Always incomplete

Friday night. The start of shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.

A time to put down everything – work, concerns about work, busyness – for a day of renewal, relationship, paying attention to the world through new eyes.

And yet here, sitting in the synagogue with my family, my body and mind are filled with the long list of tasks left open, opportunities not taken, calls not returned, emails not answered. There’s tension in my chest and stomach at all that is unfinished, all that is mine to do. My mind, barely attentive to what’s going on around me, reaches out in a wide, scattered, urgent arc – as if thinking it through over and again will resolve my difficulty. As if this is a way to complete what is uncompleted.

And then I remember that the day will come, and none of us knows how soon, when I will no longer be able to complete anything. And on that day too, the day that life is done, there will still be a long list of incomplete projects. Messages waiting. Conversations unfinished. Responsibilities unfulfilled.

I come to see that project I’ve taken up with my racing mind and thumping heart, the project of having it all neatly done, can never and will never be concluded. I am reminded that to be human is to live, in one way or another, as yet unwritten.

That it is time to let go.

Yes, there’s a time for urgently finishing whatever is at hand. And a time, a time we need, to set all that aside and to see the incompleteness of the world, and everyone, not as something that always needs fixing but as part of its strange, necessary and wonderful beauty.

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Those of us who…

Those of us who have any kind of privilege, who don’t have to scrabble in the dirt to make a living or to find food, who don’t have to run from bombs and missiles, who aren’t being beaten down by oppressive systems of government or prejudice… we had better start taking seriously our duty to care for ourselves, as an act of dignity, as a responsibility, as an act of honour towards those whose circumstances prevent them from doing so, and just because we can.

As Parker Palmer writes, Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Any time we can listen to true self, and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves, but for the many lives we touch.’

Self-care and care for everything are one and the same.

To have the privileges of peace, financial resource, economic and political stability, work to do, a dry and warm place to live, is to be in a position of enormous power and influence.

And until we, who can, give up burning ourselves out, until we start treating the sacredness and preciousness of our own bodies as precious and sacred, until we start extending kindness to ourselves, until we learn to care for ourselves and the energy of our lives, we will continue to struggle to take care of others and of our fragile, extraordinary, necessary world.

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Resources for these days

Some resources for these days in which the world looks so uncertain.

(1) How we can respond to the US election result

A fabulous, wise 30 minute talk by Norman Fischer at Everyday Zen, which is actually part 7 of a series called ‘Training in Compassion’ but stands alone beautifully. What Norman has to say is both a reminder of our capacity to respond and a call to hope in that capacity right when we’re least sure what to do.

You can listen to the talk ‘Keep the three inseparable’ here, or pick it up on the Everyday Zen podcast (RSS or iTunes)

(2) What to do when you’re afraid

It’s easy to be ruled by fear. Far better is to turn towards it – to have it rather than be had by it. Tich Nhat Hanh’s excellent book Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm teaches us how to do exactly that.

(3) How to stand up for what’s important

Powerful, fierce, compassionate words from my friend and colleague Joy Reichart, about how to find our strength when there’s something important to be done, and how not to turn away.

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Rest

river

It has been hard to write these past two months. The familiar flow of words and ideas have slowed to a trickle. My body has not moved into the work with the grace and flow with which I have become familiar. It’s as if some kind of gridlock has taken hold, with each part – mind, heart, body – pressing against the movement of the other.

It has been tempting to try to force myself into action, to believe the inner judgements and slurs that whisper into the vacated spaces. You’ll never be a writer this way. You’ve run out of anything to say. You’re not brave enough, smart enough, honest enough to do this.

But this time, I am not so convinced by all the inner chatter as I once might have been. This time, I’ve been waiting – patiently, quietly – to see what wants to write itself through me.

We make production and consumption the highest measure of value in our culture. But we are part of nature, born of nature, and we are subject to its cycles just as much as a field, or a tree, or a river.

I am remembering that fields must lie fallow in order to be fertile,

spring must turn to summer and autumn to have any chance of returning,

and human beings must rest and nurture themselves – often – in order to flourish.

