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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Seeing through it

Given how often our naturally associative minds fill in the gaps in our experience with the ghosts of memories, projections, and transference, what are we to do?

Let’s start with understanding that all these processes are entirely natural and – in many circumstances – entirely necessary. Faced with something new and unknown, it’s quite reasonable and very helpful that we have the kind of minds that enable us to predict what might happen and take action on the basis of our predictions.

But let’s also understand that in many situations our associative understanding of the world causes enormous trouble: when I try to gain your approval as if you’re a parent because of the way you have positional authority over me; when I treat you as I do my younger brother because you’re a peer on my team; when I project onto you those aspects of myself I don’t like or can’t tolerate, and judge you or criticise you because of them.

As I have written here in recent days, each of these can lead us into all kinds of difficulty because we are no longer relating to the people around us as they are. So how can we work with colleagues, lead an organisation, parent or be a friend in a more truthful way, a way which is responsive to what’s happening now and here rather than what was happening then or over there?

Perhaps a powerful and insightful place to start is to take up the discipline of regular self-reflection. Buy yourself a journal – something you’ll be pleased to write in. And a pen that you’ll enjoy writing with. And then write, daily. You can uncover wonders with just a few minutes of attention each day (some hints on how you could do this are here).

Write about what you see in yourself – your thoughts, what you experience in different situations, and the actions you find yourself taking. In particular, write about what it feels like to be with others. Where do you feel small, diminished, like a child? Where do you feel grandiose, puffed up beyond your normal stature? With whom do you feel judgemental, angry, resentful? Whose company are you drawn to?

And then, most importantly, write about what each of those feelings remind you of. It’s here that there’s the most uncovering to do – that the watchful, vigilant state you find yourself in with Paul reminds you of the feel of being with your father when you were small; that Dana irritates you the way you feel irritated with your sister; that you long for signs of Karen’s appreciation for you like you did with your mother.

Often it’s just the seeing of our transferences, projections and memories that allows their grip on us to start to loosen – that allows them to move from having us so that instead we can have them. And such self-reflection is vital work for all of us to do, if we want to take responsibility for the systems, communities, organisations and families in which we live our lives.

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The restorative possibilities of practice

It’s been a full few weeks, more full than I expected, and I have found it difficult to write. Any practice can be like this, crowded out by what seem to be the demands of the moment. And I notice, each time that I let a practice that’s important to me slip, how easy it is to take up the story that I’m someone who used to write consistently. And sometimes, that’s the simple truth.

But, this week, I’m in a position to set aside much of what has been pressing on me these past months, and already I feel more spaciousness in my heart, a renewed sense of aliveness in my body, and my mind is quieter too. I’m less convinced by stories about who I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing. These are stories which, I see from this vantage point, have me brace myself, grit my teeth and push harder, often long before I’ve caught on to what’s happening. I see how easy it is to be carried along by it all, as if hurled by a swelling tide until I no longer remember that I’m swept up in anything and life becomes an invisible whirling torrent of things to do and places to be. It should be of little surprise to me (though it often is) that in the midst of all that my body has tightened up, my heart more rigid, my mind filled with barely visible oughts and shoulds, judgements and obligations and disappointments.

In the space that this week is offering me, I’m reminded not only how easy it is to let go of regular practice, but also precisely how much such practice can support me. Writing, drawing, meditation, walking, playing music, kick-boxing and prayer are all ways I get to rehearse, repeatedly, a relationship with the world that’s full of life, and full of expression, full of connection to others, and full of welcome for all of it – even the greatest difficulties. And this, I’m starting to see more clearly, is the very point of practice – that over time, done again and again, it allows us to experience life as if parts of ourselves that are more often marginalised, abandoned or simply forgotten have come home again.

So I’m grateful for this week, in which I can practice remembering that there are many ways to be in the world, in which I have a chance to recover something of what’s been out of view, and in which I have the opportunity to dedicate myself anew to practices – including writing here – that are often so life giving not only to me but also to those whose lives my presence affects.

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Purposeful / Purposive

Purposeful – the projects we’re committed to that we know we’re committed to. That which we feel we have chosen.

Purposive – the projects we’re committed to that we don’t know we’ve chosen, and which show up in our actions more than they show up in our minds.

Our being human is an inevitable mix of purposeful and purposive, and much of our difficulty comes from the conflicts between the two. When I’ve purposefully chosen to be a kind and loving parent, for example, at the same time as having a purposive commitment to being right, or never being criticised. Or when I’ve purposefully chosen to lead others in a way that’s wise and inclusive, alongside a purposive commitment to looking good, or being seen as perfect, or being in control.

The trouble with our purposive commitments is their invisibility to us, which so often means we take them not to exist. But it’s these very commitments that others often see most clearly.

