The Invisible Tug Between You and Everything

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

– Ellen Bass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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All that has come before is preparation

If you were parachuted into your life from outside – into your life and body as it is today – you might start to see what’s there through new eyes.

Perhaps you’d be more immediately grateful for the people around you, for the love, support and attention they bring you that you had to do nothing to earn. And perhaps you’d see the difficulties in your life for what they are – difficulties to be worked with, rather than confirmations of your inadequacy.

Enormous possibilities and freedom to act might come from inhabiting this world in which you’re both supported and have problems towards which you can bring the fulness of your mind, body and heart.

Being parachuted into your life might put an end to self-pity, because you’d come to see how the body you inhabit has been training, practicing all these years building skills, strength and an understanding of the life it’s been living and the difficulties it’s been facing. Maybe you’d see that you are precisely the one best equipped to deal with the detail and intricacy of this particular life. And perhaps you’d discover a way to look honestly at your situation and the resolve to deal with it, step by patient step.

Maybe if you were parachuted into your very own life, you’d understand that everything that has happened to you – so far – is not a shameful failure but the exact preparation you need for living today, tomorrow, and for the years to come.

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Back to front

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

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

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

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

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The perfect time to hope

hopetree

Today, I can think of nothing better than to simply share Howard Zinn‘s wonderful words on hope – a reminder for days which can seem so dark, despairing, and robbed of possibility:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.

The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

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We still have time to muster dignity, and graciousness, and courage

Yes, I admit it. In my pain and confusion and fear and hope and general agitation over what’s happening in the political and social sphere this week, I’ve read far too many of the knee-jerk reactions that fill the press and the web. Some have been helpful, some have fuelled my anxiety but many – most I think – have been the work of but a few minutes or a few hours of thought, and have done little to deepen my understanding. Most of my reading has been an attempt to reassure myself, I realise, an unachievable project given the complexity of this moment.

Which is why I am so grateful for the depth, nuance and care of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, which I mentioned a few days ago. Today I have once again picked up her latest book ‘The Givenness of Things‘ (published a few weeks before the election). I have so appreciated her willingness to write about US culture and society with a long view of history, with its cycles and currents, its upwellings and eddies, it setbacks and its upsets. Through it I have come to see what a narrow frame I’ve been bringing to my understanding of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Robinson – if you’re prepared to give her enough time and attention for her words to sink in – has so much to say that can help us to understand, that can support us in letting go of needing to know what is going to happen (as if we ever could!), and that can connect us again with our dignity and our hope.

In the chapter I’ve read today, Awakening, she warns us of the dangers of these times:

‘We have been reminded again lately how true it is that a small flame can cause a great fire. And that, to complete the allusion, the tongue is a flame.’

But she also warns us that we too easily make sense of events by what we think we know already, which inevitably leaves us with only a partial understanding:

‘Americans are always looking for trends and projecting them forward to their extremest possible consequences, as if there were no correctives or countervailing forces. “The crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But trends can be counted on to reverse themselves. I take much comfort from this fact… There is a truth that lies beyond our capacities. Our capacities are no standard or measure of truth, no ground of ethical understanding.’

Writing about the difference between a politics of ethics and a politics of identity (which all of us are liable to fall into when things get difficult), she says:

“Identity… appeals to a constellation of the worst human impulses. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear. Western civilization is notoriously inclined to idealize itself, so it is inclined as well to forget how recently it did and suffered enormities because it insisted on distinctions of just this kind.”

And lastly, she reminds us that there is much we can do, wherever in the world we live:

“Recurrences, atavisms, are by no means uniquely, or even especially, an American phenomenon. What are we to do? Prayer would be appropriate, and reflection. We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and our predilections… Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift… Each of us and all of us know what human beauty could look like. We could let it have its moment. Fine, but would this solve the world’s problems? It might solve a good many of them, I think.”

The Givenness of Things is a deeply intelligent and compassionate book, unafraid to be paradoxical and complex, with writing that is clear as a bell. And I think it’s wonderful reading to help us make sense of these times.

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The state of the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Glorious

Our glorious, exhilarating, revolutionary Coaching to Excellence programme – a two-day programme on working compassionately and wisely with ourselves and others to lessen difficulty and to step in more fully to our lives – is running again in July. I’ll be there, teaching, in London July 18-19.

We’d love you to join us.

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The slavery of freedom

How important it is to discover that often it’s our very fixation with freedom that most enslaves us.