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When tiredness speaks

Let yourself listen to what your body has to say.

For it surely has something to say. Honour its wisdom, even if you can’t yet tell what it is.

Start with tiredness. The tiredness that suddenly sweeps over you in a meeting, in a conversation, on walking into a room, when an argument begins, when you’re not getting your way.

What kind of tiredness is this? Surely not the late-at-night tiredness, the not-enough-sleep tiredness.

But maybe the tiredness of bending yourself out of shape, the tiredness of fear, the tiredness of goals that aren’t sincere and commitments that aren’t genuine, the tiredness of saying yes when you mean no, and no when you mean yes.

And maybe the tiredness that your body brings you when it needs to point out that, despite what you’re telling yourself, here is not where you genuinely want to be.

With thanks to Jonny

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Better off knowing this

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

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

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

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

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From this place and no other

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

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

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

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

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Help, truthfulness, kindness

One of the questions I always ask my coaching clients is ‘who is in this with you?’

It’s a way of asking three questions at once –

  • Who’s helping you with this topic you’re working on?
  • Who sees you with enough truthfulness that they can support you in making corrections and adjustments as you go?
  • And who is prepared to see you with the kindness you need to find your own kindness towards yourself?

Help, truthfulness, kindness – three qualities in others that are a vital, life-giving force for us human beings.

We need people around us who’ll be this way if we’re going to flourish.

But so often the answer is ‘nobody‘. There’s nobody in this with me. I’m in this on my own. This is how it’s meant to be. 

We don’t see how crazily we’re trying to be super-heroes, hauling ourselves up in the world with our own muscular strength, propelling ourselves along with inner harshness, and pushing away the heartfelt attempts of others to support us. And that in living this way we live our struggles alone, even when surrounded by others.

It takes some softening and a large dose of letting go – of our own self-concepts and our attempts to control life – to let help, truthfulness and kindness in. But when we admit that we’re neither omnipotent, nor meant to be, we give ourselves our best chance of taking up our place in the web of support that’s around us. And it’s a necessary step if we’re going to play a part in our own flourishing, and quite possibly in the saving of our very lives.

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Cell walls

Human beings are not infinitely extensible.

We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.

First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.

Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.

‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.

We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.

A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.

And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.

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The human function curve

This is the human function curve, the model which underlies what I wrote about our sense of unbreakability yesterday.

Performance (the capacity to act effectively on what we intend) is shown on the vertical axis. The horizontal axis shows what happens as stress or bodily arousal increases.

Some features of this graph that are worth noticing.

(1) The anabolic phase

Up until the inflection point in the middle of the graph, performance increases as stress increases. Some people call this ‘good stress’. It’s a function of our active engagement, our awakeness to what we’re doing, and our care.

In straightforward terms, the more we care and the more engaged and active we get, the more our capacity to act effectively increases. In this phase the body is in an anabolic state, actively supporting its own growth, energy, and self-maintenance.

And with sufficient attention to cycles of self-care, rest, exercise, and support – which help us stay towards the left side of the curve – it can be possible to remain in the anabolic phase over long periods.

(2) The catabolic phase

But there is a certain level of stress and activity, which differs for each of us, when the body’s response changes. In this catabolic or over-extended phase, the body starts to break down its own structure in order to supply the energy that’s required.

Just past the inflection point – if we notice – it’s still possible to restore ourselves by stopping and taking exquisite care. Sleep, appropriate and nourishing food, rest, and attention from others can return us to our self-generating capacities.

(3) Tipping past exhaustion

Because we’ve experienced increasing performance with increasing effort, and because we live in a culture which pays the body scant attention and seriously underestimates the need for renewing practices, we readily misinterpret what’s going on in the catabolic phase.

We think that our shrinking capacity is because we’re not trying hard enough – and our extra efforts push us to the right on the graph, exactly the direction that will cause us most harm

What works in the anabolic phase is totally inappropriate for the catabolic phase. Here, the more we try the more we damage ourselves and the more our capacity decreases. 

