Tight spirals

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

We lead this way. We relate this way.

This is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stories

We can’t help it. We’re sense-making beings, us humans. And so you and I are always living our lives from a sense of story.

The story profoundly shapes our interactions with other people, and with ourselves. Watch how you’d relate to your sister, your colleagues, from the narrative of ‘the burdened one’ – the one who has been handed too much to carry, and who can’t find any place to put it down. See how much busyness it breeds, how little time to rest, how much resentment, how much of a sense of being in life alone.

And see how differently you’d encounter all of life from the narrative of ‘a healer’ – the one whose responsibility it is to heal herself by taking care of her own body, mind and heart so she can take care of others. Or ‘a painter’ – looking for the hidden light and beauty in everything. Or ‘a bestower of blessings’. Or even ‘an ordinary person’.

The stories we’re living seem so compelling, so true, especially as they seem to account so coherently for everything that’s happening. But any story is only one out of many possibilities, and each story conceals much even as it reveals.

And so it’s important to ask ourselves what other stories we could imagine, particularly those that would bring forward our virtues – patience, kindness, courage, imagination, integrity, compassion, love, commitment, steadfastness, playfulness – qualities that allow us to meet the world more generously, more creatively, and let more of life through.

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The view from here isn’t the only view

The story you tell about this time in your life isn’t the only story. And the vantage point from which you’re looking is not the only vantage point.

Looking forwards, it might seem clear that you’re on the way to a great success, or an inevitable defeat. Maybe it looks like life is all sorted: you’ve arrived and there is not much more for you to do. Or perhaps, from the depths of your confusion, it appears that you’re lost and can never find your way back.

Life is so much bigger than each of us, and so much more mysterious, that any story you have is at best partial. Looking back, what feels now like inevitable defeat may turn out to be a time of building strength: the strength you’ll need to break out of the constraints that have been holding you back. What feels like being crushed by life could be the birth pangs of a new beginning. Maybe the solidity of your success so far turns out to be everything that will be taken from you.

As Cheryl Strayed writes to her despairing younger self in Tiny Beautiful Things, it can turn out that “the useless days will add up to something”, that “these things are your becoming.”

Everything changes. Nothing is ever just what it seems. And though you may feel sure you’ve understood your life, remember that it’s very difficult to see which are the important parts, and quite why they’re important, while you’re still in them.

Photograph by Justin Wise

The next step

What if the way your life is, and the way you are now, are not how things turned out, but training in the preliminaries? Or, said another way, if your life so far was but the education and practice you needed in order to be able to take the very next step?

Thought about like this, your life is now is not some curse, the punishment for some crime, or a consequence of your many failings and transgressions. No, it’s been fertile soil which has nourished just the qualities and skills you need to take the step that only you now can take.

And given the extraordinary unlikelihood of you being here in the first place – the very fact of your life has the odds stacked billions to one against…

… and given that it will be gone in a blink of an eye, even if you live to a ripe age, and given that nobody but you could have lived the exact life you’ve lived so far

… given all of this, the step that only you can take, the step for which your whole life until this moment has been a preparation, that single step is given to you now – however ordinary, however modest – as a gift yours for the taking, if you will but take it.

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Love made visible

Below, nine narratives, nine stories, about what work could be for.

Whether we choose one of these, or one of the infinity of others that are possible for us, there’s no doubt that our narratives have a powerful role in shaping our identity, what we notice, what we think is possible and important, and our relationship with others.

Change the narrative and we change what work is for and much about how we experience it. Change the narrative and we change our relationship with our difficulties and possibilities, with the sense we make of the past and of the future.

Do any of these offer a new way of seeing what you’ve been doing so far…

… and what you might take on next?

