Hubert Dreyfus 1929-2017

A treasured teacher of mine, Hubert Dreyfus, died this week.

I never met him in person. But his undergraduate course on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, given at the University of California at Berkeley and made available online, deeply inspired me.

Dreyfus was professor at Berkeley from 1968, after tenures at Brandeis and MIT, and was probably the most important interpreter of Heidegger we’ve known in the English language. He took what might otherwise be considered a confusing, marginal work and explained what he came to see through it with clarity, elegance, good humour and no shortage of critical thinking.

Through Dreyfus a deep and more humane understanding of what it is to be human has been made available to us. His work has had impact on many fields – medicine, therapy, education, anthropology, sociology, computer science and, I can say with gratitude, the particular field of coaching and adult development which has been a central project of my own life these last 12 years.

What I appreciate most, though, about Hubert Dreyfus is the love of teaching and learning of which he was an expression. In the recordings of his 2007 lecture course (which, for quite some while, was among the most popular available on iTunes University) it’s clear that this was not a man who had settled on a rigid understanding of his field, nor someone who considered himself ‘done’. Even after 30 or so years of studying and teaching Heidegger’s work, the lectures show him questioning himself with both wonder and joy, revising his understanding as he goes, being honest about what still mystified him and – most importantly – learning from his students. In the lecture that I love the most a student’s question leads him to decides he’s misunderstood a central principle in Heidegger’s work for decades. Hearing him revise his understanding mid-lecture is simply thrilling to hear.

According to his colleague, Sean Kelly, Dreyfus was committed to the profoundly risky and courageous project of only teaching what he did not yet understand. He clearly saw that teaching and learning are not separate activities.  In his hands, as you’ll hear if you ever take the opportunity to listen or if you watch him in the lovely documentary Being in the World, teaching was an opportunity to bring all of himself and to invite us to bring all of ourselves to our endeavours too. It was an opportunity to be alive together.

So it’s no wonder that his lectures were often full to capacity. It’s rare in our culture to find a teacher who could combine such wisdom with such love, and who was so open to being changed and brought to life by his students and by the subject he was teaching.

Ritual and culture

Our rituals give us an opportunity to rehearse a different kind of relationship to ourselves and to others than those in which we ordinarily find ourselves.

This is exactly what we’re doing with the ritual of a formal meeting where we take up assigned positions (chair, participants, etc) and give ourselves new ways of speaking with one another that are distinct from everyday conversation. It’s what we’re up to with the ritual of work appraisal conversations, which are intended to usher in a new kind of frankness and attentiveness than is usually present. It’s in the ritual of the restaurant, where the form and setting gives us, from the moment we enter, a set of understandings, commitments and actions shared with both other diners and with the staff. And it is, of course, present in all religious rituals when performed with due attention, which call us for a moment into a fresh relationship with the universe, or creation, or the rest of the living world.

The more we practice a ritual – especially if it’s one practiced with others – the more we develop the imagination and skilfulness to live in this new relationship in the midst of our ordinary lives.

It is for this reason that among the most powerful ways we have available to shift a culture – in a relationship, in a family, in an organisation – is to imagine and then diligently practice new rituals.

And by naming them as such, by declaring that they are ritual, we can help ourselves step in and be less overcome our inevitable resistance, our anxiety, at trying on new, unfamiliar and much needed ways of being together.

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Reimagining Ritual

We human beings need rituals, and we create them everywhere. We have rituals for getting up in the morning, rituals for brushing our teeth, rituals for making breakfast, rituals for leaving the house, rituals for speaking to our families, rituals for paying the bills. And our organisational life is brimming with them – rituals for checking our emails, and rituals for responding to them; rituals for interviewing, hiring and promotion; rituals for the presentation of documents and proposals; and rituals for meetings.

Each ritual, whether private or public, gives us a stable form for our actions and relationships – a way of navigating without having to reinvent ourselves again and again. But each is far more than just a repetition of particular behaviour. A ritual – with its particular structure and pace, style and mood, and with the specific roles taken up by those engaging in it – brings out and rehearses a kind of relationship with life and with one another. And the more we perform it, the more habitual and familiar that style of relating becomes for us.

This, in itself, can be a fascinating area for study. Who am I being when breakfast is a coffee grabbed on the run from a street vendor on the way to the train? And who would I be if I made time to prepare food for myself with care and attention, and with enough time to eat? Who are we being when we gather in the meeting room, rehearsing the familiar pretence that we’ve read the agenda already and checking for emails under the table? And who would we be if we set our devices and papers aside, looked one another in the eye and talked about something really important until we were done?

