Turning Towards Life – 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

Balancing Judgement and Mercy

Whatever we say we’re most committed to, a great many of us live as if judgement were the primary human value, judging ourselves mercilessly and without respite. And, when we live in the stream of harsh judgement, no effort is enough, no achievement worth much, and our efforts to help seem to us nothing but disguised selfishness. In this relentless stream we find that the only way to bring ourselves to the world with the care and commitment we wish for is to fight an endless battle in which parts of ourselves – our essential goodness and our inner criticism – are pitched against one another.

In a battle there’s really never any time to rest. We live in state of vigilance, braced and ready for the blows that can come at any moment: for the offhand critical comment from a loved one or colleague, for the figures on our latest bank statement, for a tweet or instagram post that reminds us of all the ways we’re falling short.

And we find ourselves mounting all kinds of pre-emptive defence: doing our best to look good (which we’ll do even at great emotional, spiritual or financial expense), tuning out from our lives with distractions (so as not to feel the difficulty we’re in), shaming ourselves (to avoid the pain of being shamed in other ways) or deflating and collapsing (as if hiding from the world will save us).

Perhaps the worst of all of this is the way we hide the very battle we’re fighting, as if we are the only ones, as if nobody else has it this way. We become convinced that life has to be a battle. And that is our lot to live a life of inner harshness that only adds to whatever harshness and struggle we already experience in the world around us.

Nearly all of us are doing this – whether we’re teachers or CEOs, politicians or parents, artists or activists or accountants. And the more we live this way, the more exhausted we become, and the fewer of our gifts – the gifts we each have that the world needs from us – we get to bring.

All the while that we’re caught up in harsh self-judgement (which easily and also becomes harsh judgement of others) we’ve forgotten that judgement isn’t the same as discernment, and that discernment only becomes possible when judgement is balanced by a stream of mercy. I say ‘balanced’ here, but it seems to me much more the case that true discernment (the kind that can be life-giving, truthful and contributory) only comes into being when judgement is thoroughly infused with mercy – when judgement and mercy pour into one another, illuminate one another, become a single river.

And what is mercy? It’s a commitment to not turning away. It’s dignifying our anguish and confusion, the transience and unpredictability of our lives and the difficulties we’ve all had to face, and reaching for the essential goodness that is present in all of us. Mercy is indeed our turning towards life itself with a fiercely kind and loving embrace. It’s a commitment to see the beauty in our very unfinishedness, to cherish and honour both our inevitable falling-short and our capacity to improve things.

Most of us haven’t practiced mercy towards ourselves with anything approaching the diligence with which we practice harsh self-judgement.  But until mercy can become a serious part of our constellation of virtues, until we practice it as much as we long for it, we’ll struggle with more difficulty than we’re due and we’ll doubtless bring more difficulty to others than we intend.

Photo Credit: ShinyPhotoScotland Flickr via Compfight cc

A place from which to relate to the world


A distraction? An interruption to our dispassionate, rational, critical faculties? Out of place in work? At home? Best ignored? Even better suppressed?


A mood is a place from which we relate to the world.

Moods are disclosive: they actively show the world to us, bringing forward some aspects so that they can be seen, and having others recede into the background.

And it’s important that we pay attention to them because there is no dispassionate, uninvolved place from which to relate to the world. There is no ‘mood-free’ way to be which would show us everything all in one go, at least in everyday life.

A mood of love: the object of your love (a person, an idea, a project) fills the world you experience. You find yourself turning towards it or them again and again in your thoughts and activities. For a while, the world revolves around this, and you get to see that which is inspiring, thrilling, life-giving about them.

A mood of frustration: when there’s something that matters to you that you can’t get to happen. Once again, that something figures centrally in the world for as long as you’re frustrated. Everything seems to point towards this something that matters, to contribute to your sense of being thwarted.

A mood of fear: brings forward that which is or seems threatening to us or to that which we care about, and has everything else fade away, so that we can take focussed action.

A mood of boredom: has everything fade into the background. Nothing seems important enough, stirring enough, exciting enough to move you.

A mood of resentment: has the person or situation you’re resentful about become central, and reveals to you the myriad ways you might take revenge, get your own back, or otherwise cause hurt.

A mood of gratitude: shines a light on the unlikeliness of your presence in the world, how little you had to do to end up surrounded by people, objects, possessions, possibilities. Illuminates the extraordinariness of the everyday.

Rather than being errors in perception, moods are always a way of attuning to aspects of the world that we might not otherwise pay attention to. Each mood functions to reveal the world in particular ways, showing us that which a different mood would conceal. And mostly this isn’t apparent, because for the most part moods are in the background, invisible. They’re like the air we breathe, omnipresent, necessary, and transparent.

So being able to tell what mood you’re in is a huge opening. It will show you what possibilities you might be missing, or how it is that there seem no possibilities at all. It will tell you much about what you really care about, because moods always arise from our cares, values and commitments. It will show you how what seems central right now, and what incidental, is only one way to look at things.

