for us to give it up.

Why is this?

It may be in part that we’re unwilling to stand out from those around us – to risk the feelings of shame and awkwardness that come from taking a stand that we call our own.

And it may well be that we’re unwilling to cease our busyness as long we’re unwilling to face loss. Because to give up rushing will indeed be to lose a particular identity, a way of keeping our self-esteem going, and of course the end of all those activities with which we stuff our time. And we human beings can have a hard time with loss.

It’s only through turning towards inevitable loss that we open the chance for life to reach us.

I think we ought to do that sooner rather than later. Because loss will be forced on us in the end in any case. And by the time it comes there’s a real possibility that we’ve missed our lives because we weren’t willing to choose to face it earlier, of our own accord.

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Days Are Numbered

The first conversation in the thirdspace Turning Towards Life project with Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn went live on Sunday October 1st. Lizzie and I took up the questions and possibilities posed in my post ‘Numbered‘, which Justin wrote in 2015 in response to the imminent death of a dear friend and teacher.

Our wide-ranging conversation covers living truthfully with the knowledge that life is finite, bringing ourselves wholeheartedly and courageously, and what it is to not turn away.

Recordings of all the conversations will be posted here week by week, and available under the new ‘Video‘ tab on

And the very best way to interact with what we’re bringing is to join our FaceBook ‘Turning Towards Life’ group, which allows you to see us live on Sundays at 9am and to be part of the conversation.

On account of nothing we did

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turning Towards Life

The technology available to us in our generation gives each of us an unparalleled opportunity to reach the world with our ideas and contribution. No previous generation in history has had this available to them.

We’ve been struck over recent days how remarkable this is, and how easy to take for granted.

Ideas that destroy, divide, and diminish our humanity, dignity and shared responsibility can spread as fast as those that can serve life. And so we’re starting to see that we have a responsibility, where we can, to bring our courage, generosity and gifts in service of that which could dignify, heal, and connect us. And that there’s no time to lose.

In this spirit we began today a freely available online conversation project hosted by thirdspace called ‘Turning Towards Life‘.

Every Sunday morning at 9am (UK) we’ll be speaking live online for about 30 minutes about a topic to do with facing life with courage, wisdom and compassion. Or, said another way, to do with how we might each come out of hiding and take up our places in the world.

We’ll start each conversation with a source that’s inspired, moved or challenged us – a poem, article, reading, or book – and we’ll post the source on a Friday so it’s widely available before our conversation.

The best way to join us is in our new facebook group. You’ll be able to see us live there, watch previous videos, and join the conversation.

To get you started, here’s a short introduction to the project. Please join us, and join in. We’d love to have you with us.


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The hidden cost of hiding

It’s easy for us to hide in plain sight.

We hide in our busyness and in our distraction.
We hide by saying only part of what’s true, and withholding the rest.
We hide by leaving parts of us out – our courage, our vulnerability, our truthfulness.
We hide by throwing ourselves into our work,
and thereby saving ourselves from showing up outside it.
And we hide by throwing ourselves away from our work,
and saving ourselves from showing up within it.

We hide in our addictions, in numbing ourselves, in scrolling the facebook feed.
We hide in pretending to be happy, when inside we’re crying.
We hide in our self-importance, and in overdoing our smallness.
We hide behind rules and regulation, policy and procedure.
And we hide in meetings through our silence and compliance.

We hide by shutting down our hearts in the face of the suffering of others.
We hide by stifling our ideas and holding back what only we can say.
We hide in our pursuit of money and status.
We hide ourselves in looking good and avoiding shame.
And we hide by refusing to ask for help when we need it.

And every moment of our hiding robs us, and the world,
of wonders that only we can bring,
from seeing that only we can see,
and from words,
perhaps the most necessary words,
that only we can say.

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Always incomplete

Friday night. The start of shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.

A time to put down everything – work, concerns about work, busyness – for a day of renewal, relationship, paying attention to the world through new eyes.

And yet here, sitting in the synagogue with my family, my body and mind are filled with the long list of tasks left open, opportunities not taken, calls not returned, emails not answered. There’s tension in my chest and stomach at all that is unfinished, all that is mine to do. My mind, barely attentive to what’s going on around me, reaches out in a wide, scattered, urgent arc – as if thinking it through over and again will resolve my difficulty. As if this is a way to complete what is uncompleted.

And then I remember that the day will come, and none of us knows how soon, when I will no longer be able to complete anything. And on that day too, the day that life is done, there will still be a long list of incomplete projects. Messages waiting. Conversations unfinished. Responsibilities unfulfilled.

I come to see that project I’ve taken up with my racing mind and thumping heart, the project of having it all neatly done, can never and will never be concluded. I am reminded that to be human is to live, in one way or another, as yet unwritten.

That it is time to let go.

Yes, there’s a time for urgently finishing whatever is at hand. And a time, a time we need, to set all that aside and to see the incompleteness of the world, and everyone, not as something that always needs fixing but as part of its strange, necessary and wonderful beauty.