We don’t have to continue simply enacting the rituals we’ve inherited in a thoughtless way. We could make a start by understanding that even the existing rituals with which we’re familiar are fertile ground for reimagining – and that there are many interpretations available which could bring us into more truthful, engaged and alive relationships with ourselves and those around us.

We could sometimes take up the ritual of travel from place to place as a way of cultivating wonder at the world. We could reinterpret the rituals of getting up in the morning as a way of bringing out exquisite care for ourselves and those closest to us. We could take on our rituals for spending money as an opportunity for cultivating sacredness rather than running afraid or getting just want we want. And we could even take up the ritual of meetings as an opportunity to build welcome, truth and openness rather than as a way of reminding ourselves who’s in charge, how busy everyone is, and how in control of things we are.

 

A narrow bridge

Once again the feeling in my body is as it was the day after the UK referendum. Fear, and deep disappointment, and many imaginings (some wild, some not) about what is going to happen.

So I have spent the morning walking, among tall trees and beside water. It’s a practice that I rely on most to restore me to a sense of myself, and to a sense of my own capacity. And I’ve come to see (to be reminded, for I have seen this and forgotten this repeatedly) that there are at least two kinds of fear at play here.

The first is fear for the world – in this instance what will come of electing to high office (and military command) a man who has done so much to inflame tensions, to foster hate and distrust, to demonise anyone who is ‘other’. And the second fear is fear of myself – fear that I will not be able to respond, fear that I will not know what to do, fear that I will be overwhelmed.

Seeing that makes it all the more important, I think, that I learn to be good at feeling fear (because fear is always a reminder of what is at stake and there is so much at stake here) rather than being ruled by it, and that I keep on learning to be good at finding my own capacity, and courage, and hope.

Or, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said over two centuries ago about the world and what’s called for:

All the world is a very narrow bridge.
The most important thing is not to fear at all.

Whatever will come now will come in large part because of what many people decide to do. Small actions, taken with others, become big actions. And this is going to mean many of us waking up, stepping outside the small horizon of our immediate concerns, and doing things. Actually doing things, rather than talking about it or hoping someone else will do something. It will mean actively helping one another, helping others beyond our circle, taking a stand every single time we encounter injustice or indignity or bigotry in politics or home or work, teaching ourselves, writing, speaking up, teaching each other, making art, asking big questions, thinking and feeling deeply.

There is another Jewish principle that I think can be illuminating here – that of tikkun olam, or repair of the world. The premise? That the world is incomplete, broken, and has been for longer than any of us can remember. That it can be repaired, by our day to day actions, or neglected, in which case the tear in the fabric of the world increases. That repair is possible.

It is this last part that I find so resonant today – just because so much is broken gives us no excuse to give up.

Indeed it may well be the case that the rise of hate, disdain, ridicule, indignity, violence and indifference in the world is always an opportunity to learn how to better ourselves if we choose – how to be more adult, how to be less narcissistic in our concerns, how to become more active, compassionate, wise, organised, connected to one another and impassioned about life.

I think we have an urgent responsibility to take up the practices that will have us be that in our homes, in our organisations, and in the wider world. And I think this can rightly be a cause for immense hope.

And I am sure that we have to start, right away.

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Dissolving

This summer I have taken up wild swimming, in the beautiful and tranquil swimming ponds on London’s Hampstead Heath.

It has been quite a practice in releasing myself into the unknown. The water is cold and murky and deep. It’s impossible to see more than a few centimetres below the surface, and so entering is an exercise in letting go, in welcoming what’s here, in giving up control.

Once in the cool water, eye-line level with that of the ducks and birds that frequent the pond, I notice how quickly any sense of inner pressure subsides. There is really nothing to do here, nowhere to get to, and I start to see how much my own inner life is still dominated by assessments that are often invisible to me.

Am I doing well enough? Being responsible enough? Getting enough done? Taking enough care? Being smart enough? Kind enough? Successful enough? 

I notice how often I feel sad, or deflated or frustrated because of an inner judgement that I’m falling short. And how often I rely on an equal and opposite assessment – that I did something well – in order to feel joy, or satisfaction or that I have anything to offer.

But here, in the coolness and stillness of the water, I am struck by my inner quietness and expansiveness. Held in a body of water that is vast and calm I am vast and calm too, my sense of separateness from the physical world dissolving as standards and self-assessment dissolve.