We easily think that we’re most free when we can choose whatever we want, whenever we want. Or when we’re free of binding, lasting ties (anything we can’t get out of when we choose).

But one of the defining qualities of our humanity is our capacity to care, deeply, about things. Care always implies commitment, and always implies dedication. How much can we say we care about anything or anyone if we can leave them behind when the whim takes us?

It’s a paradox, for sure. Our freedom to be completely free holds us back from dedicating ourselves. And the very act of narrowing our options, of choosing what we’ll commit to and what we won’t, opens up the widest freedom to participate in the life that’s in front of us.

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Leaping onto the wire

You’re standing for the first time on the edge of a platform above a wide and deep canyon, harnessed, checked and secured to a zip wire that descends at a steep angle towards the forest floor below. Many people have gone before you. And yet you hesitate at the edge, feeling both the way this possibility calls to you, and the way it frightens you.

Can you distinguish your anxiety at this moment from your fear? They’re different, in important ways.

Fear is related to the threat to your safety, real or imagined. I’ll die here. The harness will undo. I’ll fall. I’ll go too fast. I won’t slow down in time. Something will go wrong. I’ll never be able to get back again.

Anxiety is related to your freedom to step into this possibility or to step back, and your knowledge that the choice is yours alone. I want to do this, but I don’t. I’ve never done this before. I won’t know how to feel. I won’t know how to be with what I do feel. I won’t be able to deal with how unfamiliar this is going to be, with being changed by the experience. I won’t know how to be with others when I’m done. I won’t know how to be myself. 

Every developmental opportunity in our lives is like this, when we find ourselves standing on the brink of a new opening, a deep, broad vista stretched out before us that we suspect will change us. And while fear can sometimes be addressed with competent support – someone who can show us the equipment, explain how everything works, point out the successful descents that came before, and give us the statistics – anxiety cannot be resolved in this way, because anxiety is to do with what it is to become the one who leaps.

And when we want to travel the wire, or start to see that we simply must do so, what we need most is not people who’ll push us over the edge, nor people who’ll try to pull us back to the familiar world that is no longer serving us, but those who’ll stay with us a while, peer with us into the opening, and explore what we see with compassion, curiosity and wonder until we’re ready to do the work for ourselves that nobody else can do.

 

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Angels

Anxiety is different from fear, in that fear is always in some way about memy safety, my circumstances.

Fear comes and goes, but anxiety is nearly always with us. It isn’t personal. It comes from our very human capacity to choose, and from our ability to invent possible futures without knowing how they’ll work out. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells us, anxiety is the dizzying effect of our freedom, and the consequence of the boundlessness of our horizons.

When we deal with anxiety by trying to run from it, or by trying to numb it, or when we let ourselves be overcome by it (so that the anxious part of us is the only part that’s speaking), one of the consequences is disconnection from ourselves and from the possibilities that are calling. But when we treat it as a messenger we discover that anxiety is here to show us something we’ve been asleep to, something we’ve been avoiding, some way we’re holding on tight to that which ultimately cannot be held onto.

The difficult part, often, is knowing precisely what it is we’re avoiding, asleep to, or holding on to so tightly. And this is where we can often be helped so much by others who love us but who won’t rescue us. People who, instead of sending us back to sleep, will stand alongside us with compassion, truth, hope, and light as we discover what new way of being alive the anxiety, from which we so want to run, is calling us towards.

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What a mess

What a mess.

It’s so cold in here.

It’s unfair that some of us are left out.

I have such a busy day today. It’s going to be hard to get everything done.

We’re never going to make that deadline at this rate.

It’s getting late. This has been going on far too long.

There’s something we’re not speaking about here.

How often we speak in this way – making a claim or judgement about the world – when what we really long for is somebody to do something.

In each of these examples the speaker holds back from the request they’re really wishing to make. Perhaps it feels safer this way. After all if you don’t actually ask then you don’t expose yourself quite as much. And you protect yourself from the discomfort of a potential ‘no’.

But speaking in this roundabout this way robs each of us of much of our power to have what’s important to us happen. And it casts others in the role of mind-readers. How much pain we cause ourselves and those around us in endless waiting and hoping that someone else will see we’re in need and know what action to take.

Making clear, explicit requests of others – and being open the response – is, for many of us, a huge step into a much bigger and much kinder world.

And the only way to really begin to enlist the support of others in what we really need and what we most care about.