The appropriate move at this stage is to stop. Completely. 

But stopping, admitting we are not perfect, letting on to our vulnerability, asking for help – all of these are considered undesirable or impossible by so many of us.

Just when we most need to get on to our own humanity and physical limits, just when recovery without serious damage is still possible, we push on.

(4) Towards ill-health and breakdown

But they need me. But I’ll fail my performance review. But everyone is working this hard. But it’s the end of the quarter. But that project is about to ship. But it’s not possible to stop. 

But I’ll be letting them down.

But you don’t understand.

If we continue, as so many of us do, our bodies cannot cope any more. We get struck with a fever, an infection, or a much much more serious condition.

In this phase, let’s be clear, we put our ongoing capacity – and our lives – at profound risk. Though it rarely feels that way because, let’s face it, I’ve been ok so far.

And even though it’s abundantly clear that what’s required is taking care of ourselves, and insisting those around us take care of themselves too, so many of us continue to tell ourselves that it’s a luxury, an indulgence, and something we’ll get to only someday.

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Unbreakable

For a long while, we think we’re unbreakable. We convince ourselves that what we’re doing – how we’re working, how we’re living – has no impact on us, really.

And for a while, as we try to do more, our level of stress goes up and our performance (or capacity to do what we’re intending) goes up too. We conclude that the move to make when things aren’t working out the way we intend is to push harder. And, for a while, it brings us exactly what we’re looking for.

But only for a while.

There comes a point where, for each of us, the body’s capacity begins to fray. It loses its ability to renew itself, to retain its coherence, to store energy and regenerate. Beyond this breakdown point, more effort not only results in less capacity, but in the breakdown of bodily systems themselves.  We get exhausted. We get ill. Our bodies show us what we have been committed to hiding from ourselves.

All too often, right at this moment where rest, recuperation, support and self-care are the only way back, we conclude that our dropping performance is because we’re not doing enough. And as we scramble to address the shortfall between what we’re able to do and what we think we should be able to do, we make things worse.

Much worse.

This is no trivial matter. Study after study has established the link between sustained stress and heart attacks and other serious and life threatening illnesses. And yet in so much of work, and our lives, we act as if we’re invincible, even when the signs are right in front of us that we’re not.

It’s time we took our bodies seriously. And it’s time we considered rest, renewal, and support from others as a fundamental requirement to do anything well. Not an optional extra. Not a nice-to-have. And not some silly distraction from the ‘real work’ of business, or leadership, or parenting, or making a contribution.

For much more on this topic see Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance

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Exhale, Inhale

Exhale – put out into the world; create; teach; make; organise; ship; change things; get it done.

Inhale – draw in from the world; learn; rest; wonder; study; gather; change yourself; replenish.

What’s your balance of inhale to exhale?

Are you, like most of us, living a life where exhale is a given and inhale considered a luxury, self-indulgent?

What comes from a life in which breathing out smothers breathing in?

And what quality of exhale is even possible when we live this way?

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On being unstoppable

Today I want to share, in its entirety, a post from my colleague Jessica Minah, in which she writes beautifully about both the human condition and the kind of coaching to which we are both dedicated in our work.

With my sincere thanks to Jess for her permission to reproduce her work here. You can see more about her and what she’s up to in the world at Pronoia Coaching.

Last week, I visited the webpage of a coaching school someone I know is considering. On the school’s homepage, a graduate of the program boasted that the school’s methodology had enabled her to teach her clients to be “unstoppable.” And that stopped me, right in my tracks.

The nature of being human is that we are eminently stoppable. Our very biology gives us natural limits to how hard we can push. We need to breathe, to drink, eat, and sleep. We crave touch, the sun, fresh air, and communication. Our bodies are covered in a soft flesh–relatively defenseless with no claws or sharp teeth. We bleed and heal. Our reproductive cycle gives us utterly helpless young, demanding that we stop and take notice and care for these vulnerable creatures. And, of course, we die–the ultimate full stop. Death comes for us all with no regard for how hard we try to push it back. To be human is to be stoppable.