For a while I am the water itself, the trees, the birds and the sky. For a while I just am, and my beauty and value is the simple fact of being alive. And for a while I am reminded that I am not my assessments, even if I often live, quite unaware of it, as if they are what is most true.

By doing

We’ve been taught to wait, to amass knowledge, and to know for sure what it is we’re doing before we leap in.

We’ve been taught that the only time to do something genuinely skilful, risky and creative – in other words anything that can make a contribution to the state of things – is when we know how to do it already.

It’s ample fuel for the inner critic, the part of us that would have us hold back until everything is just right

And it has us hold others back too.

But, as Aristotle reminds us, when it comes to mastery the paradox is that

“the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing“.

In other words, we have to jump right in, long before we have any skill, make many mistakes, and hang on in the face of our own demons, other people’s criticism, and the many occasions we’ll mess it up.

Does your work, your organisation, your leadership, your life allow any space for this?

Or are you keeping yourself and everyone around you in a tight circle of safe, predictable reliability?

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Atrophy

It’s one thing to have good intentions about your relationships with others.

You also need good practices to bring them about, repeated actions by which you

listen
pay attention
stay open or defend yourself
share your cares and commitments
choose what to say and what not say
respond to emotions
interpret events as they happen.

When the practices that connect you to one another are neglected, relationships atrophy. At first slowly. And then quickly. Before long nobody can point to the moment when the trouble started nor to what it is that is missing. It’s just that something necessary isn’t there, something that once brought this team, this family, this organisation alive.

And then it becomes easy to judge others and blame them for making things so hard. And to forget that it’s how you’re acting right now that’s keeping things the way they are.

Restoring relationships calls for more than wishful thinking, and certainly for more than blaming others. It requires waking up to the actions that genuinely connect people.

And it requires remembering, a central act of all leadership: recovering the very ways of speaking and listening that once supported you, and bringing them purposefully back into being all over again.

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Small steps

It’s tempting to think the change you’re longing for will come about through a single revolutionary step.

… somebody (usually not you) realising the error of their ways
… a new vision or mission statement for your company
… a new to-do list that will solve all problems, ease all ills

This is the kind of magical thinking that leads to the often-practiced and rarely effective tradition of team ‘away days’. Yes, a day of talking can take you a long way. And yes, a list of freshly-minted things-to-do can give you all a feeling of relief, perhaps even hope, for a few minutes at least.

But it should be no surprise that on return to the everyday world of your office or workplace, nothing seems to change as quickly or as radically as you had hoped.

From the ashes of magical thinking cynicism is easily born.

You might more helpfully think of most change – particularly change in relationships, trust or understanding – as a kind of titration. Drip followed by drip followed by drip.

Radical overnight revolutionary change of the kind that you’re hoping for, or promising, is the work of messiahs and magicians (and, sometimes, charlatans).

For the rest of us, the dedicated, consistent, purposeful, patient work of repeated speaking and listening, promising and requesting, messing up and correcting, talking and learning, practicing and practicing.

Small steps, now.

Small steps.

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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On Aliveness

Important questions for any of us who care about our work:

  • Do the daily practices and rituals of my workplace cultivate aliveness and soul in me? In others? Or do they stifle life and squash the soul? (hint: it’s often our attempts to control that squash the very aliveness we need).
  • If they stifle, am I really prepared to live with the consequences of work that’s forgotten how to live? Really?
  • If I’m not willing to live with this, what am I going to do about it? What will I stop? What will I ask others to stop? What practices will I invent and initiate – even as an experiment – that could have things be different?
  • And am I ready to take the risky and vital step of leading… of being someone who treats this as with at least as much dedication as I show to our productivity, or to how much money we make?

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Organisational Ritual

Of course, our organisations are filled with rituals, though they can easily serve to split us apart from ourselves rather than connecting us up with one another and with our more courageous, contributory parts.

There’s the ritual of annual performance appraisal, which so often puts us in contact with our inner critic and our fear, inviting us in a defensive relationship with whoever we’re appraising or who is appraising us.

There’s the ritual of the meeting that everyone said ‘yes’ to but nobody wanted to attend, in which we gain access to the part of ourselves that denies what we’re really feeling and puts on a brave face.

There’s the ritual of the project presentation, with its deck of powerpoint slides that can be designed to inspire questions and curiosity but are often designed to dampen down life and keep everybody safe.