Work as…

.. a way of setting the world straight – fixing what’s wrong, making good, bringing integrity, standards, and justice into the world

.. love made visible – an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to our deepest commitments with our minds, hearts and bodies, and in relationship with others

.. a way to cultivate excellence – finding ways to do things better, with greater impact and with ever-increasing quality of attention and skill

.. an expression of artistry – work for its own sake, for the depth and expression and creativity that is unique to human beings

.. an opportunity to learn and discover – work as the pursuit of understanding, learning a field from end to end and using that learning to solve problems that would otherwise continue to challenge us

.. a way to lay down secure foundations – work as what makes it possible to have somewhere safe, dry and warm to live in, a shelter for ourselves and those we love, and the resources that will help us respond to unknown future challenges and possibilities

.. an exercise in freedom and hope – work as what enables us to break the confines of otherwise predictable lives – to play, to experiment, to meet people, to try out new things, to bring into our lives and into the world that which has not been so far

.. a challenge to the status quo – work as a way of upending things that need upending, revolutionising what needs revolution, using our power to shift cultures, expectations and the way things are done.

.. the practice of peace – work as a way of bringing people together, forging community and connection, relationship and shared purpose, a way of having our many differences serve us and each other rather than separate us

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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

Secret superpower

Many of the most courageous people I know are also the most afraid.

Living with such an intense inner experience of fear – and surviving it – cultivates within them extraordinary capacities to keep going, to face things as they are, to take action when it’s called for, and to be present with others who are afraid.

I know how much I value having such a person by my side when there’s something genuinely terrifying to face. Someone who knows fear intimately. Someone who has found ways to work with it. Someone who already knows what to do.

Many of the most courageous people I know hardly see themselves as courageous at all.

They relate to their fear as a defect, a failing, a reason to judge themselves, as fuel for the harshest inner criticism. That they are afraid obscures the view, so that they’re blinded to the gifts they bring.

They do not see that the part of themselves they most wish to banish is the very source of blessings, the source of their secret superpower.

So it is in the best superhero origin stories, and so it is with all of us.

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Better off knowing this

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

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

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

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

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Questioning our stories

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

and given that we live bound up in the stories we tell;

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

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

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

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Stories to live up to, to live in to, to let go to

As 2016 begins, two kinds of stories are on my mind.

Stories I try to live up to. And stories that I might start allowing myself to live into.

The live up to stories are the ones that keep going because they’re how I’m known by others, or because they’re a familiar way for me to know myself, or because they boost my self esteem. Some of them I created. Some of them were handed to me in the ongoing dance of relating to one another that is a given of human life.

Among the live up to stories: being the thoughtful (or deep thinking) one, the mysterious one, the one who has more important things to do than pay close attention to time, the intelligent one, the diligent one, the sensitive one, the one who cares, the one who knows about things.

It’s not that these stories are false. But when I take them up because they’re familiar, or because I think they’re expected, they easily become something of an act – a way of acting like someone who is like the way I’m known to myself and others. They become a proxy, a cover story. They reflect and refract much that is true, but they’re not me, myself. They’re neither who nor what I am.

Trying to live up to familiar stories is quite different to opening myself so that I can live into new stories – stories that might breathe life and possibility into the world.

And this is quite different again from letting go of how I know myself so that unfamiliar stories – stories I can barely imagine – can begin their work of living themselves into me.

On the economic narrative, and its limits

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

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Stories about Money

Money is rarely just money to us. Beyond being a means of exchange of goods or services, it’s also wrapped up with meaning – written through with stories and symbolism, emotions, hopes, dreams, possibilities and, often, fears.

And the story about money within which each of us lives profoundly shapes our lives, given that it is an inescapable feature of the way human culture has developed.