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The ask and the answer

We can learn a lot by making distinctions between things. When we’re able to name differences – for example, between enlivening and deadening, generous and fickle, ethical and manipulative, truthful and untruthful – we make it possible to observe what would otherwise have been invisible to us, and take action on the basis of our observations.

Being able to distinguish between necessary and sufficient, for example, opens many avenues for moving beyond technical solutions to our problems and into what’s meaningful, principled and life-giving. The distinction between feedback and requests allows us to decide when we’re trying to help another person learn, and when we’re secretly trying to get something we want from them. And the distinction between when it’s time to exert ourselves and when it’s time to rest makes it possible for us to pay attention to the ongoing energy and flourishing of our lives in a way that’s not possible if every moment is just another moment taken, on not taken, for work.

But while distinctions are necessary, we can run into big trouble when we let them harden into dualisms – an either/or, is-or-is-not understanding of the world. Because dualisms introduce separation between things that are rarely actually separate. When I say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ I create a dualism that leaves no space for my wrongness, and for your rightness. When we harden into ‘I’m scared of speaking in public, but I love being by myself’ we leave no room for the parts of us that long to be heard by others. And whenever we make sweeping and certain judgements about others based on their gender, sexuality, politics, business practices, skin colour, preferences and commitments the dualism we create blunts our capacity to see anything else about them, and very little about our own complexities and contradictions.

Very often, if we’re not careful, our dualisms imprison us and our capacity to respond to the world. And, when we start to look at the deeper dualisms that seem self-evident, it’s not so clear that they are as solid as they seem, either.

Is it really the case that what I call ‘me’ is over here and that ‘you’ are fully, and only, over there? If we allow the dualism to soften we can ask deeper questions: What about the ways we’re always in the lives of the people we love, even when we’re not with them physically? Even when we’re no longer alive. And what about the trail of words, objects, influences, impacts we leave behind and around us? Can we really say, absolutely, that they’re not ‘me’? What compassion might arise when we start to see that ‘they’ are ‘me’ and that ‘I’ am ‘them’ in very many ways? And when we see that what we are sure is only in others – all that we despise, fear, reject – is also in ourselves?

Can we say for sure that there’s a thing called ‘work’ that’s separate from ‘life’ such that the two need to be balanced against one another? Is life really the absence of death? Is death, really, the absence of life? And can we say, with any absolute certainty, that we’re separate from what’s around us?

When our distinctions harden into dualisms we easily close ourselves off to learning, to curiosity, and to a direct encounter with the world. It’s a difficulty made harder for us because so much of our contemporary culture and education thrives on dualisms, on certainty, on knowing.

And for this reason making distinctions but letting our dualisms soften enough that we can call them into question is necessary work for all of us. It’s the work of not knowing. Or perhaps, better said, the work of letting our questions be more important than our answers.

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Our mysterious inner worlds

It’s probable that our conscious minds, the part we each so readily take to be ‘me’, is but a tiny sliver of light floating on a darker, more inscrutable background.

Deep in this mysterious substrate lie a host of automatic processes – monitoring, regulating, pulsing, analysing, stimulating, suppressing. We don’t have to do anything to make our hearts beat faster when we’re excited or scared. And breathing, while amenable to control by the conscious mind, just gets on with itself when we’re not looking.

Alongside the complex but more automatic processes are parts of us – equally hidden from our direct experience – with immense intelligence, capable of making sense, following through on goals and plans, directing us, holding us back, moving us forward. As Timothy D Wilson says in his book on this subject, we are in many ways strangers to ourselves, easily mistaking the reasons we do what we do and needing to pay careful attention – watching and observing ourselves as we would another person – if we are to have a chance of understanding our motives, preferences, habits and the mysterious movements of our minds and bodies.

All of this has particularly been on my mind in recent weeks during which the original intent of this project – a daily practice of writing and publishing on meaningful topics – has been so difficult to bring about. I’ve never consciously, purposefully given up on the idea but have found my mind and body in something of a revolt against it, holding me back, turning me away. Rather than pushing through (which is sometimes the most helpful thing to do with practices that are important in our lives) I have been treating this inner part as respectfully as I can, as if it has wisdom only dimly available to my conscious mind. In the space that’s emerged I have taken up other practices, of which daily swimming seems the most important and which has been an enormous gift which I will write about another time.

Today, for the first time this summer, I returned to open water swimming at the ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath. As I slipped into the water, something shifted profoundly within me. A returning sense of contact with the world, a realisation again of how indivisibly I am of the world rather than separate from it. There among the ducks and the dragonflies, with my hands invisible before me in the murky darkness, I found out again that I am not alone. And in the midst of this array of life, an enormous gratitude, a surging wish to be of service, and joy at the prospect of writing again.

And wonder at this mysterious something we human beings are, that can be awakened in surprising ways, or put to sleep, by the simple day-to-day choices and practices by which we live our lives.

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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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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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