And there’s the ritual of goal-setting, which we can use to cover up how anxious we feel about how little control we really have, and which puts us in contact with the parts of us that reassure ourselves and others about what we don’t believe to be true.

I wonder at what we could we create if we were to more often and more purposefully invent enlivening organisational rituals rather than sleepwalking into ones which deaden. And if we designed our rituals to reconnect us daily with a sense of truthfulness, wonder, responsibility and connectedness to one another, and to remind us of the part we could yet play in this vast and unpredictable world.

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On Ritual

“As an archaeologist, my father always used to talk about the origins of language, of communication, being around a fire. When you think of that in relation to a theatre you realise that the audience is exactly the same scale as a sustainable human community from prehistory onwards, whether of 100 people or of 10,000. We become part of a collective imagining, we laugh at the same things, we find we are not alone. It’s why religion and theatre are so closely entwined. Priests know how to put on a good show. They understand that we all need rituals, patterns.”
Simon McBurney, Playwright and Theatre Director

We’ve largely forgotten the power and importance of ritual. Perhaps because we’ve conflated ritual with religion, and taken religion to be superstition, something we ought to be over by now in a society founded on science and reason. Or maybe we have a hard time seeing what ritual can do in a cause-and-effect way. If we can’t make a straight line from the doing of a ritual to a measurable improvement in something, we dismiss it as a distraction from the important work of getting things done.

Maybe. I think these are our public stories, the stories of so many organisations and the story of so much marketing (where buying and consuming products and services becomes the new ritual to replace all others). But in our private spaces and in our quieter moments I think many of us long for the redemptive, grounding, relationship-shifting power of ritual. I agree with Simon McBurney that we need ritual to help us rediscover an orientation to life and to one another that can be more nourishing and more whole than the spun-apart, face-it-alone, get-ahead narrative that undergirds so much of our lives.

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh make the point eloquently when they describe how rituals allow us to rehearse a different relationship with life and with other people. In one example they outline the ritual qualities of hide-and-seek, which switches the usual order around, allowing the hiding adult to play at being vulnerable and small and the seeking child to rehearse being commanding, giant-sized, and powerful. Everyone knows that it is a game – games and play themselves are powerful rituals – and this is the very point. It’s the ‘constructed’ nature of the ritual that gives it its power to upend things and give us a first-hand experience of parts of ourselves that we might not usually encounter so easily. Vulnerability in the commanding adult. Power in the vulnerable child. And a reconfigured relationship between both.

I’ve long related to the rituals of my own Jewish tradition in this way, less as a matter of ‘belief’ but as practices honed and deepened over generations which, if carried out with intent, are very powerful invitations into a new standing with life. I know that when I pause with my family on a Friday night to say shabbat blessings over candle flames and sweet wine, I’m momentarily put back in contact with the part of myself that marvels at the existence of others, at the wonder of light, and at the good fortune of having food to eat and somewhere warm and dry that can shelter us. For a short while we share together in that aspect of us that can be grateful for all this, that knows that many people go short of their basic needs, that understands how small we are in a vast universe that we did not create, and that sees how little direct control we have over any of it coming our way.

Of course, once the ritual is ended, we return to the messiness and complexity of our lives. We find ourselves feeling separate from one another again, perhaps a little afraid at the state of the world rather than grateful, and maybe overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life rather than awash with wonder and awe. To expect anything different would be to misunderstand the nature of ritual. Because rituals are not talismans or magic spells, capable of changing reality in an instant, or shifting our bodies and minds in a simplistic way. When understood this way, they inevitably appear shaky and ultimately a disappointment. Rather they are practices. And if done with the right intention and sufficient attention they teach us, as we enact them repetitively over time, what it is to be in the world and be with one another in a deeper and more attuned way.

Good rituals, so sorely missing in our culture, reintroduce us to that which is out of view, and that which we have left out, and in this way they can be profoundly transformative, deeply healing, and powerfully developmental.

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Habit and flexibility

Once we see that it’s our everyday practices, and the stories that accompany them, that shape who we are (through the gradual bodily formation of habit and familiarity) many new paths can open up.

You can start to see how the inner and outer sigh you make when you see the sister who frustrates you reinforces your very sense that no progress can be made in your relationship. You’re an audience to your own sigh – the world shows up in a particular way in the light of it – and so is she. Each sigh sets out a narrow path for a particular kind of repetitive interaction that is reassuringly familiar even as it’s reassuringly frustrating. And once you see this, you can perhaps start to practice something else – a smile, or an embrace, or a simple and true expression of how you’re actually feeling which invites an equally truthful response from her.