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From this place and no other

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

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. However magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

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

And so acceptance of life – as opposed to fighting life – is neither ‘putting up with things’, nor pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere you’re not, but responding fully from where you are, and knowing that many paths lead from this place.

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Overflowing

As David Steindl-Rast points out, we experience gratitude – we are able to be grateful – when we know our hearts as spilling over with appreciation for all that’s around us and within us.

And there’s no shortage of life to fill us up.

We needed do nothing to be given life, air, trees, sky, earth.

Other people dreamed up and made and brought us trains and cars, electricity and hot water, paper, pens, computers, steel and wooden beams to build our houses, and interlocking institutions, intentions, people and practices that teach us, care for our health and security, collect taxes, entertain us, feed us, sustain us.

We are inheritors of untold riches in the work of novelists, scientists, poets and philosophers. We needed do nothing to find ourselves in a world where all of this surrounds us, always.

But when we experience our hearts as spilling over, when our cup is full, we so often try to make the cup bigger. As if, now we’re filled, it’s necessary to be filled up with more. The bigger the cup gets, the more it needs filling, and the less of the spilling over of gratitude and gratefulness we experience.

We replace a life of wonder with a life of grasping. A life of what’s here, with a life of what isn’t. And a life in which we know ourselves and the world as enough, with a life in which we’re always disappointed and despairing, and always wanting more.

I’m writing about this today because I notice how often I fall into this way of seeing the world. And it seems to me that my work, perhaps the work of many of us, is to teach ourselves again and again to cultivate in us that which can love the world just as it is. To remember how to be cups that can spill over in response to the world, right at the same time as we strive, in all the ways we do, for there to be more of whatever it is to which we’ve dedicated ourselves.

And what seems wonderful about all this to me is that the more grateful I can be at what is, the more capacity and energy I find in myself to make right what is not.

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The right time to hope

There are a million ways to be. But we hold on tightly to the way of being that is most familiar to us – the one each of us thinks is who we are.

And so when we’re in trouble – or stressed, or feeling held back by the world or by ourselves, when we’re longing, wishing, wanting, despairing – we tend to do more of what we already know to do. What we always do.

Even when it hurts us.

Even when by doing this, we keep the world the same as it has been for so long.

We choose familiarity over our own growth, because familiarity seems to save us from risk. At least we know the world when it’s this size, this shape.

At least we won’t be surprised.

And, because of this, just when our habit is to rush to do something, it’s often just the right time to wait. When we’re certain we have to be certain, the right time to be curious. When we’re most familiar with holding back, it can be the time to act. When we’re sure we have to be strong, the right time to be vulnerable. When we’re most ready to judge can be time to suspend judgement. When we’re most harsh on ourselves it’s the time, instead, to be exquisitely kind.

And, when we’re most despairing, it’s often just the right time to hope.

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Art that helps

On a trip to Madrid to visit my friend Robert Poynton, he hands me this.

“It’s a robot*,” he says, “You carry it with you. It offers you outrageous compliments.”

(*one of over 27,000 made by Gary Hirsch)

What a gift for each of us to hold – a crazy joyful robot that offers us outrageous compliments. It’s such a contrast to the outrageous criticism that so many of us bring everywhere within us – the part that demands that we be perfect, go faster, get loved, get appreciated, be better. The part that’s sure we’re not, ever, enough.

As Robert writes, the gift of the robot is that it ‘knows that you are not the imposter,
that the real imposters are the shadows you chase’.

Perhaps my little robot can remind me of my own goodness more often, and help to question what the critic stands for, whether it helps, and if it’s now time to do without the suffering and holding back that is its ‘gift’ to each of us.

And perhaps you might just make one you can carry yourself.

Three myths to give up on if we want to grow up

At the times when the world has shrunk to its smallest horizons, when I have been most despairing, desperate, or alone, or when I have found myself working and pushing much too hard, it usually turns out that I have been living in thrall to one or more protective myths about life that I have carried from childhood.

Myth 1 – I’m not like other people

In this account I’m not really a person, while other people are. Others’ lives are complete in ways that mine is not. Other people know where they’re going, while I am lost. Other people made the right choices, while I stumbled. Other people aren’t as confused as I am. Other people don’t suffer as I do.

Underpinning this myth is a great deal of negative self-judgement, which fuels a sense of deflation, self-diminishment or self-pity. But it can equally be worn as a mask of grandiosity, in which I puff myself up with certainty and arrogance. Sometimes I bounce between the two poles, from deflation to grandiosity and back again.