And it’s in uncovering what’s purposive for us, through careful observation and through the loving support of others, that we have a chance of freeing ourselves up to do what we intend. And a chance of undoing the silent battle with ourselves that causes us and others so much suffering, and which has us hold back so much of what we’re here to do.

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Wading together

The kind of tiredness that tells us we don’t want to be here isn’t just a private, personal matter.

How many meetings have you been in when it seems like everyone is tired in this way, but nobody is saying? And how many times have you pushed on, resigned to the pointlessness of the conversation, determined to keep going in the hope that it will help it be over more quickly?

Over a decade ago, before I knew how to work with any of this productively, I was in just such a meeting. On a hot July morning, around a kitchen table, we made a decision to commit the company I co-founded to a multi-year project that would require all of our energy and most of our remaining resources. What I remember most was how the conversation felt – like walking through hot, sticky treacle, or wading through mud. Speaking was difficult, listening was harder, and mustering a ‘yes’ for what we were deciding to do, harder still. And what made it most difficult was the sense that others in the room were experiencing the same heavy tiredness but keeping it quiet. It doesn’t surprise me that the project didn’t work out well.

What I came to see sometime afterwards was how powerful it could have been for any of us to say what we were experiencing, to ask ‘how does it feel, right now, to be having this conversation?’, and then to be curious about the response. We might quickly have learned about the reservations many of us had, about how we were trying to hide them in order to avoid conflict, and about how much life was missing from this particular project that might have been expressed – productively, willingly – in another.

Tiredness like this in a meeting can very often show us that we’re avoiding something, or trying to make a commitment that’s not sincere. And if we’d known this – and acted upon it rather than pretending all was ok – we might have given ourselves a chance to dedicate our efforts over the following two years towards a project that really mattered to us, one that would have brought our our fullest, most whole-hearted commitment and with it, inevitably, our most generous, creative response.

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On thinking

I can think. I really can.

I can think long, and hard, and deeply, about complex problems.

And because I can do it well, I often live as if that’s all there is to do in the world. To think, and to solve, and to work it out. As if this is what I’m here for.

It’s got me a long way. It brings many blessings. But it also creates great difficulty.

When I live in this way, I have a propensity to believe the truth of my thinking, far beyond its actual truthfulness. I try to understand that which cannot be understood in this way – life, or relationships, or what I’m here to do. I think myself away from situations where what’s called for is stepping further in. I seal myself away from the world with a shield of thought. And I judge myself mercilessly for not yet having thought enough or well-enough.

When I live this way, my mind is never still. There is little room for mystery, awe, and wonder. I’m anxious (because no amount of thinking is ever enough). And because of this I’m working, hard, all the time, to work it all out.

And what gets forgotten is that there are other kinds of wisdom upon which I can call. The wisdom of others. The wisdom of my heart. The wisdom of my body. The wisdom of breath. The wisdom of not-knowing, and of un-knowing. The wisdom that can only come from stillness.

And my work, if I am to be fully in life, is letting go enough, surrendering enough, opening enough to let these other kinds of wisdom in.

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Waking or Sleeping?

Both attention and absorption can be cultivated with practice.

Absorption is not so difficult. We are presented with opportunities to practice it at every turn. Entire industries are devoted to selling us an easy, shallow kind of distraction that numbs us, keeps us from ourselves, throws us into self-judgement and comparison with others, and keeps us buying.

But attention – learning to pay sustained, close, awake attention to life – is more tricky and troublesome, and it’s perhaps for this reason that it’s more marginal in our culture.

It can be difficult to practice being awake in life because almost everything that could wake us can also be a path for going to sleep. The revolutionary success of mobile devices such as smartphones, for example, with their unparalleled capacity to connect us to the world, may be in large part attributable to their equal capacity to soothe us, to lull us into a distracted sense of busyness, being needed, and being entertained.

And this dual possibility of waking or turning away is inherent even the rich, deep mindfulness practices developed in many spiritual traditions. These practices, increasingly fashionable in the corporate world, could teach us to be extraordinarily attentive and sensitive to what’s around us, but are frequently presented as new methods for conforming to the status quo without being too troubled by it.

Practice mindfulness and feel calm. Practice mindfulness and find tranquility. Practice mindfulness and you’ll find your stressful job easier to bear. Practice mindfulness and you’ll fit in to where you are with less self-judgement and less complaining. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be less trouble. Practice mindfulness and you’ll be tranquil enough not to ask difficult questions. Practice mindfulness, and go to sleep to yourself.

Far less often do we see that mindfulness practices – a deep, rich, wide-open invitation into life – can help us develop deeper contact with our inner sense of justice and compassion. Rarely are we invited to see how this waking up to ourselves can lead us into to exactly the kind of trouble the world needs as we find ourselves disturbed, shaken, and enlivened by our attentive contact with life.