And yet we seek to be unstoppable.

Life should be able to stop us. If not for beauty, then for heartbreak. If not for the joy of seeing a tree’s stark branches waving against a gray winter sky, then for the horror of seeing people starving to death in our own rich cities or drowning to death on the shores of Europe. If not for the pleasure of a beloved piece of music, then for the despair of another mass shooting. If not for the happiness on the face of a dear friend or family member, then for the agony present  when they suffer or when we let them down. Let life be present to us. Let it stop us.

To be unstoppable is to be blind to what is happening all around us. To be unstoppable is to refuse to notice the effect that progress–at any cost–might have on our relationships, our bodies, and our spiritual life. To be unstoppable is to deny our own biology. To deny our hearts and the beautiful web of relationships that surround us.

Sometimes the world demands a response. And sometimes the only response is to pause. To be stricken. To be soft. To take a moment to laugh, or to cry, or to hold someone’s hand. A moment of noticing how angry we are, or how sad, or how–this is the really hard one–how numb we’ve become.  And cultivating the ability to be stopped takes deep work.

It requires relational sensitivity to know when our families, colleagues, and friends need us to downshift and approach them in a new, more attentive way. It requires somatic wisdom to be able to sense our energy status and get a clear reading on what our bodies need. It takes emotional awareness to stay present in strong emotions while also noticing the emotional states of others. And, finally, the ability to stop often takes great bravery as it will likely be questioned by those who would not dare question the cultural value of being unstoppable.

In my coaching practice, I do not seek to teach clients to be unstoppable because I believe it is deeply problematic, even dangerous. What happens when you teach your client to be unstoppable, and their family and friends need them to stop because they have been neglecting their relational responsibilities? What happens when you have an entire culture of unstoppable people, and the culture next door needs them to stop because they are encroaching on ancestral lands? What happens when you have an entire planet of unstoppable people, and the environment is begging them to stop because species are going extinct and the land is being polluted?

Can you see where being unstoppable can lead? Do you see where it has already led?

Instead, I believe that we must learn to listen to the call of the world, to our loved ones, and to our bodies–to stop. In the coaching relationship, mutual trust and mutual respect create a strong container wherein clients can examine their relied upon, habitual responses. Over time, they become better at recognizing the persistent ‘turning away’ that is pandemic in modern society and eventually they learn to cultivate a new response. This requires learning new skills and competencies: patience, compassion, resilience, discernment, and the ability to self-observe, to name a few. I’ve seen clients, over time, become more resilient and able to stand in deep witness to their own emotional experience; to be stopped by the world, and to be touched by it. They have the freedom to experience their own reactions without becoming overwhelmed. This, in turn, affords them the opportunity to make choices that were unavailable to them before.

Today, let a small part of yourself be broken by this heartbreaking and fragile world. What might happen if you opened yourself up enough for this to occur? What meaning might leak into your life if you dared? Find out.

Stop.

Drowsiness is a red alert

In my research for yesterday’s post on our profound sleep crisis, I came across some startling work from Dr. William Dement of Stanford University’s Center of Excellence for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Sleep Disorders.

I had to tell you about it.

So many times in my life so far, in order to get somewhere that was important to me, I have continued to drive while feeling drowsy. It’s often seemed to me to be not too bad. ‘Just a little further’, I tell myself. Wind the windows down. Put some music on. Grip the wheel. Sip some water. I’ll soon be there.

Never again.

Dr Dement tells us we must treat drowsiness – which so many of us experience while driving – not as a sign of being a little tired but as a red alert, as the last step before falling asleep, not the first.

‘Drowsiness’, he tells us, ‘means you are seconds away from sleep.’

Although I say to myself I take safe driving seriously, I really didn’t understand the seriousness of this before. And I am shaken by the possible consequences of my self-reassurance, my denial of the seriousness of the situation, and my turning away from the wisdom of my own body.

