Vast

There is a part of me that is tender, hurt, grieving and super-sensitive. He feels like something very young. Of all the parts that make up this mysterious something that I call ‘I’, he is among the smallest.

Deeply loving, filled with emotion, he easily gets caught up in a story of abandonment. His fears are specific, and strongly predictive. ‘You’ll leave me’, he says. By ‘you’ he means just about anyone – friends, lovers, family, teachers – and bigger entities too – community, this country in which I live, life itself. And by ‘you’ he also means ‘me’ – the one of whom he is a part, the one who is his home.

‘You will abandon me’, he says, ‘and I will not be able to tolerate the loss itself, nor my grief at the loss. And what’s more, I know when I get abandoned it will be my fault. I’ll cause it by my actions, or by my inaction. Or because I was not able to prevent it’.

He’s onto something, of course. Loss is a given of any human life. He – as I, as you – will eventually lose everything and everyone that we love. And his grief and tenderness is real, and appropriate to the scale of the coming bereavement. But this part, so young and with such a small horizon, is scared to live in the world because the loss feels like it is now. The abandonment he fears, ever present.

He has some quite sophisticated strategies to try to head off the losses that terrify him. He wants me to feel his fear, always, so that we won’t make a mis-step. He’ll do his best for me not to feel, nor let on to feeling, the grief that he holds, nor any feelings that might make me vulnerable. He holds on very tight, and sometimes as a result I hold on very tight too. And he’s a master at getting his abandonment in first, finding ways I can get resentful and abandon other people before they can abandon me. He’s done this many many times – I have done this many times in his name. In a way, he feels vindicated when people do actually leave, because it shows that his world view, and his deep fear, are justified.

He wants us to live in a very narrow space of possibilities. He’s only open for being seen by others in a very particular way (only with love and appreciation, never with judgement) and if he doesn’t get seen this way he’s quickly wounded, withdrawn, sullen, quietly rageful or doing his best to manipulate others so that the world is back to the way he wants it.

Because this part is in such difficulty, he grabs my attention frequently. And when he does I identify with him. I take him to be me, and me to be him. And this is the big mistake. When he is in the driver’s seat I forget that there are things to feel that are different to what he is feeling, ways of seeing that are different to what he’s seeing, and different ways to act. When I think I am him, I am at my smallest and most afraid.

Over time I have come to see that my work is one of self-remembering. Remembering that I am vast. That I contain multitudes. That as well as this part, there are others. And that my work is not to turn away, not to run from this tiny scared part of me – it is so easy to push him away, to visit upon him the very abandonment that he fears – but to hold him close, to cradle him, to honour him and his gifts. It is my work to welcome him home. To say to him, “Yes, I see you. I have you. You are safe here. You cannot fall”.

And my work too is to know that, just as I know he is held in the vast something called ‘I’, I too am held in and am part of something vast that has no given name but might best be called ‘life’. When I know myself this way, as one expression of a phenomenon which brings me into being and out of which I cannot fall, I am freed from being a prisoner of my fear and available. I am freed to love in the way I want to love, to create, speak out, be vulnerable and intimate and angry and truthful and real and to risk the risks that are required to be fully alive, the very risks that he is too afraid for me to take.

Photo by Dmitri Popov on Unsplash

Dramas

Dramas – the stories you spin into being, which although perhaps painful and frustrating and fearful, place you right in the centre of the action.

Dramas – all your stories of how people are not paying you due attention, seeing you in the way you want to be seen; all the ways you are left out, overlooked, your needs and wishes unnoticed and unmet; all the ways in which others are conspiring against you or, at least, taking care only of themselves; how the world seems organised to particularly frustrate your personal hopes, your longings.

Dramas – perhaps unsurprisingly – are a powerful way of generating some sense of self-esteem in the midst of a world that’s confusing, contradictory, and chaotic; a world far beyond our understanding which does not obviously attend to our particular needs and wishes as quickly or as completely as we would wish.