As we learn to pay more sustained, awake attention to what’s happening, we can find ourselves cultivating our capacity to speak up, to ask for what what we and others need, to stay in relationship as we explore deep and longstanding difficulties and disagreements, to stand out as different, to act on what’s called for rather than just what we like or what’s familiar, and to advocate on behalf of a life that’s bigger than our own personal concerns.

Both attention (waking up) and absorption (going to sleep) can be cultivated with practice.

Which do you think we should choose?

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Absorption and Attention

This morning, on my way home, I walk past a book table outside a local charity shop. One of the books has blown to the ground and only when I’ve walked some distance, when I’m close to my front door, does it occur to me how easily I could have picked it up and restored it to its place.

A small matter, perhaps, but one that’s emblematic of a bigger concern: the actions that are denied to me when absorbed in something and not paying attention to the world around me. My absorption in thought blinds me what’s called for, a simple opportunity to participate in a small kindness, and it gets me wondering about everything else I miss.

I notice that I often walk a line between absorption and attention and that while both are necessary (absorption for the effortless skilfulness of dealing with everyday things, attention for responding in fresh ways to people and situations) absorption is much easier. It’s familiar, comforting. It calms me. It takes me away from what’s difficult. And it allows me to miss the world.

When I’m absorbed I don’t just miss books on the floor. I miss people. I’m blinded to their difficulty as well as their joys. And just like with the book, I miss the opportunity to contribute, to do what’s called for, to be of use.

I notice how absorption can be a purposeful act of turning away. I easily become absorbed, for example, after seeing distressing images on the news, or walking past people sleeping on the street, or when I know I’ve wronged someone.

And so even if absorption in activity or in thought is a necessary and often sustaining part of being human, it can also be a way of being asleep in life.

And it is why paying attention is so much more difficult. To pay attention I must allow myself to be confronted by the world. I have to acknowledge what’s happening around me and within me. I have to allow myself to feel troubled. And I’m called to respond – to suffering, to difficulty, to books lying on the floor.

And in this way actively cultivating and practicing attention, being awake, is a moral question.

Because without attention I – we – slip into the easy thrum of habit and away from taking sufficient care of the world.

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Protector Parts, Defender Parts

We are rather less a single, unitary ‘I’ than a system or community of parts, each in relationship with one another. And it can be so very revealing, and practically useful, to get to know the parts – their intelligence, their blind-spots, and the very particular projects they’ve each taken up in our lives.

I’ve written before here about shame, a familiar background mood for me, as it is for so many people. It turns out that there are at least two parts of me that are actively involved in protecting me from shaming by others – one which pre-emptively shames me, and one which more directly defends me from shame. Each has its own form of good intention, and each often causes me difficulty.

The first part is an inner critic part. It’s so dedicated to me not being shamed by other people that it will frequently take pre-emptive action by shaming me itself. The logic is clear, and compelling: if I can be made to feel sufficient shame beforehand, then perhaps I’ll hold back from acting in a way that would cause others to shame me. It’s a simple exchange – the lesser pain of my own internally generated shame to protect against the more soul-searing shame that comes from the disapproval of other people.

This is the part which would have me hold back from speaking my mind, from becoming angry with other people, from showing too much love, from being a surprise or a disappointment or a bother or mystery. This is the part which, for years, held me back from dancing, having me be ashamed of myself even before I begin. It’s dedicated to forever scanning the horizon and keeping me within very tightly contained boundaries so as to avoid the kind of pain it knows I could, once, not tolerate. It is willing to exact quite a price in order to do this: the inner price of feeling some level of shame at all times, and the outer price of holding back what is, most truly, mine to bring.

The second part is a protector part. Should the antics of the inner critic fail, so that I actually get shamed by someone else, it throws itself into action. It’s not interested in waiting, nor does it have any time for curiosity or learning. What it most wants is the shame to go away. The protector part brings forward my defensiveness, my justifications, my denial. Insincere apologies, pretence, lengthy justifications for my actions, tuning out, disconnecting from people, freezing, abandoning my commitments, bending myself out of shape – all these are the order of the day for the protector part.

The protector part is also willing to pay a price to protect me from shame, most notably having me act at odds with myself, with a relationship I care about, or with my deepest, most sincere commitments.

And while both these parts have honourable and noble intentions, they are way out of date, having swung into action when I was very small and really needed some protection. They don’t take into account that I am an adult now, and that there is another part of me, more akin to the me-myself that exists over the entire span of my life, that no longer needs their help. This part, which could be called essence or self, is really quite able to be in the world alongside shame, and anger, and hate, and disappointment. It is vast enough, deep enough, alive enough, and quite strong enough to experience whatever comes its way. It is curious, open, timeless, and willing to learn.

Naming the parts has power. When I see that I am had by the inner critic or inner protector, I am increasingly able to ask them to relax, to step aside – to reassure them that I’m quite fine, whatever happens, and that I do not need them to protect me any more. And, in the space that this affords, I’m more able to step, willingly and without panic or rush, towards genuine relationship and inquiry, and into the world as it is rather than the world as smaller parts of me imagine it to be.