Perhaps you can see that your repeated practice of criticising people (yourself, those close to you) invites a world in which nobody is ever enough, and there’s always something to fix. And that along with this practice comes a kind of vigilance in you and others, a way of constantly scanning the world to see what’s missing or what might be criticised, which has you on edge, and afraid, and pessimistic about what’s possible. And once you see this, perhaps you can start to practice something other than a judgement. A welcome, for example, or a breath that relaxes the tightness in your chest and the clenching of your jaw. Or a spoken appreciation of what’s good, and of value, and to be cherished here.

When we get too convinced by the familiarity produced by our existing practices, when we misunderstand the momentum of our habits as proof that we are such and such a way, we close off profound possibilities for ourselves and others – possibilities that come from our enormous capacity for flexibility, for attunement to the world, for generosity and compassion, and for creative and nuanced response.

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The Path

I’m reading, and loving, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s ‘The Path‘, a book about how ancient Chinese philosophy can help us understand ourselves and live our lives more fully. It’s concise, clear, and beautifully written. And, at the heart of it, is an important and wonderful idea from Confucius (echoed in the contemporary world by Martin Heidegger among others): that we largely become who we are through our everyday actions.

This apparently simple claim has some extraordinary consequences.

The first is that there is not so much of a fixed way that each of us is. When I say ‘you know me, I hate being around company, I don’t know what to do in a crowd’ and then repeatedly take myself off to be on my own, I’m actively building myself into someone who is more skilful being with myself than being with others. I’m also becoming someone who knows myself in a particularly narrow way. I get to be the kind of person I am through the accretion of thousands upon thousands of actions, both internal and external, and the stories I tell about those actions, bringing some parts of me into view and pushing other parts towards the margins.

For Confucius this is an important ethical issue. My story about myself – that I am a particular way – is much too small, leaving out as it does all those aspects of me (less known, and perhaps less tolerated by me) that can be quite skilful at social relating and which, with purposeful cultivation, could help me live a life which has more connection with people and a greater possibility of moment-to-moment care for others around me.

The second consequence is that there is a profound and quite pragmatic developmental path to follow, one which can open up wide possibility, and that is the path of practice. Repeated, well-chosen practice – in my example above, the practice of being with and being attuned to others – not only builds skilfulness but allows me to rehearse a different kind of relationship to myself and to life than the one I’m used to. By choosing practice carefully I can gradually find out what it is like to be a social person as well as a solitary person, and cultivate those parts of me which (simply by being human) are quite able to be present with and take care of others.

The point made so beautifully by ‘The Path’ is that in a culture dominated by the detached world-view of Cartesianism, which privileges thinking and theorising about things over the day-to-day doing of things, we’ve largely forgotten the value of simple, everyday practices and rituals as a support for living well. And we’ve forgotten how they can widen our horizons, build our capacity to respond more fully to life’s inevitable unpredictability, and help us take care more skilfully of life’s needs.

 

The restorative possibilities of practice

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

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

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

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

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When only practice will do

When we rely on events to change things in our organisations – an executive residential, a training day on relationships, a session on ‘difficult conversations’ – we’re treating ourselves as if we’re machines. A new part, some oil in the right place, installing a patch to the operating system – that’ll do it.

When we imagine ourselves this way, we set ourselves up for such disappointment. We pour our hearts and our good intentions into the event, thinking that this time it will do the trick, this time the upgrade will work. And we wonder why things the next day seem pretty much the way they were before.

We’d be so much more effective, and so much kinder to ourselves, if we understood that we are living processes, shaped all the time by the practices we take up and by the relationships that surround us. We’d know then that events can help us, for sure, but that it’s not the events themselves that bring about the change we seek as much as our relationship to them. We’d see that unless we’re prepared to use events as an invitation to practice – with all of the uncertainty, all the learning that’s involved, all the letting go that practice entails, and all of the times that our practice goes awry and we have to commit to begin again once more – we can rightly expect our events to do very little at all.

And this point – that practice goes awry – is probably the most important. We know, intuitively, that a two-day event exploring the piano doesn’t make any of us a competent pianist. We’d expect to have many subsequent days of struggle and difficulty, with steps forward and setbacks, before we’d feel proficient. Before real music would be possible we’d expect days when our practice sounded disjointed or discordant, and to play many wrong notes from which we’d gradually learn the right ones. We’d expect to need help, and time to reflect on what’s happening. And we’d expect to experiment and practice again and again for many weeks.