Surely this, if anything, is a call to wake up.

‘Imagine what it could mean’, Dement says, ‘when you’re behind the wheel of a car driving on the highway. Drowsiness may mean you are seconds from a disaster.’

He continues – ‘If everyone responded as if it were an emergency when they became aware of feeling drowsy, an enormous amount of human suffering and catastrophic events would be avoided … Seconds away from sleep may mean seconds away from death.’

You can read more of Dr. Dement’s work on his website here, or read about his work and that of many others in the sleep section of Tony Schwartz’s wonderful book Be Excellent at Anything (previously titled The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working).

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A profound crisis of sleep

“Ours is the only species that lights up its biological night, that overrides its own rhythms, crosses times zones, and works and sleeps at times that run counter to its internal clocks. We ignore what our clocks remember at our own peril.”

Jennifer Ackerman, Sex Eat Sleep Drink Dream

The evidence is clear. There is little more foundational to our effectiveness (that is, our capacity to do, skilfully, what matters to us), and our well-being, than sufficient sleep.

The more I read about this, and the more I experience it in my own life, the more convinced I am that we are in the midst of a profound sleep crisis that shapes our society, education system, health, politics, and capacity to do what matters – and that at the heart of it is our equally profound forgetting of what sleep is and what it is to be awake.

Each of us has a powerful physiological mechanism, the sleep homeostat, that functions to regulate the daily amount of sleep we have by influencing our tendency to feel drowsy. If we allow the process to work as it should, we get enough sleep simply by responding to the drowsiness we experience – going to bed earlier, taking an afternoon nap, sleeping-in longer, or otherwise arranging to rest sufficiently.

But we live in a culture that teaches us to disregard our own bodies, to pursue ever more (possessions, productivity, status, experiences), and to deny our physical limits. We have unprecedented access to technology to support us in this project – electric lighting to illuminate our nights, devices we carry that remind us of our responsibilities and of what we’re missing out on, and that allow us to be reached at any moment. And because of this, sleep is one of the very first of life’s basic necessities we’re prepared to give up in our pursuit of more.

It’s a huge mistake.

As we resist our bodies’ call to sleep, and as the effect of the sleep homeostat becomes more apparent, we become more and more drowsy, and more and more cognitively, emotionally, and physically compromised. And the effect is cumulative. Every hour of missed sleep is carried in our bodies which is why, after a working week in which you’ve missed two hours of sleep a night, you need ten hours of additional sleep to restore yourself. Two weekend morning lie-ins of a couple of hours which leave you feeling just as tired are a sure sign you’re carrying a significant sleep deficit.

The frightening thing about this is that in contemporary culture, we’ve mostly forgotten what it feels like to be sufficiently rested. We think that boredom, or a stuffy room, or a long drive, or a report to write make us feel tired – without realising that we’re experiencing the effects of our sleep deficit. We keep going because we can’t stand the drowsiness that slowing down visits upon us.

We are a society that barely knows the clarity and crispness and aliveness of being fully awake.

There is compelling evidence that the lack of sleep that the majority of us suffer from has profound effects on our creativity, capacity to solve problems, irritability, propensity to become ill, tendency to make errors, and on our safety behind the wheel. And yet we wear our busyness and tiredness as badges of honour, imagining that our capacity to (apparently) conquer our limited physical bodies is not only required but a sure sign of our personal dedication and success.

We imagine that pushing longer, harder, doing more will eventually solve our suffering, even while we visit enormous suffering and damage upon ourselves and others. And we ask this not just of ourselves but teach this to our children by asking more and more of them too – more activities, more homework assignments, more progress that we think will get them ahead, at the expense of the basic sleep that would be so life-giving for them.

Isn’t it time we gave up the madness and suffering of sleep deprived lives and a sleep deprived society, and taught ourselves again the wisdom that our split-off-from-ourselves bodies know so deeply, and so well?