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No email in my pocket

Our tools shape us. I’ve argued this here before, most notably earlier this week.

And so, inspired by a blog post from Danielle Marchant, I have disabled email and facebook on my phone. It has been a revelation.

No longer do I carry in my pocket a device that calls to me in the way that it did. A smart-phone, I have found, beckons to me even when it is doing nothing. It lays out a pathway, a scaffold, for checking and rechecking, for wondering if anyone has tried to contact or me or if anyone needs me, and for addressing my longing – and my wish to help – in a very superficial way. I find myself drawn towards it, but left hollow and wanting from my interaction, and then checking again in the hope that the emptiness will be filled. A feeling of emptiness, itself, I see, that is brought about by the very pattern by which I try to assuage it.

As I let go of the neediness that my phone both invites and promises to resolve, I see why we have been hooked so absolutely by our amazing and life-altering devices. I do not wish to abandon technology that can serve to connect us in ways we could never have imagined. But I do wish to give up on the world that gets brought about by my being always-on, always-available, distant from myself and so often distracted.

I am checking my email only when with my laptop – a purposeful act, chosen consciously and deliberately around my other commitments, rather than a habitual, reactive interruption to them.

So, please, if you know me personally and need me urgently, a call or a text are the way to go.

And as a result of all this I find myself more present, more fully engaged in the simple contactfulness of conversation with others, more alive to the places I’m in and to what’s going on around me. I am less split, less distracted. My horizons have shifted, subtly, meaningfully, by spending less time looking down at a sliver of screen in front of me and more time looking up and out at the world and at other people.

And, in the way that such subtle but important shifts of perspective can bring about, the world feels bigger too.

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Knowing yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Making visible

So much of what it is to be a person is invisible to us.

Yes, we can see outward behaviour, but we can’t see the thoughts, intentions, vows, commitments, bodily sensations, meaning, love, joy, grief, sadness, hope or pain of others.

In order to see and understand other people as people and not as objects we need to be able to understand the contours of their inner worlds. And in order to do that, we need to know our own inner worlds: we need the language and discernment to notice and distinguish what’s happening inside us. But we have abandoned the practices that can support us in this.

We’ve abandoned reflection and replaced it with busyness.
We’ve abandoned sitting quietly with ourselves and replaced it with consuming.
We’ve abandoned patient and disciplined self-observation and replaced it with entertainment.
We’ve judged the contemplative practices of those peoples and traditions that came before us to be irrelevant, spooky, or superstitious – at odds with our apparently sophisticated, rational way of being.

Our capacity to understand ourselves, and to understand others, has been flattened out, rendered shallow and inconsequential as a result. We barely know ourselves, and we barely know how to respond to the suffering and difficulty of those we work with, and those we live with.

If we want to build families, communities and organisations in which people have a genuine chance to thrive, we need to take care of this.

It’s time we took back what we’ve so comprehensively abandoned, so we can learn to treat what’s invisible about others and, first, about ourselves, with the seriousness and wonder it deserves.

Pay attention

For all the current hype about mindfulness and meditation – the does-it work or doesn’t-it work, the neuroscience and the pseudoscience – at heart what’s at stake is our capacity to pay attention. What mindfulness practices show us most simply is quite how little attention most of us are paying to anything.

It’s our capacity to pay exquisite attention to thoughts and feelings that opens up the possibility of having them rather than being had by them. And this is the foundational difference between a certain kind of slavery and a certain kind of freedom.

Put another way, practicing paying attention purposefully and repeatedly over time (usually a long time) opens up the possibility of learning to respond to what you’re experiencing rather than reacting habitually to it.

And this is important because being stuck in repetitive habitual reactions is an enormous constraint on your capacity to engage – meaningfully, powerfully, purposefully, and compassionately – with the world.

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Pay attention

If you read the news, speak to friends, look at what’s happening around you, it’s hard not to be reminded of the transience and fragility of life. And even if we manage to avoid disaster, accident or misfortune that ends our lives early – even with a long life – we are gone in the blink of an eye.

In the light of this it’s understandable that we’re spooked – rushing and spilling over ourselves to make a mark on the world, or numbing ourselves with our busyness. In the face of our own finitude the contemporary world affords us endless opportunities to scatter ourselves into a million projects and distractions.

But there are parallel paths available to us, that I think are worth returning to, often.

When you eat, just eat.

When you are with another, just be with them.

When you work, just work.

When you read, just read.

When you kiss, just kiss.

When you walk, just walk.

When you arrive in a place, look.

Stop, sometimes, to do nothing apart from paying attention, for longer than you can usually bear.

These are paths to putting things down – outer things, inner things – in order to be in contact with the life we are each in the midst of living, for a while. While we still have it.