As you learn to cultivate different moods from the ones you’re most used to – for example gratitude where there was resentment – you’ll have revealed to you much that you never really saw before. You may discover that the world and other people are never simply this way or that, and perhaps even open up the possibility that they’re something else completely from how you’re used to relating to them. And this is a necessary step for any of us who want to bring ourselves fully to the world and to open up rich new avenues for relationship, possibility, and action.

Left Out


Conversations frequently left out of the discourse of professional life:

What you’re feeling – a potential source of enormous insight and connection to others

What you care about – especially if different from those around you

Your history – the story of everything and everyone that brought you to this moment, the discoveries and losses and experiences that have shaped you

Your weirdness – the unique artfulness and way of seeing that comes from you being you

Your imagination – your capacity to invent beyond the bounds of convention, the energy for life which stirs you to break out of the ways you’re held in

Your longing – the life and world you’re in the midst of bringing forth

We shut them out with excuses. They’re ‘soft’ subjects, while business is ‘hard’. They’ll open a pandora’s box or a can of worms. This is a work-place, not a therapy session.

We lose so much when we continue to exclude the passions and possibility of the human heart from so many of our endeavours. And it damages us too, because before long we reduce ourselves and others to shadows of ourselves, inoculated by our cynicism against demonstrating care for much that is of genuinely enduring value to human life. Is this really the way you and your colleagues began your journey into the life of work? Can you even remember?

That work should be this way was sold to us by the early industrialists who needed scores of people in their factories to button down, fit themselves in, and stay in line. They appropriated the language of rationalism and science to fashion people into tools, cogs, and components so they could build their great money making machines. And we bought it, continuing a pernicious myth that shallows our relationships and possibility.

The world faces many difficulties right now, and addressing them is going to take all the generosity, wisdom and heartfelt commitment we can muster. Do we really intend to keep on working to shut that out from the world?

Feels just like me


That familiar feeling again. She said “You’ve let me down” and something dropped in your belly, your posture collapsed just a little, and the world seemed to lose its solidity. You know how this goes. You’ll deal with the deflation by apologising and the energy for all your projects and plans will slip away until long after you get home.

Or you’re five minutes late for the meeting. Pulse racing. Tightness in your chest. You’re holding your breath, mind whirling, all the excuses and ways you’ll save face working out as you dash down the hall. You arrive hot, out of breath, mutter an excuse that blames the trains or the email system or someone else for holding you up, and then stay disengaged from the conversation, wrapped up in your shame and self-judgement.

Or maybe he sent you an email telling you he wouldn’t be seeing you as you’d arranged. Fury and resentment knot your stomach. Your jaws clench, your shoulders tighten. “It’s always this way,” you tell yourself, “he’s so self-centred”. And already your fingers are tapping out a reply: cold, distancing, laced with judgements and sarcasm.

Those feelings that are so familiar, that ‘feel like you’, are where your freedom can begin. Because every emotion conjours up a world, in which certain people loom close and others become far away, in which some actions become obvious – necessary even – and others seem impossible. And from the world that’s revealed to you by your moods you act: the combination of the familiar feeling and well-rehearsed action giving you a sense of who you are. In a way, over time, your way of responding indeed becomes who you take yourself to be.

You can see that this is the case by observing yourself for a while. What kind of possibilities become available to you in love, hate, resentment, joy, boredom, anger, frustration, sincerity, cynicism, fear, panic, anxiety, gratitude? And what familiar actions do you tend to take? What results do they bring?

The first steps towards your freedom are taken when you find out that there is no right ‘thing to do’ to respond to what you’re feeling. What seems so self-evident might just be the result of years of practice that’s conditioned you to react in a particular way. Don’t confuse its familiarity with appropriateness.

Next time you find yourself propelled into action like this see what happens if you make a change – and just a small one – in your response.

What happens if you do the opposite of that which your body seems to compel you to do? You may just find that new possibilities begin to open for you and those around you… that the world starts to open up in ways you’d never imagined.

How we misunderstand kindness


We misunderstand kindness by taking it to be soft, or a push-over. Genuine kindness arises from a heated engagement with the world and with life. It’s borne of our efforts and our sadness, our gratitude, frustration and loss, our hard-won experience and our encounters with life’s finitude.

Kindness calls on us to:

face our difficulties
speak truth rather than cover it over with self-justification or evasion
point out what needs changing
draw attention to situations lacking integrity or good judgement
witness others’ distress and disorientation and share our own
say yes and no clearly, without excuses
take a stand for what matters
speak out
magnify dignity and possibility for everyone
bring forward both our tenderness and our fierce courage

When we think that kindness is a push-over we’re mostly thinking of kindness without discernment or wisdomkindness that stands back from difficulty, kindness that robs others of dignity by denying their distress, kindness that strips people of their capacity to act for themselves, kindness that serves to make us feel better but does nothing to make the world better, kindness that’s simply cotton wool to life’s hard edges.

In the end, that’s no kindness at all.