It’s the same for the work of building trust between colleagues, for learning how to get out of our endless busyness and rushing so we can think, and for finding how to work together effectively, and skilfully, and joyfully.

If we understood this, I think we’d expect a lot less of events and see a lot more possibility in ourselves and in each other. And we’d know that our very difficulties are the path, not a reason to be discouraged, not proof that we’re getting it wrong, and certainly not a reason nor an excuse to avoid the difficult, life giving and essential work of practicing together what we say we most want to bring about.

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Practice, not events

Between June 2011 and the following July I had three close encounters with death. Three life punctuating events brought about by sudden and unexpected changes within my body, each shocking and frightening, each a reminder of how fragile and unpredictable life can be.

As I recovered from each episode I expected – hoped – that I would in some way be profoundly different. I wanted so much to find myself more grateful, more accepting, more joyful of life’s many small blessings, less judgmental, less afraid, less irritated by small things, more kind, and more dedicated to being present and welcoming and loving with the people who matter to me.

But it didn’t work out so simply. I emerged from each experience blinking and shaken and grateful, and soon settled back into many of my familiar patterns.

Over time I’ve found myself thinking about this differently. What happens if I allow these experiences to inform the way I live rather than expecting them to change me? How can I, having encountered the possibility of death so closely, use my experience to commit fully and wisely and generously to life?

In taking on this question I’m finding out that the change I seek is a question of practice rather than of events. And that I am an ongoing process much more than I am a thing with enduring properties, an object that is a particular way. I live myself into being, day after day. I am always living myself into being by the very ways in which I live.

How I move, how much I take care of myself, how I express curiosity and interest in the world, how I speak and listen, how I sleep, how I sing and laugh, how I play and create, how I bind myself up in community, how I practice compassion and stillness, how I love, how I work – all these shape the life I am living and who I become, far more than the punctuating events themselves.

And this tells me so much about the mistaken ways in which I look for change in myself and in my relationships with others. When I mistake life for a thing I imagine an event of sufficient power will do it. An affecting conversation, a kiss, a show of force, a book with a revelatory idea in it, an illness, a windfall, a conference, an argument, the right gift, or a brush with death will fix things, in the same way that I might fix a dented metal bowl by attempting to knock it into shape. But when I know myself as a living, unfolding process, events take up their proper place as teachers rather than fixers, educating me about the ongoing practices by which I can take care of this one precious life.

The more I imagine events alone will do it, the more I set myself up for the despair and frustration that comes from relying on something that cannot help.

And the more I commit to the ongoing, long-term, diligent and patient practice of living in a way that brings life, the more genuine reason I have to hope.

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Going to sleep to ourselves

Sometimes, in the midst of our busyness and our fixation on having things work out just the way we want them, we forget that we’re alive.

This forgetfulness, it seems to me, is an inevitable part of our human condition. I like very much Martin Heidegger’s phrase for this – that we get ‘scattered into everydayness’. In our everyday coping with all that comes our way, we go to sleep to ourselves and what we’re really up to in our lives.

When our forgetfulness goes on for too long, and if we don’t take steps to remember our aliveness, it starts to colour everything we’re doing. Workplaces in which people have forgotten they’re alive become places that pursue profit or targets with no sense of what they’re for. Families who have forgotten they’re alive lose sight of the preciousness and sacredness of the relationships between their members. There is always the washing-up to do, of course, but it can be a humdrum task to be endured or, when we’re awake to what being in a family is for, an expression of a much bigger commitment to the care of one another and the life that we share.

All of this is why it is vital that we have practices for remembering ourselves – practices that connect us to one another, to our aliveness, and to our relationship with all of life. Many of us have no such practices and those that we do have to deal with our scatteredness serve to numb us rather than bring us more fully to life.

One of the reasons this is difficult for many of us is that as we’ve pursued individualism we’ve abandoned so many of the shared rituals that come from being part of community: singing together; retelling shared stories, especially the founding myths of our families or culture; eating together; turning towards one another in appreciation and recognition. And we’ve been sold the line that entertainment will do all of this for us, but it mostly can’t reach deeply enough into our lives or into the lives of the people around us to wake us up to ourselves.