None of this comes easily to most of us. We are so practiced at being in a billion places simultaneously. And so we have to consciously take our practice in the other direction. We’re called upon to practice simplicity. To practice being up to one thing at a time.

And to practice paying attention to the exquisite depth of what is, always, right here in front of us.

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Escape

When I stop and look, quietly and patiently for a while, I come to see how often what I’m trying to do is get away.

Get away from this experience – so that I can have another one that promises to be better, more soothing, less troubling.

Get away from this conversation – that’s stirring up my familiar sense of not having done enough, not having been responsible enough, not having taken care enough.

Get away from this moment so that I have a chance of being at peace.

How pervasive ‘get away‘ is for me! My habitual orientation, unless I take care of it, is away-from-here. It’s predicated upon an interpretation of life in which there is, in some way, always somewhere or somewhen better to be.

And that is an interpretation riddled with difficulties and troubles, not least of all because of the dissatisfaction it produces, and the small space it offers in which to act. My attempts to escape life turn out to be a prison of my own making.

So I’m working on deeper in to this experience, this conversation, this moment.

Truth is, I’ve been working on this for a long time already. Because it’s tricky – there are so many opportunities and reasons to fall back into trying to get away.

But work on it I must – we all must, I think – in order to be present to, and to contribute to, this crazy and breathtaking life into which I did not choose to be born, but in which I nonetheless keep on finding myself. And from which there is nowhere better, truth be told, to escape to.

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Something missing

Behind all our activity, all our busyness, we live with the constant, gnawing sense that there’s something missing.

Often we try to hide it:

From others. From ourselves. This is the root of much of our rushing and many of our addictions (shopping, email, browsing the web, eating). But numbing ourselves in this way numbs us to the rest of life too.

Or we try to fill it:

We imagine the perfect relationship, house, holiday or job title will have the feeling go away. We pursue power, money, sex, recognition, fame. We imagine there’s a mythical island somewhere where we won’t have to feel this way. And we imagine that others – upon whom we project the image of a perfect untroubled life – live there already. All of this fuels our suffering, our desperation, and our feeling that somehow we didn’t work out how to live a properly successful life, while others did.

The feeling that there is something missing is, to our surprise, not solved by having more. See Lynne Twist’s book The Soul of Money for a first-hand account of the anguish even billionaires – those who want for nothing material – so often seem to have that their billions did nothing to assuage.

No, to live with the sense that something is missing is an essential aspect of being human. It arises from our capacity to see possibility in every person, every thing, every situation. We know, always, some sense of that which is not yet here. And it is this very capacity that affords us our creativity, our compassion, and our ability to act to improve things both for ourselves and for others.

Trying to rescue ourselves from the queasy hollow feeling of ‘missing’ fuels our obsessions and our distraction. Let’s, instead, learn to do the difficult work of turning into it, towards it, living in it and with it and from it. And then, maybe, we can respond to the situations we find ourselves in rather than reacting mindlessly, blindly, and madly to banish what cannot be made to go away.

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The difficulty of being present

Mindfulness, the art of paying attention to what’s here and to what’s happening now, has become a fashionable topic in recent years. Perhaps this is a way in which we acknowledge that there’s a limit to the back-to-back scheduling of our lives, and the way that everything is always interrupting everything else.

When our culture has us skate over life at a breakneck pace, when the only response we seem to muster to our busyness is more busyness, the idea of some peace – some respite – seems understandably appealing.

But we misunderstand the practice of mindfulness, and the possibility of being present, if we see it as a technique to quell and soothe our restlessness.

Because being present means we actually have to face our lives rather than run from them.

When we quieten ourselves enough to really listen, we come to feel our own pain and our own anxiety – as well as our love and our joy and our deep unfulfilled longing . And if we stay still for long enough, we also begin to see all of this in others. And we are called to respond.

Most of us, I think, don’t want to experience that feeling, or that responsibility, for too long. We’re happy to toy with the idea of being more present in our lives, without wanting to commit to it, at least not too much.

And in this way being present in our lives becomes another fad, a passing phase, rather than something we’ll dedicate ourselves to for its own sake.

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Muted

Because we are story-telling beings, we humans have a million ways of avoiding being present to what is right in front of us – people, projects, possibilities, suffering – and what is within us – thoughts, feelings, and the sensations and wisdom arising in our bodies.

We so easily spin stories, throw ourselves into guilt and reminiscence about the past, worry about and try to anticipate the future. And while each of these have their place, they so easily distract us from what we’re most directly in the midst of.

Missing what and who is here robs us of the opportunity to experience life in its richness as we go.

More importantly for everyone else, it denies us the opportunity to bring ourselves at our fullest. Because in our distraction, we respond not to the needs of the moment, but to the needs of our fear, or to our wish to not have to face the world as it is.

Our deepest possibilities for connection and contribution are muted – whenever here is not where we are, and now is not what we’re responding to.