What emotions are

Two different interpretations of your emotions:

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

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

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

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

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

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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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When hiding anxiety only fuels it

A story about the trouble caused when we can’t talk about shame and anxiety in organisational life:

A global retailer struggling to meet the expectations of the markets, brings in a new measurement system for its stores, with more than sixty targets to meet.

A daily ratings table of stores is published internally, naming those meeting the targets and those falling short. It’s described as a logical move to increase performance in difficult times. And at the same time, it allows the board to deny the anxiety they’re feeling: “we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve responded in a clear and rational manner to market conditions”.

Meanwhile, the ratings system has very effectively pushed the anxiety onto the store managers, where even respected, skilful, long-serving managers are reduced to a daily jostle for the top few spots. Unable or unwilling to challenge the system itself (after all, it’s apparently a rational response to the current difficulty), they start to put pressure on their department heads for the daily delivery of the targets. And, unable to start a conversation about how all of this feels to everybody, the department heads – fearful of being shamed – look for whatever they can do to hit their targets.

This is where the real trouble begins.

Because in the face of unnamable anxiety and the unbearable threat of shame, even respected, diligent department heads start to look for ways to game the system.

Numbers are fiddled. Statistics reinterpreted. Orders are left piling up in the warehouse because nobody can keep up with the new standards for shelf layout. Items in the store are relabelled so that products look like they’re available when the mystery shopper team comes around. Staff members are taken off other important duties to work on the tills when queue-length is measured, but the queues are allowed to reach enormous and frustrating lengths at other times.

The target numbers are, frequently, met – aside from for those few unfortunate store managers who aren’t wily enough to play the system – but standards drop relentlessly across the group and customers start to take their business elsewhere.

Public shame, skilfully dealt with. Skilful gaming of the system, denied. The organisation becomes a system for avoiding anxiety rather than serving customers. Nobody talking about it – “it’ll open a can of worms”.

You can see this same drama played out in hospitals, whole health systems, schools, retailers, service industries, transport, government, with huge and debilitating effect.

And in most places nobody’s talking about what’s really going on, because we’ve made mood undiscussable.

If we’re going to deal with all of this – and we must – we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that organisations are always made up of people, and people are always caught up in moods that shape what can be seen and what’s possible. Our insistence on understanding people as detached, strictly rational parts of a well-oiled machine is not doing anything to address these difficulties.

And without the courage to do this, we’re going to condemn ourselves to a future of looking good while we undo our best and most important efforts.

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On Frustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The limits of happiness

This being human is a guesthouse, writes Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the 13th century Persian poet. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

I think Rumi’s right. To be human is to be visited by a stream of experiences, each arising and fading away after the other in a mysterious succession. We know only a little about how to influence the stream. Sometimes we find ourselves able to direct its course by being with certain people, or taking up certain activities, or by being in a place resonant with beauty or with memory. And we can sometimes influence the stream by trying to block it – holding on to sadness, or resentment, or anger through the stories we tell ourselves about life.

But, mostly, to be human is to have a stream coursing through us that arises of its own accord, without our volition. And when we seek to constrain the movement of the stream so that it consistently feels a particular way we also end up having to constrain some portion of our aliveness and freedom. Our fullest humanity comes when, as Rumi recommends, we learn to meet all our experiences at the door laughing, and invite them in. 

Each year, as I experience ongoing rivers of sadness, joy, tenderness, rage, sorrow, fear, longing, love, satisfaction, frustration, deep confusion and hopefulness that flow through me, Rumi’s advice seems more necessary, and more true. And it seems no more passing mood gets me in more trouble than the expectation of happiness. When happiness is the standard, almost anything else falls short. When I imagine that happy is the way I should most often feel, I can twist myself into all kinds of knots trying to bring it about, and invest myself in all kinds of comparisons, and standards, and unforgiving judgements about the life I’m already living. I can imagine that others have found the key to happiness – that they have it in a way that I don’t. And I have found out how easily I can end up narrowing my life in its pursuit, pushing away or disapproving of many other kinds of experience that arise, quite naturally, in day to day living.

Let me be clear – I think happiness is wonderful, and I love to feel it. And I’m also saying that I think there is a trap in making it life’s primary purpose, and in thinking that it’s even possible to cling onto it without in one way or another narrowing ourselves. Because happiness is just one of Rumi’s visitors, destined to be followed by all kinds of other experiences in any life that is allowed to breathe. And also because we ourselves are changing all the time, so that many of our attempts to generate future happiness are deeply flawed. The person we’ll be when the time comes for the happiness we’ve longed for to arrive will be different in so many ways, and may feel happy about different things, than the person who is making future happiness plans today.

So if happiness is transient, and if chasing it can so easily diminish us, what is worth pursuing? I think the answer almost certainly lies not in trying to feel a certain way but in the purposeful cultivation of what the ancient Greeks called the virtues – those capacities and qualities that allow us human beings to live in meaningful, vibrant, engaged ways, whatever our circumstances. There’s a wide freedom and much possibility in cultivating integrity, goodness, kindness, creativity, connectedness, flexibility, forgiveness, devotion, gratitude, resoluteness, intimacy, patience, truthfulness, warmth or wisdom, to name just a few.