A few thoughts about what money can be:

  • A way of trying to stay safe. If I have enough money, I won’t have any worries any more. Of course, like so many money narratives, there is truth here – a certain amount of money is required to stave off hunger, or to provide a clean, warm, place to live. But how much money is required for safety? Once I’ve taken care of food and shelter, how much is needed to keep me safe from illness, loneliness, absence of meaning, risk of accident, death? Is there ever an amount at which the feeling of the essential, existential riskiness of life is soothed? Can I ever, actually, be safe?
  • A source of fear and shame – in which having it is greedy, but not having it is terrifying. In this narrative any move with money is fraught with difficulty, because both accumulating and spending are highly charged activities.
  • A way of accessing experiences and opportunities – education, travel, the arts, places to live. There’s no doubt that money can provide entry to many of these, and the absence of money can keep some experiences well out of reach.
  • A way of having a certain kind of power in the world – to buy or demand the attention of others, to convince, cajole, reward, threaten or influence others for whom money is an issue.
  • A way to bolster self-esteem, or to look good to others. When I have enough money, people will respect me, or love me, or look up to me. When I have enough money I’ll respect myself. A big question in this narrative – how much does it take? And how to deal with comparison – the inevitability that how ever much money I have, there will always be others who have more?
  • Like a stream of water flowing in and out and through – in which my responsibility, and opportunity, is not so much to be the one who determines what flows in, but rather the one who determines where to point the flow. What will the stream water today, this week, this year, over a lifetime? Will it collect in a pool, a reservoir, a lake? Will it water just myself, those close to me, or others further away, perhaps even very far away indeed?
  • A replacement for belonging, rootedness, home – with money comes the power to liquify what is solid, and to move it elsewhere.

There are of course, so many more stories about money in which we can live – stories that are handed to us by our families, and by our culture. And it’s from the narrative in which we live and act that we assess what is of value, what things cost, what is worth spending on, how much to accumulate, what kind of work we should do and not do, when to stop, when to forge on, how much to trust the world, how afraid to be, what kind of person we can be, how safe we feel, and whether we can rest.

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With thanks to Hilary K. who suggested this topic to me some months ago.

Projects for the imagination

Here are some projects to which it’s possible to turn your innate capacity for imagination.

All of these are meanings already given to us: handed to us by our families and culture, and made up – constructed – by other human beings.

Which means you, and I, and all of us, have as much possibility to imagine and declare new meanings and stories for each of these as anyone who has yet lived so far.

Close in

  1. Who am I – beyond or different to the roles and stories I’ve already taken up?
  2. Who might I be?
  3. What a feeling – bodily or emotional – means (ever noticed that feelings stir up familiar, habitual stories about what’s happening? Perhaps other stories would be more appropriate, life giving, possibility-filled).
  4. What’s possible for me to do?

A little further out

  1. What’s going on in the relationships I’m in (that might be different from the way I’ve imagined it so far)?
  2. Who are others – beyond the roles and stories I have about them?
  3. Who might others be?

Even bigger

  1. What is the organisation in which I work (a machine, a living organism, a pulsing-fluxing-pattern of conversations, a means to make money, a means to make meaning, a way of building community, a way of bringing about contribution)?
  2. What is work for?
  3. What’s the nature of the world I live in (a battleground, a competition to reach the top, a flourishing field of life, a flat dull expanse, a source of continuous disappointment and boredom, an endless wonder)?
  4. What is life?
  5. And what is life, itself, for?

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Movies of the Imagination

In one way we human beings are masterful at repeating what we’ve already learned. It’s our capacity to make sense of what we encounter, starting from a very young age, and to respond to what we find by developing skilful ways of coping, that makes it possible for us to navigate the already existing world in which we find ourselves.

Without our capacity to become familiar with whatever world we’re born into, so much would be impossible for us. Every new development in culture, language and technology would be so confusing to us. Imagine what it would be like if all of us were to wake up each and every morning unfamiliar with beds, shoes, doors, speaking, phones, cars, social custom, police officers, government, tables, computers, schools, forks… It’s our very capacity to develop a kind of background, habitual understanding of everything that makes the development of new culture and new ideas a possibility for us at all.

But our habitual familiarity is also a constraint for us, because we so easily keep on trying to cope with a world that has changed, long after it’s changed. We repeat, for example, the roles and actions that we learned in childhood long into our adulthood – trying to get the approval we sought from the adults around us, or nursing old wounds, or replaying with our friends, colleagues and partners the roles we took up around our parents and siblings in our family of origin.