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Interrupted

Could it be that we’re so harried, so unhappy, so stressed because we’ve forgotten the simple pleasure and discipline of being up to one thing at a time?

When we’re committed to being always on, always connected, always responsive – and to reacting to every email, phone call, tweet, facebook posting, news report – how can we expect to lose ourselves, completely, in something that’s both fulfilling and of value?

Everything is interrupting everything else, all the time. And we keep it this way – make it this way – because we think we like it. It makes us feel important.

And perhaps most significantly, it saves us from having to feel, really feel, anything in particular.

The consequence? The successful numbing of both our anxiety and our joy.

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Mandala

This weekend I sat with my eight year old daughter and we coloured mandalas together.

Engrossed in the simplicity and beauty of the task, with no standards with which to compare ourselves, and with nowhere to get to, I found myself connected with her, present with her, in ways that are fleeting at best in the melée of day-to-day family life.

We talked about many things as we drew – topics touched rarely by our more familiar pattern of everyday conversation. And there were long periods of silence in which we just were together. It was exquisite and deep and loving, and so very very simple.

We easily forget the straightforward human satisfactions of being together with others and of making with our hands. Perhaps it’s because we’ve become so sure that there is always somewhere to get to (which isn’t here), that something else needs doing (that props up the familiar feel of our busyness), and that more complex and more sophisticated (more ‘entertaining’) is of greater value.

It can support our lives enormously to remember that what’s deeply rewarding can be simple and uncluttered. And that it’s right there, in front of us, all of the time.

Home

This evening I settle down to read, and then to sleep.

But my mind is restless, active, thoughts crashing in on one another. Everything is interrupting everything else. I’m whirling from one thing that needs doing to the next. Emails ignored demand attention. Projects unfinished. Shame arises, and harsh inner criticism. I’m caught by all the ways I’ve been inattentive, by everything that is still undone.

I cannot read. And I cannot sleep while I’m in the grip of this.

But there’s a pattern in all this chaos, and in seeing the pattern is part of its undoing. I’m longing. Longing for peace. Longing for everything to be ok. Longing to be free of imperfection, of incompleteness, of uncertainty. Longing to be home. 

And I have made an error – one which I imagine most of us make, often – in thinking that the way home is to get it all done, tie up all the loose ends, attend to everything and everyone. I am sure that I can be at home only when I have met all of the world’s demands, when I am perfect. And I should not be surprised my mind is so active, so frenetic, so critical, filled with so much confusion. It seems there is so far to go and, whatever I do, home feels just as far away as it was.

In this way, I keep myself far from myself, far from any sense of peace.

The antidote? Learning that I am home already, in every moment, in every place, no matter what still needs doing. That I do not need to pursue anything to be there. That home is not at the end of a list of tasks. Nor is home an empty email inbox. Home is not a finished project, or the recognition of others.

Being home does not require the completion or achievement of anything.

Home is always here.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a simple practice to remind us of this. Breathing in, “I have arrived”. Breathing out, “I am at home”. In, “I have arrived”. Out, “I am at home”.

And perhaps, unsurprisingly, when I remember that I am home in every place and in every moment, when the world and life becomes my home, so much more becomes possible.

Including reading. And including sleep.

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Just One Day

oneday

What if for just one day

… you speak and listen, with singular attention, to the people closest to you.

… you reflect deeply on your life – what you’re aiming towards, what has you forget it, what brings you back to yourself.

… you pay attention to the finitude of your life – that it will, one day and who knows when, end.

… you begin a new practice that’s been important to you – learning something for the first time, writing, creating something that matters.

… you ask yourself the big questions you’ve been avoiding for so long.

… you put aside all your daily distractions and see what it’s like to fully inhabit your life.

What if, instead of living an endless stream of days with the same routine you took one day to do one of these?

What if it led to another, and in time, another?

What would it change, do you think, in your relationships, in your work, and in choices you make?

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Unfamiliar

One of the characteristics of human life is that what is familiar fades into the background. It has to be this way for us to cope with the world. Familiarity, and the background of understanding that it makes possible, is vital for our survival.

Imagine if this were not the case. What kind of life could we lead if we were constantly surprised by door handles, pencils, shoelaces, how to greet others, lifts, what to wear, watches, speech, furniture?

The complexity of the human worlds that we can construct and move between makes this all the more vital. The world of business, or the world of school, of parenting, of a particular profession – our participation in these require that we develop the kind of background familiarity which enables us to navigate and act without have to learn and relearn every time.

But familiarity, while necessary, also hides so much from us. Perhaps you can see this easily if you go to visit a city that’s unknown to you. Suddenly the details of buildings, architecture, language, dress come into view. That which would be unremarkable at home reveals itself in its beauty or in its capacity to confound or in its stupidity. Simple tasks such as buying a train ticket or navigating by bus across town show how complex they are, and how much skill they require.