Each of these virtues can be nurtured in an ongoing way through our everyday practices of speaking, listening, working, making, resting and expressing. Each may bring us happiness, yes, some of the time. And each may sometimes bring disappointment or frustration, or any other of Rumi’s guests. But it’s also the case that each of the virtues, if we’ll be disciplined enough to work on them and to attend to them, can also bring us deep opportunities for meaningful engagement with life, for belonging, and for contribution, whether we’re feeling happy, or sad, or despairing, or whatever else comes our way.

Photograph by Justin Wise

On undoing our projections

Our projections onto others cause us such difficulty because, in effect, we are asking other people to take care of what we can only take care of ourselves. And we can only take care of it ourselves if we’re prepared to look, with some attention and persistence, at what it is that we are projecting – often a part of us that’s out of view.

My big work on this topic over many years has been with anger. For so long unable to see and feel how angry I felt about so much, I’d project anger onto others in at least two ways that I can determine.

The first – being sure that other people were angry with me when it was me that was angry with the world and with myself. Perhaps you can imagine how confusing it is for other people when I’m reacting to them as if they’re already furious with me – when I withdraw, or become sullen, or snap back in response to something inside me rather than in response to them. As is the way of such things I’d often quite successfully bring about what I most wanted to avoid, as other people became angry as a result of my way of orienting towards them.

The second – trying to shut down anger in others when it did arise, because it put me so directly in contact with my own fury, the very thing I was most afraid of and most wanted to deny. The result, a stifling way of controlling and dampening others’ responses towards me, of not letting them be whoever and however they needed to be.

And, most fascinating about this, how invisible both of these processes were for me for a very long time. I knew I was afraid of other people’s anger, and I suppose I had some sense of the ways I’d try to avoid it or reduce it, but I had no idea that I was seeing it everywhere because it was present, so very present, right here in me.

Perhaps if you look you’ll start to see similar processes at play in your own life. Maybe it won’t be anger but fear. Or if not fear, perhaps it’s shame that you’re projecting onto others while trying strenuously to avoid it yourself. And once you start to look, perhaps you’ll see how projection shapes relationships at home, with your colleagues, across your organisation and in many other situations in which people relate to one another (isn’t that everywhere?)

We’ve taken up our projections for good reason. They have doubtless, along the way, had a necessary protective effect. But learning to still ourselves enough that we can see them, and coming to observe ourselves accurately enough that we can drop them, liberates a new kind of truthfulness and a much needed-freedom into our relationships and interactions with everyone around us.

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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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Busyness and fear

Three basic human fears about what we do:

That what we’re doing doesn’t matter. That, quite probably, it’s meaningless.

That what we’re doing doesn’t help. That it doesn’t make a contribution to anyone.

That when we’re gone, all our efforts will amount to nothing.

Notice how it’s our busyness that has such amazing capacity to distract us from our fears, to numb us to them. And that it’s our busyness, precisely because it distracts us so well, that has such capacity to make our fears turn out to be true.

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How we learned not to trust ourselves

A recipe for learning not to trust ourselves:

Step 1 – Kindergarten: Play! Encourage freedom, creativity, feeling, and its expression. Explore the world through the immediacy of the body and senses. Make a mess. Hop and jump. Listen to stories. Tell them.

Step 2 – Infant school: Start to leave parts out. Sit down on the rug, or on your chair. Learn not to fidget, to pay attention, to respect others – necessary skills for life in our culture. Play, yes, but not too much now. Big school is coming.

Step 3 – Junior school: Keep still for many hours. Stop talking. The movement of bodies – an interruption. Play is only for prescribed times – not while we’re learning. It’s your job to pay attention always, regardless of how you feel, or what you care about. The adult world is coming.

Step 4 – Senior school: Learning is knowing facts or models in a way that’s increasingly detached from my first-hand experience. Do I care deeply about this subject? Does it move me? Can I connect it with my life? This, and other matters of the heart, are no longer so relevant, and rarely addressed in the classroom. The heart and the body – subjugated to the world of the analytical mind. The highest mark of educational achievement – that I learned to pass the exam, that I can produce what’s measurable.

When we follow a path that progressively leaves out parts of ourselves, it should come as no surprise that we have a hard time trusting the parts we’ve abandoned. Our hearts: how we tell what matters to us. And our bodies: the means by which we relate, create, explore, encounter, move the world. And it might explain how we’ve convinced ourselves that models, frameworks, and techniques are a substitute for a real, live, scary, exhilarating, fierce, risky and life-giving engagement with ourselves in the pursuit of the work that matters to us.

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An act of remembering

When it seems like the world is against me and everyone is judging me, when no matter where I turn I can’t find a place that I feel welcomed or loved, when every glance, or look, or email is a reminder that I’m falling short, I’ve found it helpful to remember that what unites all of these experiences, and all of these judgements, is me.