Once we start to see that our dramas are not the way the world ‘is’ but a purposeful activity on our part to make ourselves feel better, or to get seen, or to manipulate others to get our needs met, perhaps we can begin to loosen our grip on them a little.

Because by placing ourselves in the centre of the world, our dramas seriously reduce our capacity to respond to the needs and longings of others. And in this way our collective commitment to keeping our dramas going brings about exactly the self-centred world we fear is excluding us in the first place.

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Difficult times

firerain

We seem to live in uniquely difficult times.

We face multiple, simultaneous, almost intractable difficulties. The widening inequality of our societies. Economic uncertainty, and the undoing of many of the assumptions upon which we have built our economy. The effect we’re having on our climate. Billions living in slums. The rise of violent religious and political fundamentalism and populism. An uncertain energy future. Rapid population growth.

It’s understandable in such times that we should feel afraid. That in the face of all of this difficulty we should get caught up in protecting ourselves, before anyone else. That we sooth ourselves and numb ourselves with glowing screens, with our busyness. That we distract ourselves from the buzzing, whirling sensations in our bodies and emotions that try to show us that something is wrong. That we amass whatever we can for ourselves as we try to cling on. That we wait until we feel better before we step forward and make the contribution we’re here to make.

But as we do this, as we pretend we’re fine while all the while feeling very afraid, we forget that the world has always been this way. Human life has always been perilous. We have always been faced by crises and by threats to our very existence. We have, most probably, always told ourselves that our own times are particularly troubled ones.

Seeing this opens up two new paths.

The first is that we stop adding to our very real difficulties with our stories about the uniqueness of our troubles. Those stories make us mute, frozen, self-obsessed. When we know that we human beings have, for millennia, found ways of responding creatively and with great resourcefulness to what life brought us, we can begin to trust our own faculties more. We can begin to turn towards one another and the world again, and ask ourselves what’s needed, and what we can do.

The second is that we remember that it’s right in the middle of difficulty, when we are most uncertain, that our most noble and life-giving qualities can emerge. When there’s trouble and we find ourselves turning towards our neighbours, towards people we hardly know, towards community, and towards the society in which we live, we remember that compassion, care for others and being in relationship are powerfully life-giving and meaningful activities.

Which way we turn – towards defensive self-centredness or towards relationship and compassion – is not just a matter of choice but a matter of ongoing practice. In other words, we live lives in which through our actions we cultivate one path or another.

Let’s not wait until we feel safe and settled before we start to cultivate the second path, one that can bring great meaning – and great healing – to ourselves and those around us.

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Being witness

Many times

the biggest help you can be

is to turn a listening ear towards another

to hear everything they have to say

no matter how troubling how painful how confusing

to give up for a while

being another judge, another critic, another fixer of troubles

to be a welcome to all of it

all of it

and in your seeing and hearing embrace

find out how healing

being witness can be

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The four of you

fourpeople

When you’re talking with another person, remember that there are always more than two of you present.

At the very least there’s you, and them, and your inner-critic and their inner-critic.

Whatever the two of you are visibly up to, there’s an often hidden dynamic between the two inner-critics (who work hard to keep themselves invisible) as they jostle to keep you in line, watch out for attacks or supposed attacks from the other, spur you into defending yourself (often times when no defence is called for), have you be insistent or rigid or judging or withdrawn.

And each critic spurs the other on, inventing slights and hurts, and anticipating what’s it imagines is yet to come.

All of this is one reason why you can sometimes look back on a conversation with bemusement and confusion. ‘What on earth happened there?’ you ask yourself. ‘I thought we were only talking about this morning’s meeting, but now I feel hurt and uncertain, and so does she’.

One way to help yourself and others is to spot all of this and give name to it, at first to yourself. Learn the ways it shows up and what it gets up to when your attention is elsewhere.

And then, over time, bring the existence of the critic and all its manifestations into conversation. This takes courage and openness. But bringing the inner critic out of its hiding place allows it to be seen and talked about, and responded to, and lessens its power to manipulate behind the scenes.