All of these were present in your home town, but your very familiarity with everything had them fade from view.

If familiarity helps us to navigate, it also helps to conceal from us what’s there. We stop seeing the wonder and extraordinariness of our environments, tools and practices, just as we stop seeing their limits and costs. We lose sight of the effect of our houses, cars, meeting rooms, money, working hours, conversations, relationship to time, phones, people around us, sleep, and our practices of all kinds. In other words, familiarity is not just a way of coping skilfully with the world, it’s a way of going to sleep to it too.

Sometimes we need to undo all of this if we are going to have a chance to do more than sleepwalk from one situation to the next. We need to look at what’s most ordinary as if visitors from afar, or aliens from another world. We need to consciously and actively see what’s most familiar as if it were really quite strange to us.

And we need to consider exposing ourselves purposefully to the unfamiliar if we are to wake up from our dream and take the responsibility for our lives, work, organisations – and for each other – that is called for.

 

Paying attention

This moment, this particular experience arising in your particular body and particular mind, is absolutely unique. And irreplaceable.

And yet we rush by life, always in the pursuit of what’s next and what’s (apparently) going to be better than this.

We forget that each moment is already dying away to become something else, even when we’re not rushing and pushing and trying to have things happen.

Perhaps when we understand this, we’ll be ready to slow down enough to pay our lives the attention they deserve.

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Hyper-vigilance

Until you start to look for it, you may be unaware of your efforts to watch out, perhaps obsessively, in order to protect yourself from a certain something.

Some people are hyper-vigilant for lapses in fairness, rising in reaction any time someone says or does anything that seems unjust.

Others are hyper-vigilant for disorder, cleaning and clearing, sorting and organising the moment anything appears to be in disarray.

Some are hyper-vigilant for any threat to their sense of control, reacting before they know it to assert themselves if they ever feel even slightly out of the centre of things.

Others are hyper-vigilant for anger, shutting down and hiding away the moment it seems to be in the air.

And other people are hyper-vigilant for criticism, lashing out at once in defence when anybody seems to have a judgement or unwelcome opinion.

Your own hyper-vigilance might well be invisible to you, so habitual has it become. It may even seem that your particular version of it is not particular to you at all but a truth about the world. But if you observe for a while you might see how it arises in the form of a barely noticeable shift in feeling in your body. A tightening, a constriction, a sinking feeling taken as a signal to become alert, and then as signal to react, even when reacting might be the least helpful thing to do.

It’s a big deal for anyone who leads, or who has the reach to affect many people around them. Because your hyper-vigilance is most probably visible to everyone else even if it’s not visible to you. It will have people tip-toeing around you, withholding themselves, determined to avoid provoking your defensive reaction. Or it may throw you again and again into a predictable kind of difficulty.

The antidote to hyper-vigilance? Learning to become still enough, attentive enough, to catch the feeling before it turns into action. Slowing down instead of throwing yourself faster and harder into busy activity. Mindfulness practices can help a lot here.

And gradually cultivating a different story about the world, in which your primary project is not defending yourself but opening to everything that comes your way.

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That urge…

That feeling again. Perhaps you don’t even recognise it as a feeling. But, in response to whatever-it-is, there you are, reaching for your phone, for your computer, for whatever device will soothe you.

Email. Facebook. Twitter. The news headlines. Any of them will do it.

With this little fix done, the feeling subsides for a while and you get on with life. But it brings with it an odd feeling of shallowness; a disconnection from yourself and everything.

That feeling that might not even feel like a feeling is most probably some kind of anxiety. Anxiety at not being held by the world. Anxiety about not being safe. Anxiety about not being in control of everything. Anxiety at not being the centre of things. And the latest news, personal or impersonal and available to you at any moment, offers somehow a temporary relief.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you interrupted this habit (for habit it surely is), and dealt with the feeling a different way? Reached for a book – a novel, poems, science – something from which you could learn? Or for art? Or for pen and paper? Or for a person, with whom you could talk? Or just allowed yourself to feel it for a while?

Practiced over time, you might find yourself less drawn away from the world. And invited into your life in a new, more engaged and connected way.

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Maybe your thoughts

Maybe your thoughts turn quickly to standards, checking always if you are good enough, and if you’re right.

Or maybe your thoughts turn to how you can help, and how you’re probably letting people down already.

Maybe your thoughts turn to what’s been achieved, discounting anything that’s not doing or producing.

Or maybe they turn towards the particular sadness you’re feeling.

Maybe your thoughts go on and on, ever deeper into the intricacies of whatever your attention has settled upon.

Or maybe you’re scanning the situation for all that is dangerous and a cause for fear.

Maybe your thoughts leap ahead into the future, away from now, and into the many possibilities you can see. Maybe they’re looking for all the ways you can be in control of things once again.