Myth 2 – Death has nothing to do with me

Somehow I’m separate enough from the real world that death is not an issue for me in the way it is for others. It’s frightening but far-off, a rumour, something that happens to other people. Consequently, I need pay it little real attention. I can ignore what my body tells me, and what my heart tells me. I’m protected from seeing that my time is finite and that I have to decide in which relationship to life I wish to stand.

Myth 3 – A saviour is coming

If I’m good enough, popular enough, loved enough, successful enough, recognised enough, powerful enough, rich enough, famous enough, caring enough… then I’ll be saved. Someone – one of the grown-ups in the world – will see me and, recognising my goodness, rescue me from my troubles

And then I won’t have to face them any more.

This myth keeps me working really hard. Sometimes it has me try to save others in the very same way that I am desperate to be saved.

I know these are not myths I carry alone.

Growing up calls on us to see how these myths of childhood keep us as children, and to find that the that the protection they offer is little protection at all:

Myth 1 is the myth of specialness. It boosts our self esteem by giving us a reason for all the difficulty we’re experiencing. And protects us from feeling the suffering of others by keeping us out of reciprocal relationship with them.

Myth 2 is the myth of no consequence. It saves us from the burden of having to choose, or face the outcomes of our choices.

Myth 3 is the myth of dependency. By rendering us helpless it keeps us from taking on the full responsibility (and possibility) of our own adulthood.

I think we cling onto these myths because, as well as the explanations they give us, we’re afraid that if we face the true situation of our lives (we’re not so special, we’ll die, there’s nobody to save us) then our troubles will be magnified. But, as with any turning away from the truth, they come at an enormous cost. In particular they keep both our dependency and our hopelessness going.

And when we can learn to see through them, we can also start to learn how to grow up. We can find that the world has much less to stand on than we thought, and that we nevertheless have enormous ability to stand. We can discover deep sources of hope, courage and compassion which which we had been out of touch. And as we allow ourselves to step out of hiding and into relationship, we can discover that our capacity to help others – and to be helped by them in return – is far greater than we could possibly have imagined.

One step, and then one step

I have long loved the hopefulness of the Jewish tradition – the way it roots itself in the realness and responsibility of this momentunderstanding that the life we are living is the only one we can be sure of, that it’s vanishingly short, that there is much yet to do be done, and that each of us has the possibility of contributing.

And I appreciate very much how this hopefulness is informed by realism about what’s possible.

It is not your duty to complete the work [of improving the world]…‘, writes Rabbi Tarfon, a 2nd century sage, ‘…but neither are you free to desist from it‘.

There it is. What needs doing in the world is so much bigger than any one of us can muster – a realisation that could so easily be a source of despair. But in Tarfon’s hands it’s a call to possibility and responsibility. We have to begin, even though we may not quite understand what we are beginning, even though the results of our labours may only benefit those who come long after us, who we will never know. And when we find ourselves in the darkness, when nothing seems possible, when we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of things and floored by our smallness – one step.

And then one step.

And then one step.

But at the same time, we can lay a trap for ourselves with hope, which the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus understands well. Hope, particularly in the form of desire, he says, can be a source of great suffering. It can leave us permanently dissatisfied with the life we’re living, even when we have reason to be grateful.

Do not spoil what you have‘, he says, ‘by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

What you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

We know how that goes. We imagine a new car will make us happy, only to find a few days into owning it that we have our eye on a newer model. We imagine that power, or position, or a house, or a new relationship, or a change of government, or more money in our pocket will be the answer, only to find ourselves with the same emptiness and longing transposed to a new situation.

We so easily find our lives consumed by an endless and insatiable comparison between what is and what we imagine could be.

Epicurus’ own solution to this difficulty was a kind of radical simplicity and acceptance. He was an advocate of the virtues of living a life of obscurity – not trying to change too much, nor having dreams that are too big, so that we can appreciate and be genuinely grateful for what is already in front of us.

It seems to me that to be human is to inhabit the tension between Epicurus and Tarfon – learning to cherish the gifts we have, and at the same time hoping for and working towards something much better both for ourselves and for those around us. And it is, as far as I can tell from my own life, a genuine tension for many of us – pulled as we are between our deepest, most heartfelt unmet longings and our wish to feel happy or at least fulfilled right where we are.