And that what looks, so obviously, to be a way the world is, is quite likely to be a way my relationship with the world is. Or, said another way, the way the world shows up for me is profoundly shaped by the kind of relationship I have with it.

And this is good to remember when I’m looking to the world to change, or convinced of my own inadequacy. Because while the whole world cannot easily be called into question, the nature of a relationship can indeed be questioned and shifted over time. It’s possible to take up new practices – gratitude and forgiveness among them – that radically shift a relationship with the world and in turn shift the world itself.

And while I forget, frequently, and mistake the world for my relationship with it, perhaps writing this today will be a small act of remembering. And one that might help you, if you’ve forgotten, to remember too.

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Anxiety and fear aren’t the same

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same.

It’s important to see this, because they lead to different places. Anxiety – felt, allowed and responded to – can be an invitation into a new way of relating to the world. But fear so often leads us into actions that cut us off from ourselves, and from others, and from what’s called for.

It’s David Steindl-Rast who makes this distinction in his wonderful interview with Krista Tippett at On Being.

Anxiety, he says, is the feeling of being pressed-in by the world. It comes from the linguistic root anguere meaning ‘choke’ or ‘squeeze’. The first experience of it in our lives, the primal experience of anxiety, is that of being born. We all enter the world through a very uncomfortable occurence in which we are squeezed and pushed and all there is to do is go along with it. In a very real sense going with the experience is what makes it possible to be born into life in the first place.

And though we’re born through an experience of anxiety, Steindl-Rast tells us, at that moment we do it fearlessly. Because fear is exactly what comes when we resist feeling anxiety, when we try to deny it or push it away. Anxiety can bring us into birth, while fear – our denial, our resistance to what we’re experiencing – is a different move altogether: life-destroying, a totally different direction for our minds and bodies to take.

“And that is why”, he says, “anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.”

And what, he says, makes the biggest difference between anxiety and fear is learning to trust – trusting life, trusting the capacity of our own hearts, trusting others.

We live in times that give many of us good cause for anxiety. But instead of collapsing and narrowing ourselves with fear we can choose to feel, and choose to practice trust. One step, and another step. And perhaps this way we can allow to be born in us a capacity to respond to our difficulties without turning away, and a greater ability to live without choking off our own lives or the lives of others.

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Longing, it seems to me, is one of the givens of a human life.

What we long for changes – somewhere else to live, a walk in the mountains, fulfilling work, a friend, or a lover, family, peace, the return of someone or something we lost, a place where we can be home. But longing itself is a constant, born of our capacity to imagine and dream better futures for ourselves and those around us.

It’s a mistake, then, to long for a life in which longing itself is absent. Better, instead, to live fully in the knowledge that longing and life are inseparable.

And although longing, and its tender sadness, is inescapable, it can be softened by gratitude – for the life we’ve been given, for the people around us, for the air we breathe, for the opportunity to think and talk and question and strive, for the possibility of longing itself.

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Fear and love

There are, I was reminded this morning, really only two orientations to the world.

One is fear. The other is love.

And everything follows from which we choose.

There are endless reasons to live from fear if we so wish, and almost anything can be its source. Our fear that we will lose people, property, identity, and all the ways we know ourselves. Our fear of illness. Our fear of growing old. Our fear of dying. Our fear of not being loved. And of losing love. Our fear of not having enough. And, this Monday morning in the cities of Europe, our fear of the world’s instability and our own insecurity. And all the fear that arises when we see that we cannot control the world or what happens to us in it.

I think it’s necessary to allow ourselves to feel fear when it comes. To do otherwise is to deny our care for what matters to us. Our fear shows us our care for our lives, and for our society, and for the people we love. Our care for our lovers and partners and friends and children. Our care for our freedom.

To deny our fear is to push part of ourselves away, into the shadows, where it can have much more of a grip over us than when brought into the light. When we don’t feel our fear we easily find ourselves living from it, constructing our lives from the midst of its constricting, narrowing grasp and all of the reactivity and self-obsession it brings.

I’ve come to understand that when I’m in the grip of unnamed fear, there’s so much that I don’t see. I don’t see the stability and resilience of the society in which I live. I don’t see what a blessing it is to sleep in my house at night safe from the terror of shelling and bombing. I don’t see what a gift it is that I can meet with whom I choose and where I choose, and have the freedom to express my thoughts, feelings and commitments openly. That my children get to go to school. That we have food to eat, and water to drink, and systems to bring it all to us from across the world. That I have wide open choice about what work to do, and how to do it. That my family are cared for by health systems, and transport systems, and by a system of law and order that is so easily part of the taken-for-granted background. I forget that this is true even when terrible, frightening things are happening in a city only a few hundred miles away and, perhaps, in time, in my own city too. And I forget that in many parts of the world none of these blessings are a given.

When I’m in the grip of my fear I forget how much more there is to bring to the world than worries about my own safety. From fear I hardly have any sense of the power and possibility of my own contribution. From fear my world shrinks to the tiniest of proportions.