Which is why a vital counterpoint to our familiarity with the world is our capacity to imagine. We are not fixed, however often it might seem that way. Neither are we doomed to play out reactive, repetitive patterns throughout our lives. We can imagine bigger worlds, and bigger possibilities, and new stories for ourselves and others.

And when we find new stories – with more expansive roles for ourselves and those around us  – and bring them to life by living them in our language and practice, with artistry and creativity, we can actually change the world… at least the world for us and for those nearby. And that is, always, the only place to start.

Such acts of imagination are necessary for all of us. And they, like so many forms of creativity and generosity, can be learned and practiced over time.

And it can be one of the most exquisite gifts of a human life to imagine and bring the new possibilities we see to other people’s lives, as well as to ourselves.

Inspired by Georges Méliès, whose imagination helped him see possibilities in film that nobody before him had seen, and by Martin Scorcese’s beautiful film Hugo, which features him as a central character, and which I saw with my family today.

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Myths we live by

Myths we live by…

… it happens to them, but it could never happen to me

… there’s really no cost to my overworking

… and what I do won’t really affect my body (I’m invincible)

… it (doing what deadens me, sacrificing my integrity, twisting myself out of shape) is only for now

… I don’t need any help

… other people get old, not me

… none of this is, really, happening

… there’s something wrong with me

… there are people who live without pain, grief or suffering (just not me)

… if I wait long enough (am good enough, liked enough, smart enough), someone or something will save me

… I’ll be happy when (I get the car, the lottery win, partnership, I retire)

… everyone’s looking at me

Do you live by any of these?

And have you ever stopped to wonder about the cost?

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Declaring Meaning

When we find out how much of the world is made up – by us – it’s tempting to pull everything apart. We pull apart institutions – because we see how groundless their authority is. We pull apart politics – because as we see more into the ordinary lives of our politicians we discover that they are ordinary and flawed like us, and we no longer have reason to simplistically trust either their intentions or their abilities. We pull apart relationships – because we don’t feel any reason to commit, beyond our moment-to-moment likes and dislikes. And we pull apart beliefs and practices that can bind us together.

This step – using reason to see through what we’d taken to be unquestionably true is in so many ways a necessary developmental step for each of us and for our society. Indeed, it’s the step that allowed us to discover science and its methods of rigorous, grounded inquiry. And it made it possible to undo the divine right of kings to rule over us, and to bring about democracy.

But it’s also so easily the route to nihilism: the move to render everything meaningless, everything pointless, everything disposable as we discover that the structures and stories and roles we used to trust were made up by other people. And, as the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche warned us, this ends up with us tearing meaning apart too, as we find out that what meaning we encountered in the world was only there because other people declared it anyway.

And so the next step important after undoing it all is to find out that it’s also within our power to put things back together, to declare meaning for ourselves. To find out that there are many kinds of truth, including those that take into account goodness and beauty as well as just reason. That out of the fragments of what we have taken apart, we can still choose practices, people, relationships, stories, commitments and vows to live by that invest life with purposefulness, care, and dignity.  And that this is possible, and necessary, in every sphere of life – in work, home, community and politics – specifically because we’ve found out that without it there is so little for us to stand on.

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We deserve better

And so the skilful move is to find a way to meet what the world is calling for, and what the world is offering you, with interpretations that are big enough, and generous enough. It’s each of our responsibility to find narratives, and the practices that go with them, that allow us to step forward and contribute.

Anything less – stories about yourself that are too small, or too cynical – has you hold back what only you can bring.

The world, and the rest of us, deserve much better than that.

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Practical Magic

There’s power and magic in declaring a new interpretation of events.

But declaring a new way of seeing things – a new way of making sense – is insufficient on its own. Because a change of thought is not automatically a change of habit. And it’s through our habits and our practices that we bring about the world we inhabit.