It can be a confusing and painful place to be, particularly when we get caught up in the anguish of knowing we can’t have the world be just the way we want it. Or when our hope and acceptance are extinguished and smothered by resentment, fear, and despair at our inability to control things.

Perhaps the work of a human life is to learn to inhabit the tension between is and could be or, more fully, to be a bridge that unites both poles. Here maybe we can learn the craft of living in the world as it is, knowing we don’t have to save it, and at the same time being the ones who commit ourselves to the one next, hopeful, step.

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On practice

All the world’s great religious traditions know the value of practices, the daily acts of repetition and dedication that can so profoundly shape who we become. In our day to day lives we’ve mostly forgotten this – leaning towards tools or goals instead. Both have value, but without practice we miss something very important. 

The idea of practice is, at its heart, very simple. They’re rehearsals of a quality or way of being in the world that we wish to cultivate. Done regularly and with purposeful intent, they gradually shape and reshape our relationship to ourselves and to the world.

In this way practices are so very different to techniques or tools – which are intended to bring about some immediate shift or change in the world. And they’re different again to goals – ways in which we’ve got committed to bringing about a particular state of affairs that we wish for. 

The wonderful possibility in good practices is that we take them up primarily for their own sake, not to change things in a hurry, nor to compare ourselves with standards we might never reach. We taken them up because doing them has its own intrinsic value, and because we flower and flourish in unexpected ways by being people who are practicing.

And the other wonderful possibility in practice is that we can take it day at a time. Practice now, today. Be scrupulously kind to ourselves when we miss it or forget tomorrow. And begin, again, the next day.

We’re all practicing already, whether we know it or not, in the daily routines by which we live our days. And so we can all ask ourselves whether the practices we’re in the middle of now have us be in life in the way we wish for or value, or whether it’s time, at last, to find a way to practice something new.

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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.

Question 2 – What to commit to?

Question 2 of 2.

What if instead of asking what job you want to do (when you grow up) you ask what problem or difficulty in the world you want to solve?

What if we asked this of our children?

Perhaps this would be one way of teaching ourselves to look beyond our own wishes to acquire status or advantage or power over others.

And maybe this simple question would be one way we could help ourselves to address what the world really needs from us, rather than what we think we’re entitled to get from it.

With thanks to P who pointed me towards this question.

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Question 1 – If you had a minute?

Question 1 of 2.

I know, you’re stuck on a crowded bus, in a boring meeting, in a traffic jam, washing the dishes, doing your expenses, waiting for the cashier.

I know, from here, life seems pretty boring, mundane, lifeless even. I know, it seems like what matters is happening somewhere, to other people right now.

I know how often I am caught in seeing life that way.

But perhaps that’s mostly because we imagine, or at least feel like, we’re going to live forever.

But if you were dead, if you were no longer around, if you were offered just one minute more of life, and it had to be this moment in the queue, in the bus, in the meeting, with the dishes, would you take it?

I’m sure I would.

Then you might see this humdrum moment for the absolute wonder that it is – filled with enormous possibilities for curiosity, discovery, and purposeful action. Or for just looking in amazement. 

And if your answer was yes, is there any chance you might start seeing things this way, at least occasionally, in the life you already have?

With thanks to David Pearl, who brought up this question today as a way of explaining the origins of the Street Wisdom project. Thanks to their work I spent the afternoon walking the streets of central London, seeing them – and myself – through new eyes. More on this to follow.

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The enigma of insight, and the Dept. Store for the Mind

Sophie Howarth’s wonderful Department Store for the Mind arrives in the world today, and I’m thrilled that she asked me to write about the relationship between insight and coaching for the launch. I wanted to capture something of the exquisite possibility that arises when we meet someone who’s dedicated to helping us see ourselves and our lives more deeply.

Head over to the store to read more on insight by poets, scientists and philosophers, and to see the range of beautiful and inspiring things that Sophie and her team are bringing to the world.

Coaching, and the enigma of insight – for Dept. Store for the Mind

So much of who we are is invisible, hidden in the vast background of our minds, the familiar habits of our bodies, and the culture in which we swim. It’s as if the conscious mind, which we usually think of as ‘I’, is one tiny part of a deep and mysterious ocean that is more truly who we are. Because of this, insight can be difficult for us to come to alone. And so when we’re in difficulty we can benefit enormously from having a coach alongside us – another human being with the language, courage, and kindness to show us who we are, bring what’s hidden into the light, and help us work with what we find about ourselves in fresh and life-giving ways.