On this Monday morning in the cities of Europe, I am reminded how afraid I can be and how easy it would be to live this way.

And it’s for all these reasons, it seems to me, that it’s our responsibility whenever we can, not to turn away. To feel our fear, and talk with one another about it. To see what it shows us about what matters to us, and then to respond as fully and as generously as we can – to ourselves and to those we meet – from love.

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Shaping One Another

We’d had a testy exchange earlier in the week and by the time we met, I was sure that he really had it in for me.

Except, he quite probably didn’t. But I was quite sure of how he was going to be in this interaction, and who I was in response. And so I was careful, detached, defensive, and withholding of myself. And the more I was that way with him, the more his sense of distrust and discomfort with me was amplified. Pretty soon we were both spinning away from one another in a spiral of distance and mutual recrimination.

And what’s startling about this is not, perhaps, the obvious point that my story about all this shaped how I was with him. It’s that my story about him also profoundly affected how he was with me.  

We don’t just shape ourselves with the stories we tell ourselves. We shape one another, bringing each other forth even when we might think our stories and interpretations are private and personal.

Seeing this opens up enormous possibilities.

Firstly, and most immediately, that I might actively work to see what interpretation I’m bringing to people and situations, and believe my own stories less readily.

And, secondly, we might start to question the highly individualistic accounts we have about what happens in our organisations. Because if the way he is with me is shaped by my stories, how much more so is the way we all are in our work shaped not just by our own stories but by the stories of all those we are around.

In our organisations, and in our communities, we are all bringing one another into being. This renders many of our simplistic cause-and-effect accounts of performance and outcome very shaky indeed. And it ought to have us deeply question the way we give feedback, hold one another accountable, carry out performance reviews, explain success and failure, and blame others when things don’t go the way we’d hoped.

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What we won’t talk about

We’ve made emotions, the inner critic, and what we feel in our bodies undiscussable in most organisations, perhaps especially for those with the most power and hence the most to lose.

And the effects are far-reaching.

Because without an honest conversation about our fear and vulnerability, and in the midst of the myth of the heroic, independently capable leader, we’ve rendered ourselves mute on one of the most important conversations we could be having: our first-hand account of what makes it so difficult, so often, to tell the truth. And what could help us.

We become united in our silence.

The consequences go far beyond momentary inconvenience, or the conversation you’re avoiding about a colleague’s performance. Because when we’re unable to tell truth, and tolerate doing so however it feels, we turn away from each other and from our capacity to act.

In the spaces left by our silence, the seeds of great difficulty can grow, unrestrained – the seeds of organisational malpractice, self-interest, and denial. And soon, they grow in our society too, even though many of us have forgotten that our work and society are not separate from one another.

How many more economic, ethical, and environmental crises are we willing to have our organisations be part of? How long before we discover our urgent need to turn to one another about all this, and speak up about what we see in ourselves that has us hold back?

How much to learn about love

How much I am learning, and have yet to learn about, love.

How much becomes possible when I see the joy and difficulty of my love and longing for others as well as my halting, sometimes conflicted love of myself, as an expression of a much bigger love – life’s love for itself.

And how life-giving to remember that very love’s presence in the warmth of the sun, in the grey sky, in the call of a bird, in the clamour of the street, in the soft star-shine, in the cutlery on the table and the singing kettle and the pile of dishes, in the slide of pen on page, and in embraces, and in silence, and in separation and rage and illness and disappointment and despair and grieving.

When I know love this way I am no longer afraid of isolation because I see even that as a way I am always part of everything, and everything, always, a part of me.

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Study is the pathway to curiosity

It’s not generally or easily possible to shift into a different mood by declaration – saying “I’m happy”, for example, doesn’t generally have me be happy.

It’s my experience that moods are much more subtle than that, more complex and sophisticated, and not so amenable to my attempts to manipulate them. It’s as if each mood is really its own complete intelligence or personality – and most moods are wise to my efforts to get my own way.

But I do think the capacity for a wider range of moods can be cultivated over time, by how I pay attention, how I choose to use my time, who I am in relationship with, and the actions I take.

Fascination or curiosity can, in my experience, be cultivated by taking on the study of something with sufficient regularity and sufficient openness – astronomy or cars, for example, or human personality, what happens in groups, mathematics, music, or the amazing animals and insects that live even in a small patch of the garden.

Study something closely enough, for long enough and – crucially – keep going through the uncertainty and difficulty of getting going and soon, as the subject’s depths are revealed, curiosity and fascination start to emerge as more readily available moods. And what’s more, the practice of looking with wide open eyes, cultivated in one domain, opens up the depth and endless mystery of almost everything else. Even the contours of something as mundane as boredom can be fascinating when looked at in this way.

Each mood has its own pathways of practice and observation.

And if study is the path that cultivates curiosity, then appreciation is the pathway to gratitude, and generosity is the pathway to love.