Or maybe they’re discounting all that is troublesome and difficult, reassuring you and soothing you with stories about what is good and hopeful.

Whichever of these is most familiar to you, maybe it’s just a habit of thinking that’s become invisible because of its familiarity.

And maybe you’ve taken your own familiar thoughts, which are only one way of understanding your life, to be the one and only the truth.

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Quiet time

At some point in your life you’re going to need to include a practice of regular quiet time: time by yourself, letting your life sink in, being still, allowing yourself at last to feel it all.

Does it occur to you that without this, you run the risk of living a full-tilt life that you never, quite, manage to touch?

And a life that is never, quite, allowed to touch you in return?

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Outsmarting ourselves

I’m walking on the beach at Mar de Jade.

It’s early morning, and the sand is still cool. A pair of tiny hermit crabs are inching their way across the sand. They pull their shells down quickly as I draw near and then, if I’m still enough, peep out tentatively before beginning their journey again. The waves are warm this morning, and I wade out until the water reaches my knees. There’s a stronger undertow today. I have to work hard to keep my footing.

There are no aircraft here, I realise. In London I am used to the almost constant roar and whine of jet engines passing above and the criss-cross trails across the sky. Here, the skies are silent and clear. The shadows passing overhead are the pelicans, back this time in smaller groups of five or six, flying together v-shape just inches above the water. And wherever the pelicans gather, wheeling frigatebirds follow, high. They keep airborne with hardly a movement of their wings, turning in graceful arcs.

A larger group of pelicans, fifteen of them, cross the bay in a line. And all the while, I realise, I’m hardly here.

I could be paying attention to the warmth of the water on my feet, the tug of the tide, the bright sunlight and – beyond all of this – the intricate wholeness of this place, and how it’s all impacting me. I could be noticing this, in all its exquisite beauty, before I head off to the airport and hours of travel home.

But instead I’m thinking, mostly about what’s not here.

I think about what I’ll write today, and how to write it; about clients I’m due to meet next week, and all the preparation still to be done; of my family and all they’ve been up to; about things to be done around the house; about far-off projects only just coming into being. I think too already of how much I’ll miss this place, and wonder if I can bring any part of the experience home with me back to London. I think of what of my week here I’ll forget, and try hard to grasp onto it.

And then, momentarily, I catch myself in the act.

Our extraordinary capacity to think means we often outsmart ourselves, us human beings. We can think ourselves away from any situation. And in doing so, we miss so much of what’s present just here, as well as the wisdom of our bodies and hearts that have so much to say that can be different from our thoughts. We do this not just on the beach, but in our work, in our family lives. And in doing so we miss out on a a vital aspect of our own intelligence.

And so, for a while, I see if I can settle and just allow myself to be in the middle of it all – to be a witness to the wholeness of what’s happening here, both on the beach, and within me.

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Wellspring

Yes, I know, you’re really busy.

But would you take some time to sit still for a while? I mean really still. Twenty minutes of not doing anything.

Sit upright, alert, awake to yourself and your life for a while, and see what you find.

Don’t go to sleep (though you might quickly find once you’ve been sitting for a few moments quite how tired you actually are).

Quite soon you might discover how difficult you find it to be with yourself (could this be why you’re quite so busy as you are?). And how much is going on even when you’re doing nothing.

Thoughts crowding in. Ideas. Plans. Judgements. More plans. More judgement. Your inner critic chomping away. Feelings – irritation, anxiety, fear. Perhaps flashes of joy. Maybe love. Maybe gratitude. But, for many of us, mostly anxiety and irritation of one sort or another.

But if you do sit still for a while, and if you do it regularly, you might start to catch glimpses of something that’s behind your familiar whirling thoughts and feelings, behind all the stuff that you habitually take to be you.

Maybe the first thing you’ll encounter is a more expansive you than you ordinarily know. A you that can observe all of the activity, judging and fearfulness, and know itself to be bigger than all of that. A you that doesn’t need to be needed. A you that isn’t so invested in running away into busyness. A you that’s able to experience whatever there is to be experienced.

And then, given enough careful attention, and with much waiting and stillness, you might discover something even beyond that. A background aliveness from which all of the you that you experience arises. An aliveness that’s deeply engaged in everything – for it is life itself – but not caught up in it. An aliveness that’s content with simply being alive, amazed at it even. An aliveness that finds joy in the simplicity and sheer unlikeliness of being here – in breathing, in the beating of your heart, in your capacity to see, hear, love, hate, grieve, act, sleep, rest, eat, move, speak, listen. An aliveness that is not trying to get anywhere at all but which is fiercely, actively committed to life itself.

We forget this part of ourselves because finding it also requires us to find so much of ourselves that we can’t tolerate. But we would do well to remember it once in a while, because it’s a source of deep love, deep commitment, and vibrant, generous, living possibility.

And to be sure, we could all do with some of that in our frantic, over-stretched lives.

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