More here…

 

Looking up

hampsteadroof

Years ago, a good friend taught me to look up more as I walked the streets of London.

There is exquisite and fascinating architecture hidden, in plain view, above us.

I remember how important it was to discover that I look at my own city in a very particular, habitual way that hides surprising and important features of the world. And if it’s true for the way I look at a city, it’s equally true of the way I look at people, including myself, and at life.

There’s so much that I miss, and so much I choose not to see. And when I’m bored, or stuck, or frustrated, or desperate, or exasperated with people, the surprising, exhilarating, troubling, mysterious features of the world that could liberate and illuminate are invisible to me.

Not because they’re not there, but simply because I’m not looking.

 

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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Learning to walk

What it takes to learn to walk:

Having things around us to hold onto – sofas, chairs, people’s legs
Experimenting – learning by doing rather than by thinking it through
People to model walking for us
People to applaud us, encourage us on
People who know what we’re working on and are willing to let it happen
Falling
People who are willing to let us fall
Spaces that will allow us to fall
Allowing ourselves to be clumsy
Gentleness with ourselves
Sufficient time
Caring enough about it to stay at it
Our willingness to open to a new and unknown world

How rarely we allow our learning to be this way. Increasingly, and particularly in our organisations, we want learning to be quick, simple, obvious, least-effort, fail-safe, planned from end to end. We want to not make mistakes, not look stupid, not expose ourselves. We want immediate, measurable results.

We want to not be troubled by what and how we learn.

We want to know where we’re going before we set off.

We don’t want to be surprised.

We apply these criteria even to what’s most rewarding, most meaningful, and most pragmatically useful to us.

And even when it’s quite the opposite of what’s actually, most practically, called for.

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Doing it by half

Maybe it should be no surprise to me by now, but I’m finding out anew what crazy standards my inner critic has, and how it holds me to them.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve finished each working day with a queasy feeling of disappointment. Each day. And when I look closely, it’s apparent to me that it’s because I’m full of judgement about what’s not done, how much more I could have done, and how much more I should have done. I can easily live under the spell of this – the curse of this – convinced that it is the nature of things for me to perpetually fall short.

Perhaps you can imagine – perhaps you know from your own experience – what effect the constant comparison with an unreachable standard does to a person. At most intense it’s crushing, diminishing. But even without such intensity it’s like a gradual greying of life. There is little space for joy, abandon, deep connection or creativity when you’re caught in a vice.

It’s not been easy for me to spot this. It’s the nature of the critic to hide itself, to do whatever it can to present its standards and assessments as a simple feature of the world itself. But they’re not. They’re invented, or inherited, and either way they’re open to question. I’m fortunate enough to have people who care for me enough to ask me to look at the truth of my own capacity rather than pushing all the time. And when do I look at myself this way, I see that the standard and what can be done by me in reality are off by a factor of about two.

In other words, I can do about half of what the standards of the critic demand. Half of what I expect to do. Half of what I take to be the barely acceptable minimum.

And seeing this is a huge liberation.

When I tell the truth – I can do half – I free myself to put down an enormous burden of unkindness, and to actually do what I can do. And, in the truthfulness, my actions are so much less constricted, so much more natural, and so much more responsive to what’s around me.

And though I really can do only half, when I’m doing in order to respond to the world rather than to settle an implacable inner task-master, my goodness how much more appropriate and creative is the doing that I get to do.

Numbered

Sometimes I remember that my days are numbered.

My days for working are numbered.
My days for seeing a cloudless sky are numbered.
My days are numbered for sitting beneath tall trees.
And my days are numbered for learning.

My days for holding the ones I love are numbered,
As are my days of kisses.
My days of anguish, fear, and longing – they too are numbered.
And my days of walking the crests of high hills.

My days of deep conversation with friends and colleagues are numbered
And the days on which I can make a dent on the world.
My days for inventing, creating, demolishing, undoing, subverting, contributing.
My days for mending and tearing apart.
My days of confusion.
My days of spreadsheets, keyboards, pens, paperclips.
My days for travelling by train, bus, boat, plane.
My days for reading, music, turning my face towards the stars, and washing the dishes.

My days of getting to know myself.
My days for understanding what life is.
My days for loving.
My days for knowing.
All of these, too.

I don’t think I can remember this all the time.
I am too forgetful for that.
Too easily absorbed in the work of the day.

But when I do remember, life shines with new depth and wonder.
And I find it much more straightforward
To do what I am here to do.

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