Writing is, for me, a powerful experience of self-remembering – a way in which I catch on to my aliveness. And that you are reading is part of it – though we may never have met we’re bound, you and I, for a moment. Reading – novels, poetry, philosophy, science. Walking too. Music. Meditation. Art. But nothing is as powerful a force for my own self-remembering as the web of Jewish practice that is woven through my life and which binds me in time, in place, and in a community. It has very little if anything to do with belief, and very much to do with what I’ve been talking about here – practices that remind me again and again of the feeling of being alive and connected to others in a vast universe of which I am, we are, a part.

Please understand that I’m not making an argument here for anyone to take up the forms of self-remembering that I’ve found so life-giving. But I am arguing for taking self-remembering seriously – that discovering and taking up practices that bring us to life again and again is foundational to a life well lived and good work well done.

Otherwise we’re just sleep-walking through.

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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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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.

 

Absorption and Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Confusing the path with those who walk it

I can see few clearer examples of the consequences of confusing paths and people than in the National Health Service here in England.

We are in a period of acute austerity, which has resulted in the wide-scale degradation (some would say dismantling) of social care services, leaving hospitals filled with elderly people who should not be there at all but have nowhere else to go. This, coupled with a funding model for hospitals that pays them less for caring for such patients than for other vital services, forces those who run NHS Trusts to choose between:

(1) running up a huge deficit to prop up the failing social care system, while continuing to provide the services that people rely on

(2) or greatly cutting back on spending in order to balance the books, either by limiting elective surgery (which, while not life-critical, can have an enormous effect on the quality of life of the people served by the hospital), or by cutting back on the quality of care, with all the attendant risks to safety and dignity of patients.

Each choice is fraught with difficulty and the potential for harm. And each is the product of a much wider societal, political and economic environment which itself shapes the paths that are possible.

When we fall back on our familiar individualistic interpretations, we quickly conclude that someone must be to blame for having to make such choices at all. And this leads us to conclude (a) that the people involved in making such choices must clearly be incompetent or misguided, otherwise they’d be able to make the right decision, and (b) that someone else – a new leader, someone with their head screwed on – will be able to sort it out.

And all of this draws our explanations away from the path itself and what creates it, and towards those who find themselves on it.

We get blinded to the systemic difficulty by our insistence that it’s personal.

And this in turn lays out and reinforces a particular kind of path of its own – one which holds even talented and committed people responsible for that which they cannot control, and leads those who would otherwise wish to contribute to stay well away.

It’s easy to see the effect of this path on people’s willingness to step in: the average tenure for an NHS Chief Executive is only two and a half years (Source: NHS Leadership Academy), nearly 1 in 10 NHS Trusts has no finance director, around 1 in 8 has no director of operations, and vacancies for these posts remain unfilled for months at a time (Source: The King’s Fund).

In the NHS the discipline of good path-making has implications at all levels, including the political and policy situation that could brought about by government if the will was there (the purposeful cultivation of paths that could have the NHS thrive instead of the cultivation of those that have it and those within it flounder). But the phenomenon is also visible at a much more local level in smaller organisations, because the narrative of individual accountability is a background assumption upon which many so organisations are founded.

And until we’re willing to treat the systemic and collective practice of path-making as a serious project in our organisations and in our wider culture, we’re writing ourselves again and again into paths that sustain the very difficulties we most want to solve.

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The non-obviousness of what’s obvious to us

When I feel ashamed, particularly by something someone else has said, my body quickly steps in to defend me. I tighten up, contract, shut down, back off, go silent, get out of the way. It protects me from the feeling of being wounded, but it makes staying in conversation and in relationship quite difficult.

Other people I know, in exactly the same circumstances, have bodies that have them rage, or puff up, or cry.  And some step in, opening, softening, allowing themselves to feel and be vulnerable, coming into closer contact and into questions and curiosity about the other person.

Knowing this reminds me that what seems so obvious and familiar in my body, because it’s been practiced for decades now, is not the only path. Seeing how other people are able to respond shows me that there many different responses to shame, many different stories about it to live. And not all of them involve freezing, or running.

And all of this is a source of hope for me, because I see that with diligence, and practice, and kindness, and some measure of courage – but mostly with practice – I, too, can find a way to stay in contact with feelings I really don’t like to feel. And, as a consequence, to be more open when I’m shaky, to be more present when I’m suffering, to maintain integrity even when I want to give in, and to be curious even when I want, most urgently, to get away.