Photograph by Justin Wise, Monet’s Garden, August 2014

Where it comes from

It’s easy to relate to the objects which fill our world as if they were just there – a taken for granted, already existing feature of human life.

But the materials in everything you own or use – everything – had to either be grown by somebody or dug out of the ground first. Even the most synthetic and complex of products start out this way. Growing and mining, the source of it all.

That’s quite a thought to consider. Take any object around you, from the smallest bolt to the tallest building, and imagine back through the long and complex chain of people and interlocking processes to the raw materials that came from the earth itself.

Remembering the source of everything, and the commitment and ingenuity that makes it all possible, can be a way of cultivating deep gratitude and wonder that any of it is available to you in the first place.

These must be more possibility-filled moods than the resentment or frustration we can so readily feel at all the products that don’t work as expected, at the chaos of the world, at the sheer everyday humdrum repetitive ordinariness of things. And gratitude, for this aspect of life’s many wonders, can go a long way to awakening the sense of possibility, responsibility and focussed commitment we need in order to do our best work and inspire others.

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Thinking hats, mood hats

I’ve been reintroduced to Edward de Bono’s six ‘Thinking Hats‘ this week. Described by de Bono as styles of thinking, using them makes it possible to (1) notice your own habitual thinking style, or that of a group in which you are a participant and (2) invite different styles, that in turn open new possibilities for thinking about a problem or situation in which you find yourself.

My friend and colleague Natalie, who brought the hats to my attention this week, taught me that de Bono’s framework is not just about thinking, but also about mood, and in doing so revealed hidden depths that I had not appreciated before.

Moods, you see, are entire orientations to the world. They include thinking, but go far beyond. Each mood opens up certain kinds of possibilities and closes down others. And each mood has us comport ourselves towards the world in distinct ways – we notice different features, we listen differently, we act with varying kinds of intensity and sensitivity, we are present in different ways, and we are more or less open to what we encounter. And kinds of actions we are disposed to take shift with mood.

Moods (which are in some ways harder to see and are more enduring than the more rapidly shifting phenomena we call emotions) bring about in a very profound way the kind of world in which we find ourselves, shaping how we think, act, speak, listen and relate. Which is why we ought to pay them serious attention in the world of work, and why de Bono’s hats can help.

You can read about the Six Hats model in its original form here. And here’s my interpretation – the six ‘mood’ hats:

Hat 1 – the white hat – evokes the mood of sincerity, in which we look with unflinching eyes at what is the case, not turning away or distorting what we see in order to make a point, win affection or esteem, or defend ourselves.

Hat 2 – the red hat – is the mood of tenderness, in which we pay attention to what we and others are experiencing emotionally, naming it as accurately as we can without pushing any emotion away or privileging one over the other, so each can be understood and encountered directly.

Hat 3 – the black hat – brings us into the mood of skepticism, in which everything is called into question, and all the worst outcomes of what we are intending are given expression.

Hat 4 – the yellow hat – is the mood of hope, in which the life-giving future possibilities at the heart of our plans are brought into the light.

Hat 5 – the green hat – invites the mood of playfulness, in which we allow ourselves to imagine creative responses to the situation in which we find ourselves, abandoning ourselves to the wildness of our ever-bubbling imagination.

Hat 6 – the blue hat – is the mood of trust, in which we commit to action, knowing that something will come from stepping in rather than waiting.

The power of the hats becomes clear when we start to notice that we habitually inhabit certain moods, closing off to us whole avenues of response and understanding and that by naming and inviting new moods, we really can do something about it.

Two applications that became clear in the work Natalie and I were doing together:

(1) Explore an issue, together with others, using each hat in turn. For five minutes or so, take up the body, pace and orientation to the world that the hat invites, and speak and listen from there.

(2) Start naming which hat you’re wearing when you speak, declaring when you change hat, and invite others to do the same. It’s revelatory to know, for example, that someone who you know as speaking most often from a mood of skepticism (black hat) is expressing tenderness (red) or hope (yellow). And equally revelatory to set aside your predominant mood, in the moment, and find out what the world looks like from the midst of another.

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I’ve just had the longest unplanned interruption in publishing since I started this writing project over two years ago. My commitment to write and publish every day…. vanished. And there does not seem to be an obvious reason that I can make easy sense of. Nothing significant changed in my schedule and yet, when it came to writing, nothing.

I notice how quickly the parts of me that are into comparison and self-criticism can get going in such circumstances. First a vague unease, a sinking feeling, a confusion that gradually shifts into despair. At the heart of all of this a comparison: I should be able to do better than this, I’m letting myself and others down. And an assessment: it’s my fault, I’m clearly not dedicated enough.

I’m saying this here not because I think there’s anything unusual about me – this constant stream of inner comparison with its harshness and its capacity to produce shame seem to be to be shared widely amongst us humans.

But there is another part of me, more settled, wiser, with a much more expansive view of time, that says this is a season.