For example, declaring “I am now open to earning money”, after years of underselling yourself, is a necessary first step. It opens up huge possibility. But that possibility comes into being not through the new thought alone. Rather, it’s brought about because you take up the practices of asking, promising, and making offers of your goods or services that others find enrolling and compelling. And, of course, such practices – if they are new to you – will be tentative and clumsy at first. The hidden possibilities of the declaration become manifest only as you develop the embodied skill that makes its promise real.

Similarly “I am now ready to be in a relationship”. Yes, relationship becomes more possible upon making such a declaration. Here, however, you have to start practicing listening, understanding, kindness, responsiveness, compassion, creativity and love in order to fully bring out the possibilities inherent in what you’ve declared.

So, please, work on shifting your interpretation of the world. But don’t expect a change of mind to equal a change of circumstance. 

The universe is magical, but not in that simple, simplistic, wishful-thinking way.

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Malleable

It’s a powerful move to discover that the truth of the world is not fixed, but shaped by interpretation.

Was losing out on that project a curse, or a blessing? An example of life’s unfairness, or a consequence of the endless, unavoidable change of things? Proof of your unworthiness, or opportunity to contribute afresh, discovering new skills and qualities? Cruel fate, or life calling you into a wider understanding?

Different aspects of the situation come forward according to the interpretation you choose. Events take on many kinds of meaning, depending upon how they’re framed.

In other words, the truth of an event is malleable. Much more than you might often acknowledge.

And even ‘this is just the way it is’ is an interpretation you’re in the middle of choosing.

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Monster or angel?

Pick someone important in your life – a lover, friend, colleague. Your boss. A team member. Brother or sister. Mother or father.

Now look – who are you having them be to you? What image are you projecting their way?

Are you expecting them to take your pain away, to hold you in a perfect embrace (physical or metaphorical) in which you do not have to feel any worry or address any trouble?

Are they an object for your resentment or your hate – propping up your self-esteem each time you belittle them in thought or deed?

Do you have them elevated, on a pedestal, a constant reminder of your own inadequacy (and hence an excuse for the way you over-extend yourself or hold back)?

Are they there to show you that you’re loved and respected always? And when they fall short, to be the target of your frustration and woundedness?

Are you expecting them to parent you? To excuse you? To soothe you? To excite you? To rescue you? To provide for you? To be an object of your scorn? To be a monster or an angel?

And because of all of this, are you relating to them as them, or as an image?

All of this matters because too often we find we’re not in relationship with a person, but with a story. And as stories are smaller and more rigid than people are, it turns out that’s not much of a relationship at all.

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Untrue

If your assessment is that another person is untrustworthy, you’re giving yourself little choice than to be suspicious, watchful, checking always for many ways they are out to get you.

And when they encounter your suspicious watchfulness, and feel your uncertainty around them, they may well wonder whether you can be trusted. They become cautious, furtive, secretive around you, all of which produces exactly the kind of behaviour that seems to confirm your initial assessment.

Before you know it, a cycle of mistrust is created and sustained that may have had little foundation in either of you before it began.

In this way the assessments you make of others matter. Because when they’re untrue – when they are your ungrounded, unchecked suppositions – they have an uncanny way of coming into being simply because you’re making them.

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On the background

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

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Keeping it going

Dramas – the stories in which we’re at the centre of things: ignored, hard-done-by, unfairly treated, not seen, unrecognised, imprisoned by the actions or insensitivity of others.

Of course sometimes our stories are not dramas in this sense at all, but genuine accounts of oppression or neglect, upon which action must be taken.

But it’s illuminating to see how often our drama stories are in large part an invention.

And how we keep them going.

Because, even when wildly inaccurate, dramas have huge payoffs.

They tell us we’re the centre of the world (doesn’t it feel better that way?)