Your inner world is always making itself known in the outer world, whether you like it or not, and it’s true for everyone else too. The more you can give name to, and the more you can bring it forward from its otherwise invisible background, the more chance you’ll have of working with it in service of you and everyone around you.

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We are the environment for each other

It’s clear that we human beings are deeply affected by the environment in which we find ourselves. We are in a constant exchange with what is around us, both shaping it and being shaped by it.

And so it’s worth remembering, because it’s mostly so invisible to us, that we are each the environment for one another.

Which means in turn that difficulties that occur for other people and with other people can often be addressed, first, by taking responsibility for what is ours, and how it’s affecting those around us.

Don’t be ashamed to be human, be proud

Here’s episode 36 of ‘Turning Towards Life’, our weekly, live 30 minute deep dive into the bigger questions of human life, with Lizzie Winn.

This week, “Don’t Be Ashamed to be Human”. So many of us figure that we have to go through life essentially alone, like super-heroes, hiding all our difficulties and failures and in the process finding ourselves far away from the joys of deep human contact and support. We wonder about what it takes to turn towards the life-giving support of others, and how coaching, community, friendship and family can be ways of entering into this with one another.

We also talk about the extraordinary two-day introduction to Integral Development Coaching, ‘Coaching to Excellence‘ which will be offered by thirdspace in London on 1st-2nd October 2018.

Here’s the source for this week’s conversation:

Romanesque Arches
Tomas Tranströmer
Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous
Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel with no face embraced me
and his whisper went all through my body:
“Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.”
Tears blinded me
as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza,
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini;
within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.

Part of ourselves

How easily, how readily, we see in others – we project onto others – what we don’t want to see about our own lives. And how easily our projections turn others into an enemy to be corrected, scorned, hated or feared.

How easily we end up enslaving ourselves with all this. We lock ourselves into battles in the outer world, when what we want to correct, what we hold in contempt, what we need most to be reconciled with is actually part of ourselves.

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When the conversation dies, what do you do?

When the conversation you are having dies, what do you do?

Conversations die when you tune out of them, when you stop tracking your truthfulness about your experience, when you fall back on tired routines that mean little but keep you feeling safe, when you say what you think is expected rather than what’s real, when you slip into jargon and abstract concepts, when you tell lies – even small ones – about yourself, and about others.

When the conversation dies, what do you do?

Many of us, I think, keep going as if nothing had happened.

Occasionally, this is bound to happen.

But repeated again and again, over hours, days, months, years – our diminished, fossilised conversations in turn diminish us and our relationships.

Much of the corporate world seems to have made an art out of the dead conversation. Families, people who were once lovers, and whole organisations slip quietly into deadness without even noticing. Bringing the conversation back to life seems too risky, too vulnerable.

The consequence?

Feeling safe.

And becoming ghosts.

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Care and Careful

Careful and care are quite different from one another, but we often confuse them.

Careful:

holding back
waiting until conditions are just right
being nice rather than genuine
saying what’s expected, what’s socially acceptable
protecting yourself – for the benefit of whom exactly?

Care:

coming in close
acting when it’s needed
being kind, which sometimes requires sharpness
saying what will actually help, teach, free people up
dropping your defences so you can be of assistance

Careful keeps difficulty going when it feels too risky to act. Care does what it can to reduce it.

Careful twists the truth for its own ends. Care speaks it.

Careful is full of caution.

And care is full of contact.

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Supplier or partner?

A choice to make whenever you work with others: will you relate to them as supplier or partner?

Suppliers are there to give you what you ask for. ‘We want 300 widgets by Friday’ – there’ll be a supplier for that. The supplier does not need to know much about what you care about, or are committed to, beyond the needs of the current supply. Once they have fulfilled your request to the standards you lay out, their job is done. And in relating to them as supplier you become consumer – the one with the right to determine the spec, the one upon whose sole discretion the supply gets accepted or rejected, and the one who expects not to be challenged, or disturbed, or questioned.