It reminds me that I am not a robot, nor a machine, but alive. It reminds me that like all living beings I have summers and winters, autumns and springs – fallow times and generative times, hopeful times and despairing times, sadness and joy, gratitude and frustration, sorrow and love. It reminds me that the seasons of my own life – of all of our lives – are not, largely, under our control.

And it reminds me that sometimes, often, the wisest move is to know that seasons come and go all by themselves, and to stop worrying, forcing, or trying to have it be any other way.

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Silent disco, camp fire

Moods happen, sweeping in and out of our lives, but they don’t just happen by themselves. We are always, in one way or another, participants in them.

Each mood shapes our engagement with what we experience, bringing forward some features of the world and obscuring others; and each mood opens or closes a particular space of possibility for us. And because of this we each have the opportunity – the responsibility – to understand how to shift our moods, so that we can respond appropriately to what the world is bringing us.

I’m writing this tonight because I’ve found myself, since this morning’s first light, most prominently in a mood of despair. It had crept up on me overnight, as such moods often do, and although it brings with it a certain attunement to the troubles of the world, it also robs me of joy, and of connection to others, and of hope.

And then, tonight, I find myself dancing with increasing abandon at a silent disco, around a blazing campfire, on a programme I’m working on this week. Being in company, sharing in an activity with others, thrilling music, flames and smoke mingling and lighting us, the deepening mid-summer sky – all of these bring out in me an intense joy at being alive, at being in relationship, at being in human.

And I’m overjoyed by my joy. Without it, I would long ago – and in a very constrained, held-in kind of way – have slipped away to bed.

My darker moods often obscure this very possibility. That, for me, dancing, walking outdoors, a blue or starlit sky, the ocean, holding hands, writing, poetry, music, looking into the eyes of a person I care about, studying something I love, a mountain – that all of these bring me to life again. All of these restore me to joy, and gratitude, and wonder.

And they remind me that life is very precious, and very very short, and that joy and gratitude and wonder, at least some of the time, are pre-requisites for a life well lived and good work well done.

The antidote to resentment

Resentment is a mood that has, at its heart, the judgment that you have been wronged and there’s nothing you can do about it. It casts you in the role of the righteous injured party – the one who must get even in order to have any self-esteem, but is denied any route to do so – and the other person in the role of villain. 

It’s no wonder then, where resentment leads – either to a cold, aloof distance or to silently but subversively trying to get even. And when resentment shows up in relationships that matter (can it ever meaningfully show up anywhere else?) it quickly has a powerfully corrosive effect by perpetually casting you as the victim to the other’s persecution.

The antidote? Learning how to make requests. Because requests bring us in close, back into relationship, into contact – even if the other person says no to what’s being asked of them. Making requests of another accords the other person dignity, elevating them from mere object of your scorn into a full human being.

And sincere requests accord you the dignity of once again being human too – being one who has the power to make your needs and wishes heard. So learning to ask when you’re resentful, rather than distancing yourself, might be the most counter-intuitive and the most healing move you can make.

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Fear or care?

What do you imagine brings forth our most generous creativity, commitment and attentiveness? Would you say fear, or care?

And, yet, we seem determined to construct our companies, and our schools, around making people afraid.

It may not look this way. We cover it up with a veneer of respectability, process, and ‘best practice’. But, still, we try to bring about so much of what needs to happen by generating fear – about the future, about prospects, about promotion, about opportunity.

Perhaps we do this because we have not yet become skilful enough at working with, or being present to, our own fear. Because we’re had by our fear, we imagine we’ll bring about something that lasts by stirring it in others.

But while fear can be a powerful force for immediate action, it quickly leaves us resourceless, frozen, diminished and disconnected both from others and from the source of our own creativity and aliveness.

Could we instead take the bold move of cultivating and welcoming the care that is equally inherent in being human?

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Anticipatory moods

I am finding out how often I experience protective anticipatory moods.

There’s a part of me that makes sure I feel disappointment, long before the events about which I might feel disappointed have taken place. I can feel anticipatory disappointment – a kind of flatness and emptiness – before spending time with people I care about, before a special experience which I’ve been looking forward to, before teaching, before travelling. I’ve been feeling a special kind of anticipatory disappointment in the run up to the elections on Thursday here in the UK.

And there’s a part of me that can make sure I feel anticipatory shame. Before speaking in public, before sharing my deepest inner experience with others, before asking for something that I want or desire, before making a stand for something that matters to me.

The more I care about something – the more significant it is to me – the more often I’ll feel one of these. And the more often they’ll have me tune out or hold myself back.

It has been revelatory to spot this process at work – to disentangle how I’m feeling from how the world is. Because while these anticipatory moods are related to the world, they’re not so much of the world. They are, more accurately said, an attempt by protective inner parts of me to shield me from the more potentially public kind of disappointment or shame that comes from engagement with the world or with others.

Let us do the shaming or disappointment first, these parts say, to spare you a much worse kind of shame or emptiness.

As is so often the case, simply seeing these parts for what they are (and honouring their ultimately unhelpful attempts to protect me) has them relax, giving me a much better chance of bringing myself fully and courageously to the world.

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