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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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How looking ok nearly undid me

Today, the third anniversary of a close encounter with the fragility of my own life, I’m reposting, below, on the necessity of asking for help, of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and of turning towards darkness when it presents itself.

It turns out that spontaneous blood-clotting is relatively common and often not well diagnosed. If you are interested in finding out more, check out the website of the Hughes Syndrome Foundation.

Looking Good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Two summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Two tiny miracles

So many times I’ve forgotten that my body is alive. And so many times – in a culture in which we’re so quick to reduce ourselves to units of production (always more to do, always some target to hit, always the possibility of pushing harder) or consumption (so I can get more, more, and more) – I’ve seen taking proper, exquisite care of myself as a luxury, or as a distraction, or as an interruption to the ever pressing demands I’m apparently meant to be satisfying.

If I stop to go to bed – I won’t get enough done.

If I stop to eat properly – I won’t get enough done.

If I stop to rest, or to meditate, or to exercise, or to pause, or to look deeply into the eyes of a loved one, or to sit quietly among tall trees, or to walk in the fields, or to have a massage, or to read poetry, or to play with my children, or to listen to beautiful music, or to paint, or to just talk with someone, or to write – all of which support my alivenessI won’t get enough done.

This understanding of myself – that I’m more like a machine or an object than a living breathing being – is seductive, and powerful, and pervasive. We’re taught it in our schools. It’s embodied in many of the practices of our workplaces and the narrative of our politics. And when I’m not paying active attention to it, when I’m rushing around in busyness or greediness or hollowness, I can quite easily forget myself and what it takes to flourish and support others in their flourishing.

I know I’m not the only one who is affected in this way. Even the idea that flourishing is a serious subject for our attention is difficult for many of us.

And after some days recently of feeling too tired, achy, and restless, of pushing too hard and denying it, I have stumbled back upon two simple, revelatory miracles that I have known time and again but then forgotten.

Miracle 1 – Sleep

There is, simply, no substitute for enough sleep.
Good sleep is foundational for a life in which I get to create and contribute.
Good sleep is foundational for life itself.
Good sleep is neither a luxury nor optional but a basic, non-negotiable necessity.

Miracle 2 – Water

Getting dehydrated happens easily and it matters. When I don’t pay attention to this I spend my days tired, distracted, confused, and my mental and emotional acuity is blunted.

I’ve started carrying a bottle of water everywhere with me over the last month, drinking regularly, and the way I feel, as well as my sense of presence and sharpness, has been transformed for the better by it.

I like to think I know about all of this already, but these two simple acts of self-care continue to be a revelation. And they teach me so much about how easy self-forgetting is, and how necessary it is to have ways of remembering what it is that I really am.

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Go to bed

The most powerful influence on our effectiveness in waking life is sleep.

But it is also what we’re most willing to give up first in our endless quest to be more productive.

We have no idea how impaired we have become through our commitment to keep going – our compromised functioning blurring and distorting our very memory of what it is like to be awake.

Our lack of sleep leaves us more vulnerable to illness and to accident. It mutes our creativity. It negatively influences our moods, increasing our irritability and reactivity towards others.

And yet we carry on as if we are inexhaustible, wearing our sleeplessness as a badge of honour or bravery or commitment.

We’ve elevated productivity above taking care of ourselves, producing exactly the opposite of our intentions. We lie to ourselves about what we’re up to.

We’ve forgotten – or denied – that we have bodies with limits.

And as we do all this we fall asleep to our own aliveness.

When are we going to wake up to this madness and go to bed?

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Mandala

This weekend I sat with my eight year old daughter and we coloured mandalas together.

Engrossed in the simplicity and beauty of the task, with no standards with which to compare ourselves, and with nowhere to get to, I found myself connected with her, present with her, in ways that are fleeting at best in the melée of day-to-day family life.

We talked about many things as we drew – topics touched rarely by our more familiar pattern of everyday conversation. And there were long periods of silence in which we just were together. It was exquisite and deep and loving, and so very very simple.