The consumer-supplier relationship, even if it lasts over a long time period, is essentially a relationship of safety and utility (an I-It relationship). If someone else comes along who can give you what you ask for more quickly, or more cheaply, or with less fuss, have them supply you instead.

And while supply gives you what you asked for, it gives you only what you asked for. You may get what you want, but you may well not get what you need.

Partners are there to be in your commitments with you. To be a partner is to step in, to care about the same things that another cares about, and to build a relationship which can hold creativity, surprise, trust and difference. To be a partner is to be prepared to question the spec, the strategy and the premise, and be questioned in turn for the sake of the larger commitment you share. It’s to enter into something big together, to be influenced by one another, and to be in it for the long term.

When you step into a relationship this way, you invite the other party to join with you in your endeavours. As such partnership is an essentially I-You relationship, a shared commitment aimed at a far bigger set of possibilities than a supplier-consumer relationship can ever hope to address.

The partner-supplier choice applies to just about any relationship. Colleagues, employees, consultants you bring in, people who make things and services you use – any can be partner or supplier. In each case you choose. Will you invite the other to be supply for your requests or partner in bringing about what matters most?

Each kind of relationship has its place, and each has its consequences. But what gets most of us into trouble, sooner or later, is how often we try to make ourselves suppliers when a bolder, riskier and more significant contribution is called for. And how often we look for the safety and reassurance of a supplier, when it’s a partner that we really need if we’re going to have the impact on the world we’re hoping for.

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When trust happens

Trust, in the end, is not built by waiting until the conditions are right – “I’ll be able to trust them when I feel confident and secure… when they’ve given me sufficient evidence that they are trustworthy”

Instead, trust is always engendered most by our first extending our trust to others – which requires us to be open enough and vulnerable enough to let others in.

And trust is deepened by exactly what we do when we experience breakdowns in trust. Closing down or backing off, declaring the relationship over or under threat, does nothing to build our capacity to trust others, nor they us, in the future.

No, trust is built precisely by turning towards one another when it breaks down and talking about what is now possible and required. We invite trust precisely by how we respond when our capacity to trust seems most under threat.

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Undoing the spiral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anxiety and fear aren’t the same

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How experiments open a new world

If it’s our everyday habits of thinking, action and relationship that keep the world as it is (and they do), then it’s experimentation that has the greatest chance of opening a new world with greater space for us to move in. And when the old world is no longer working out, or bringing suffering, we could all do with a way to open to a new kind of freedom.

This is the topic that Lizzie and I took up in yesterday’s Turning Towards Life conversation, which you can watch here.

Turning Towards Life is itself a big experiment for us, and is opening up new ways of talking, making sense, and building community. This week we grew to over 500 members. We’d be thrilled for you to join us, which you can do over at turningtowards.life

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Oh Beautiful Sky, and The Cradling

Episodes 11 and 12 of ‘Turning Towards Life’ are now available on our new Turning Towards YouTube channel, and are also included below. We’ll be live on facebook here as usual at 9am UK time each Sunday morning.

In Oh Beautiful Sky we begin with a poem written by Lizzie’s husband Matthew for his daughter. Our conversation turned into the topic of power – how we try to have power over others and over the world, and the difficulty this brings. And how cultivating awe and connection with something bigger than ourselves – the sky, nature – can remind us of a much truer power we have, power-with, in which we turn towards others and bring ourselves in a way that brings out the possibility of mutual commitment. And what different world of organisations, family, community and politics we’d cultivate if power-with was our central commitment in the world?

And in The Cradling we begin with a beautiful and powerful meditation from the work of Joanna Macy. We ask ourselves what possibilities there are when we remember the extraordinary and unlikely evolutionary background from which all human beings come, and when we remember also that everyone – even those people we judge most or are most afraid of – arises from exactly the same background and shares with each of us the same biology. Would we respond so easily with the impulse to hurt, or distance ourselves, or turn away? And if we did not, what then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so we often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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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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Part of ourselves

How easily, how readily, we see in others – we project onto others – what we don’t want to see about our own lives. And how easily our projections turn others into an enemy to be corrected, scorned, hated or feared.