They make others responsible for our difficulties (gets us off the hook)

They stir up our anger, resentment, fury – even our hate (all of which feel so much better than confusion, uncertainty, boredom)

And because of all this they’re usually wildly more attractive to us than any of the alternative truer stories, which would have us act, step up, step in, talk to people and take responsibility for our part in the difficulties in which we find ourselves.

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Nothing to be done

“There’s nothing that can be done. It’s just the way it is”

The moment you say this about the situation you’re in, particularly if you’re in a position to lead or influence people, you close the door to many possibilities. Mostly, you’re inviting a mood of resignation, and you’re turning away from sincere inquiry into all the different angles and interpretations that you haven’t yet seen.

What brought about this situation?
How important is it to us?
What’s my part in it? Our part? Our culture’s part?
What don’t we understand yet?
What are we afraid of?
What are we trying to protect? deny?
Where did our story that there’s nothing to be done come from?
Is it true? How did we get to take it up?
What’s at stake here?
What do we really want to happen?
What’s missing?
What’s possible now?

Of course, there are genuine situations in which nothing can be done and in which it is just the way it is. But much less often than you might think.

And when that’s the case, your insistence that things are unchangeable is really just a way of getting yourself off the hook. Because if it’s just the way it is, there’s nothing you’ll have to do, and you won’t have to face your fear.

Or maybe it’s just your way of keeping things the way you want them while you rob others of their power to act.

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Cutting through

An experiment, particularly for the hardest, most frightening, most uncertain and doubtful times:

Spend a day with entirely opposite explanations to those you’re most used to.

For example –

She’s clearly out to get me becomes She’s doing her best to help.

Everything is falling apart becomes Things are just as they should be.

I’ll never be able to do this becomes It’s right within my grasp.

I’m such a fraud / loser / mess becomes I’m perfect as I am.

There’s no hope becomes Everything is right on track.

and also

We’re on to a winner becomes We’ve wildly misunderstood everything about success in this situation.

If you’ll do this seriously, you may find at least a couple of things. First, that what seemed so certain about yourself, others and  your situation is in large part simply something you concluded but which you cannot know for sure. Secondly, that there are many more options for action available to you than you had ever imagined.

So think the opposite for a while, and consider what actions and experiments might come from it. It can be a powerful way of cutting through the invisible stories that are binding you so tightly.

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Indecision

A long-standing plan, cancelled at the very last minute. Nothing in my diary for today.

And now I have to decide – how will I spend my time?

I notice how many internal forces are pulling upon me.

A long to-do list. Perhaps if I can just finish it, everything will be ok.

The lure of busy-work. I could noodle at emails, browse the web, and numb myself while feeling that I’m at least doing something.

A wish to do something that would be nurturing, self-caring, creative or expressive. And a nagging feeling of guilt and shame at choosing that over my obligations to others.

An embarrassment of possibilities (and embarrassment is exactly how it feels). Many choices I could make, and really no good way of discerning which will be most of value. Even choosing the criteria by which to choose is disorienting. What will be most productive? well-rewarded? enjoyable? fulfilling? time-efficient? revitalising? beautiful? What will make the biggest contribution?

I notice how charged my body feels. It’s difficult to settle. This terribly small dilemma – how to spend a day – is caught up with so many narratives and expectations, many of which I’m not sure are even really mine. I could easily spend the whole day in this state, caught between conflicting inner stories and inner longings.

I think this is angst, the mood about which I wrote yesterday. A moment when instead of being absorbed in the world, fully engaged simply in responding to whatever comes, the horizons of the world – its limits – become clear. And the groundlessness of any of the decisions I might make about this singular day become clear too.

And in that realisation is a path onwards. Because angst is reminding me, quite precisely, how things are. That the particular way I respond to this now-open day is just one of a million ways to be, each with its own rewards and its own limits. That there is no way of knowing.

And when I remember that, I can laugh a little at my seriousness and my conviction that I have to get it right. And I can remember that there’s boldness and aliveness simply in deciding, even when there’s no way of being sure that the decision is a good one, or having any real idea how it will turn out.