We easily forget the straightforward human satisfactions of being together with others and of making with our hands. Perhaps it’s because we’ve become so sure that there is always somewhere to get to (which isn’t here), that something else needs doing (that props up the familiar feel of our busyness), and that more complex and more sophisticated (more ‘entertaining’) is of greater value.

It can support our lives enormously to remember that what’s deeply rewarding can be simple and uncluttered. And that it’s right there, in front of us, all of the time.

Indecision

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

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

I notice how many internal forces are pulling upon me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That urge…

That feeling again. Perhaps you don’t even recognise it as a feeling. But, in response to whatever-it-is, there you are, reaching for your phone, for your computer, for whatever device will soothe you.

Email. Facebook. Twitter. The news headlines. Any of them will do it.

With this little fix done, the feeling subsides for a while and you get on with life. But it brings with it an odd feeling of shallowness; a disconnection from yourself and everything.

That feeling that might not even feel like a feeling is most probably some kind of anxiety. Anxiety at not being held by the world. Anxiety about not being safe. Anxiety about not being in control of everything. Anxiety at not being the centre of things. And the latest news, personal or impersonal and available to you at any moment, offers somehow a temporary relief.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you interrupted this habit (for habit it surely is), and dealt with the feeling a different way? Reached for a book – a novel, poems, science – something from which you could learn? Or for art? Or for pen and paper? Or for a person, with whom you could talk? Or just allowed yourself to feel it for a while?

Practiced over time, you might find yourself less drawn away from the world. And invited into your life in a new, more engaged and connected way.

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Quiet time

At some point in your life you’re going to need to include a practice of regular quiet time: time by yourself, letting your life sink in, being still, allowing yourself at last to feel it all.

Does it occur to you that without this, you run the risk of living a full-tilt life that you never, quite, manage to touch?

And a life that is never, quite, allowed to touch you in return?

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On self-care

Self-care:

Getting enough sleep
Eating healthily, and often enough to sustain yourself
Exercise
Play
Quiet time – to read, ponder, think, walk
Being with the people you love, and who love you
Touch

Too many of us have decided (how did we decide this?) that self-care is optional, marginal or even a sign of weakness.

It’s a huge misunderstanding of what it is to be human.

And an ever bigger misunderstanding of where our capacity to do good work comes from in the first place.

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Exhausted

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from November 2013.

Mostly the stories we’re living are invisible to us. They’re like the air we breathe, or the water we swim in.

If you’re someone who never rests, who keeps going even when you’re exhausted – as so many of us do – do any of these stories shed light on the way you’re living?

Are you taking yourself to be

An orphan? Carrying a huge burden given to you by others that cannot be put down. There’s nowhere to rest. Nobody who can really be relied on. Nowhere that’s safe. All you can do is to keep on carrying, carrying, carrying, knowing that life is ultimately exhausting and nobody can help you.

frantic hare? Always running to get to the finish line. The point of life is to hurry, hurry, hurry so that you can be there first. If you stop, even for a moment, you’ll lose the race. Because everyone else is apparently running too.

The emperor in new clothesTrying to look good or at least acceptable, but fearing that everyone else can secretly see that it’s all a façade. So you have to work hard all the time to keep up an image, and not let any cracks show, in case you get found out.

Atlas? Holding up the world for everyone with unceasing, superhuman effort. If you don’t do it, nobody else will, and then the sky will fall in and everything will come apart.

And if not one of these stories, is there another one you can find that will explain why you’re so sure you can never stop, never take care of yourself?

Where did you get your story from? From your family? From the wider culture into which you were born?

And what happens if you let go of your story, just a little, and find out that it can’t be completely true? Perhaps then you’ll find out that you’ll still be alive, and people will still be around, even if you lie down for a while.

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Our stories about our feelings

When you feel emptiness, what do you do?

Reach for something to eat?
Turn on the TV?
Pick up the free paper on the train?
Hide away in sorrow and resignation?
Zone out?
Lash out at your colleagues or your family?
Find someone to blame?