How easily we end up enslaving ourselves with all this. We lock ourselves into battles in the outer world, when what we want to correct, what we hold in contempt, what we need most to be reconciled with is actually part of ourselves.

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My fantasy self

My fantasy self is perfect. He doesn’t cause any trouble. He can get things done in just the time they take, and no less. He never makes a mistake, and he’s always does exactly what other people really need him to do. He’s humble, self-effacing, kind. He can resolve the most intractable of disagreements simply and elegantly, with reasoned, calm speech and attentive listening. Never selfish, always wise, forever reasonable, he’s always perfectly attuned to the needs of others. People want to be with him, to praise him (quietly) for his sacrifices. They want him to rescue them from their difficulties. And he’s above all disdain and criticism. If people criticise him, they must, simply, be wrong.  My fantasy self is easily hurt, but would never show it.

My fantasy self isn’t me. I’m far messier than that. Often disorganised, late, frequently confused. I leave my umbrella on the bus. I love, fiercely and deeply and in complicated ways. I fall deeply into my passions – books, people, music, poetry, ideas. I’m often filled with self-criticism and self-doubt. I can bring deep, profound wisdom when I’m still enough and present enough. I can be as stubborn as hell. Funny. Over-serious. I make terrible mistakes, and beautiful ones. I know how to teach. I can be exquisitely tender and gentle. I rage.

And what suffering, what sorrow, for me and for others around me, when I confuse the two. When I pretend to be my fantasy self. When I live in ongoing comparison with his impossible standards. And when I defend him, fiercely, closing out the ones who love me because they have had the honesty and care to see me not as my fantasy, but as I am.

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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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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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What it takes to listen

It’s when we actually listen to another human being that they get to be human too. Listening allows a shift from I-It relating in which the other is essentially an object to us (an irritation, a way to get what I want, a way to feel good about myself) to I-You relating, in which the other gets to be a person.

As Martin Buber points out, I-It relating is essentially a form of It-It relating, since it’s impossible for us to show up as full human beings, even to ourselves, when we are in the midst of making another, or a group of others, into a thing. To relate to another in an I-You way, to listen to them in their fullness, bestows dignity on everyone and opens wide horizons for understanding, compassion, truthfulness, and relationship.

Listening ought to be the easiest thing to do. After all, it requires no complex framework, no technique, no technology. And yet it can be so, so hard.

Most of us have a lot of practicing to do in order to drop our need to be right, to be ‘the one’, to be liked, and to hear only what we want to hear. In order to listen we have to relax our defensiveness, be skilful with the inner attacks of our own inner critic (which is ready to judge us even when there’s no judgement coming from the speaker), get over our wish to control everything, and be willing to welcome whatever we experience. We have to be able to question our own stories and accounts, be open to seeing things in a whole new way, and quiet our inner world sufficiently that what is being said can reach us. And we have to learn how to be in contact with ourselves, a fundamental prerequisite for being in contact with others.

Perhaps all of this is why real listening is so absent in our fearful, impatient culture. And why we could all benefit from doing some inner work if we want to do the vital outer work of listening well to the people around us.

Photography by Justin Wise

Imagining or listening?

imagining

Our capacity to imagine allows us to convince ourselves that we know other people – their intentions, their wishes, their inner worlds – when we hardly know them at all. But what we are sure we know can so easily turn out to be simply what we’ve invented. And once we’re sure, we quickly discount evidence to the contrary, reinforcing what we’ve imagined by the selective way in which we look and listen.

We can imagine grudges and resentments, frustrations and slights, judgements and failings, hurts and distances, all without even once checking that they are true. And we can go for years, thinking we know others, when what we know is our story about them.

We do this with lovers and enemies, children and parents, siblings and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We do this with people whose culture is different from our own, people who live or speak differently from us, people who vote differently.

And all of it feels so real.