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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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No email in my pocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will, action, and driving on the left

It seems common sense to think of will-power – our capacity to do or not do the things that matter to us –  as coming only from within us. If I can’t start something or stop something, develop a new habit or take up a project, if I find myself procrastinating, then it must all be down to me, and me alone. And, if that’s the case then pushing harder, or harsh self-criticism, or both, seem to be the way to go in order to get myself started.

But self-punishing is hardly life giving, and barely supports our capacity to flourish and get up to what matters in a sustained way. And it’s based on a profound misunderstanding, deeply rooted in our culture, that we are essentially separate from the world. If I’m separate, if the world is essentially divided into me (my mind, my thinking) and everything out there which I have to move or push against, then when I find myself not moving or not pushing what other conclusion can I come to than (1) I’m not trying hard enough and (2) there’s something wrong with me?

But there is another way to look at this that takes into account how open to the world, how indivisible from the world, we are. When we see this we also start to see how much we are affected by who and what is around us. We discover that the world is an affordance for certain things – that different places and people draw out of us different kinds of action and inaction, and that this is often a better description of what’s happening than ‘I willed it’.

Chairs beckon me to sit, paths beckon me to walk, people who are open and receptive beckon me to speak, others beckon me to keep quiet. Place a stack of chocolate biscuits on my desk, and I am drawn to eat. Place a phone in my pocket, filled with incoming messages, tweets, emails, voicemail – and I am drawn to check.

Our whole physical and social world acts as a scaffold or a pathway for our action and inaction.

The startling corollary of this is that how we are in the world is not brought about by inner will alone. It is also, in large part, brought about by what and who we choose to surround ourselves with in our homes and work spaces. In this way the worlds we build for ourselves also make us.

And just as the road layout and road signs here in the UK are an affordance for driving on the left (they call for left-of-the-road driving), and those in mainland Europe or the US are an affordance for driving on the right, we can begin to lay out – with our choice of possessions, tools, spaces and relationships – paths that are an affordance for distraction and delay, or for doing what matters most to us.

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Roll out

So much difficulty, suffering, and effort would be alleviated if we understood in our organisations that culture is not something we can implementroll-outinstill, or command. It cannot be programmed nor demanded other than through force, coercion, intimidation and fear (a topic that totalitarian states know about only too well), methods which themselves can produce only rigid, stuttering, repressed cultures that serve only the few.

Culture is not a thing, an object, or an entity that has an existence separate from us. We cannot stand on the outside of it, analysing or directing it as if we were not involved. It is born of our participation. It arises from the conversations, promises, commitments, practices and intentions we have towards one another. And it is sustained and created anew in every moment by our acts of relating and responding to those around us – every one of which is either an act of sameing or an act of changing.

If we understood this – if we saw that cultures develop through many tiny living experiments in speaking, listening and interacting – we might relax our efforts to ‘manage’ change the way we do, or our demands that someone else sort out culture on our behalf. We would give up waiting, complaining, until there was more ‘communication’, or until ‘they’ saw the light. And perhaps we would find ourselves stepping in – seeing that although we could never know quite what the outcome would be, every act is an opportunity to tell a new story, to experiment, and to invite a new conception of who we are, who others are, and what there is to do.

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Diminishing returns

What are the habits you have that diminish you?

It’s not so difficult to find out what they are. You’ll probably do them automatically, without thinking. They’ll soothe you in some way. And they’ll leave you afterwards with the vaguely queasy feeling of having wasted your time – they’re distracting rather than nourishing, numbing rather than enlivening, they cover up what’s going on rather than have you face it,  and they have you turn away from genuine connection with yourself and with other people.

A few candidates for you to consider:

checking your email in between other activities
checking your email in the middle of other activities
browsing facebook just in case there’s something interesting
scanning and rescanning the news headlines
or the weather report
eating whatever comes to hand
breaking off repeatedly to grab snacks or drinks
clenching your jaw, or tensing your shoulders
booking back to back meetings (because they need me there)
tuning out
editing and re-editing your ‘to do’ list
flicking from website to website
flicking from tv channel to tv channel
checking your email again

Each time you’re turning away from life, because you don’t want to have to feel whatever life is bringing you – perhaps anxiety, or boredom, or fear, or your tiredness, or being seen by others, or maybe even joy – and in turning away you’re profoundly reducing your capacity to engage.

For the moment, you’re soothed. But when you look back at the hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times that you’ve checked out in this way, can you honestly say it adds up to anything you care about?

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Knowing yourself

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

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

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

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

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