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Letting it crumble

What’s your secret project?

I mean the one you’re up to most of the time, even if you don’t know it yourself. The one you took up as a child, and have kept going ever since. The one that most of the people close to you would probably be able to name, if asked. But which, unless they’re braver or more skilful than most, they’ll probably keep to themselves.

Do you know what I’m asking about here?

Mine? Having people see me as good.

I’ve developed quite an armoury of skills in this regard. It doesn’t take much for me to portray myself as clever, intelligent, considered. Or to give others a strong sense that I know what I’m doing. Or that I’m acting with integrity. I can do what it takes to look kind, considerate, caring, attentive. I can calm down a conflict. I can be masterful at having you feel like I’m on your side…

… even when none of is true.

When I’m deeply enmeshed in the being-seen-as-good project you’ll probably not know how angry I am, or confused, or lost. You might not know how strongly I disagree with you, nor how bored or irritated I’m feeling. It might take a while for you to discover when I’m secretly taking care of my own needs and wishes at the expense of yours.

Like I said, I can be a master at looking good, even when it isn’t true.

But, if we’re lucky, it eventually starts to fall apart. Which, in my case, began about ten years ago. I found I could no longer successfully keep looking good while doing work from which my heart was so absent.

Lucky? Yes, because one cost of a project such as this – and we all have one that we take up right from when we’re very young – is that we can hardly be ourselves. We’re managing all the time, creating a facade. We’re manipulating others so that they’ll see us just the way we want to be seen, and no other. And so that we can see ourselves the way we want too.

Perhaps it begins when we gradually start to feel how desperate we are. How out of touch with ourselves and life. When we start to feel how distant we are from ourselves. And when we get so tired – tired of all the effort and hyper-attentiveness keeping up such a project entails.

And when our efforts fall apart, amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, the pain and bewilderment, we can begin to experience ourselves fully as human beings at last. Beautiful, contradictory, and flawed. And then, instead of bringing the world an act, a carefully constructed fiction, we can gradually begin to bring ourselves in a more honest, present, and generous way.

Like I said, if we’re lucky.

So what’s your secret project?

And are you prepared to begin to let it crumble?

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Story People

As well as living your life, you’re always in the midst of a story about it all, though perhaps it doesn’t often seem this way.

Our stories quickly become transparent, invisible, in the living of them.

But one evening, reading a book or watching a film, you find yourself deeply touched by the situation of one of the characters. Maybe it’s the one nobody understands, the one with hidden gifts they can’t seem to bring to the world, the one who seems doomed to hurt others, the one who has been carrying a heavy burden that nobody will take away, or the one who longs for some kind of resolution. You’re moved. You feel seen. And you have an insight, for a moment, into the way you’re constructing the story of your own life.

New possibilities open when we find stories that reflect our own experience in this way. It’s what the great fairy tales and myths can do. And it’s how the films and books that touch us reach behind the surface of things and show us our lives.

Most of us can also do with finding people who can do this for us. People who appreciate and show us, compassionately, the stories we’re living. People who see the hurt and the suffering, the longing and the hope, the wishes unfulfilled, and what we’ve been working so hard to bring about. And people who bring what’s become invisible to us back to our attention, so that we can find ourselves again.

Even more importantly, we need people around us who can see beyond all the stories. Those who show us who we are that’s outside all the narratives – of success and failure, joy and hurt, achievement and disappointment – with which we identify ourselves.

And we need those who can bring us new stories with which to interpret our lives. Stories with more space in them, bigger possibilities, and more life-giving ways of understanding ourselves. Stories that reconnect us with the sources of dignity, courage and strength that can sustain us as we do what only we can do.

It’s quite a gift to come across people who can do this for us.

And isn’t it, in the end, what skilful friendship, teaching, and leadership are all about?

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Taking responsibility for our stories

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

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

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

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

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

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