There is one simple, and difficult, and necessary way to address the suffering, distance and estrangement that comes from our imaginings, and that is to listen.

Simple, because all of us are able to ask another ‘please, tell me about yourself, tell me what I need to know in order to understand you more fully’. We can do this with loved ones, with work colleagues, and across seemingly unresolvable divides. And we can start today, even if we have never had such a conversation before. All it takes is a willingness to be present and to hear, fully, what the other has to say.

Difficult, because listening in this way means we have to drop our defensiveness, our wish to hear things only on our terms, our fear that we won’t like what is said. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, available, open. This is not the same as giving up our own way of seeing the world or simply doing what another person asks, but it does require allowing ourselves to be changed by the encounter. And this calls on us to summon up reserves of courage and grace and compassion, and to give up being in control all the time.

And necessary because our imaginings so easily act as a wedge between us, prolonging our difficulties, denying us the creative and nourishing possibilities of relationship, and blinding us to suffering as well as to the light and goodness that is in us and all around us if we’ll only look.

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Your family, your team

Here’s a powerful method for working with, and talking about, the unconscious projection of family relationships onto other situations (your team, for example).

1 Map your own family

Start by drawing your own family system – the one in which you grew up. Include everyone who seemed a significant presence to you during your childhood, for better or for worse – parents and siblings in particular, and perhaps aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.

Map it out on a piece of paper. Draw a circle for each person, with the distance from you showing the amount of contact, and the thickness of line showing the quality of relationship you had (thicker = stronger). For example:

If you wish you can give more detail to your map by noting the mood of each relationship you’re mapping (supportive, caring, threatening, confusing etc).

2 Map your team

Now think about your current work team as if it were a family.

Who do you think takes up what roles? Can you see parents, siblings, cousins, outsiders? What is the age order in this system (it may not be the same as your actual age order)? Who is close in, who is further out? Include yourself in this exploration – specifically, who are other people in the team to you (older brother, younger sister, cousin, parent etc)?

Draw out your team ‘family’ in the same way you did when you mapped your own family.

Do you notice any connections? Similarities? Resonances between the family map and the team map? Can you see any way in which the relationships you take up in your team echo the relationships in your family? Does any of this suggest new actions you wish to take, new possibilities you wish to pursue, or things you’d like to stop doing?

3 Talk about it

Here is where the magic begins. Host a conversation with your team in which you share your family map, your team map, and the insights that have arisen as you compared the two.

If your colleagues are ready, invite them to do the same. Remember that what you’re sharing is each person’s experience – so be curious, gentle, generous, welcoming and as open as you can. This is an exercise in understanding one another, in knowing your shared humanity, not in convincing one another or proving a point.

If you’re willing to be kind enough, and interested enough, and truthful enough, you may just start to give yourself new language that you can all use to observe yourselves in action – and a way of catching the underground patterns that have you relating to one another as if you were people from there and then rather than the people you’re working with here and now.

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Seeing through it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so it is, as I have been writing in the last few days, that we so often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Missing

Aside from our projections (the aspects of ourselves we see in others when they are actually present in ourselves) we also miss the truth about other people when we hold on too tightly to our memories of them.

We so readily fill in the gaps in our experience with that we think we already know. But our stories are necessarily incomplete, and our memories are in many ways unreliable. And, added to that, people keep on changing, so that our certainty about others quickly becomes a way to have them be familiar to us rather than a way of meeting them. Often even a well-worn difficulty feels more inviting than the uncertainty and openness of not knowing.

And it may even be the case that the child, the friend, or the partner you said goodbye to this morning is not the same as the person who is walking back in through the door this evening.

Responding to this is not at all easy. We’d rather hang on to our stories than take the risk of being surprised, with all that could bring. It takes courage to set all that aside. But learning to see people more accurately (and with more kindness) might be our best source of hope for healing our relationships and finding the goodness in ourselves and others that we so urgently need.

With thanks to Jason for our recent conversation that brought this into view.

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On undoing our projections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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