What’s the story you’re telling about what this feeling means that has you act in this way?

We’re so quick to tell stories about what we’re feeling. This feeling is something to be fixed, a sign I’ve done something wrong, proof my life is heading nowhere – or that it’s heading somewhere. It’s because of you, it’s because of my parents, it’s to be avoided at all costs, it’s precisely the thing I need to feel in order to know myself and be ok.

But our familiar, habitual stories about our feelings can imprison us in smaller worlds than we deserve.

There’s always another story you can tell.

Maybe the emptiness is because you’re tired. Or you’re under attack from your inner critic. Maybe it’s pointing you towards something essentially true about all of our existence – that everything is changing all the time and there’s not so much for us to stand on.

Or maybe you’re feeling it because you’ve forgotten something important – your essential aliveness, the deep roots of your history and biology, all that supports you moment to moment.

Each of these stories points to a different course of action. Same feeling, different response. Sleep perhaps, or an act of self remembering (creating art, meditation, poetry, music, prayer, beauty, touch).

Or maybe what to do with what you’re feeling is simply to allow it to be for a while, no correction or compensation required. And no story either. Let it do its thing and watch as it eventually, inevitably, and with no apparent help from you, changes you and turns itself into something else.

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Sleep

Sleep.

Source of our energy, our creativity, our compassion, our sanity.

And in the buzz and rush of our culture, in our

always-on,

‘but they need me’,

‘I’m so important’,

endless to-do-list,

‘I should’,

‘I ought’,

‘I want’

target-driven,

shame-filled

always-more society

in which we wear our busyness,

and our exhaustion

as badges of honour

perhaps the most undervalued currency of all.

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Music to return us to ourselves

Finding practices that recall us to ourselves – so that even the humdrum and ordinary can be imbued with some sense of wonder and aliveness – is something of an art that we each have to discover for ourselves.

I wrote a little about this yesterday.

Have you considered how music could be part of this for you?

Let’s distinguish for a moment between music that’s designed to distract – music for the ‘background’, jingles and muzak and much that’s still heard on commercial radio stations – and music that is courageous enough to express the heart of human experience in a true and honest way.

This second category includes music of all types and genres, of course. But, for today, perhaps you’ll consider listening to just one piece: the first section (on a CD or download, the first track) of Brahms’ Deutsche Requiema ‘humanist’ requiem written in response to the death of Brahms’ mother and of a close friend. It’s widely available to download and a first listen will take no more than ten minutes of your time.

Even if you’re not familiar with choral music, you might hear within the sound and texture of Brahms’ work a passionate commitment to living. He’s beautifully captured the sense of awe and amazement that comes from understanding our unlikely place in this most unlikely of worlds, and from knowing that our time in it is finite. This is music, written from a deep understanding of death, that can bring us searingly and beautifully into engagement with life.

And when you’ve finished with Brahms himself, give yourself half an hour to listen to the amazing episode of BBC Radio’s Soul Music (free on iTunes here, or from the BBC website here) filled with stories of how Brahms’ Requiem has played a pivotal role in people’s lives.

Of course, you’ll need to find your own music or other art form that can wake you up to your life when you forget. Today I wanted to share with you one of mine, in the hope it might be strong enough to be of some use.

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Walking

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I have spent the last two days walking, alone, in silence. Among ancient trees, by water, away from interruptions, and moving, I am tethering myself to my life.

Everything is different for me when I walk. My thoughts, my moods, my experience of myself and my body. I’m reminded of my place in a living world that is much bigger than I am.

Too often, I forget this.

It struck me as I walked how few of us take restorative practices like this seriously. “I’m too busy” we say. “People need me.” “I couldn’t possibly stop.” In the world of many organisations we have turned this orientation into an unquestionable truth for everyone, pushing ourselves and others harder and harder, convinced that if we never stop we will eventually get what we long for.

In our endless quest for productivity, for efficiency, and for more stuff we’ve convinced ourselves that we are machines for doing and machines for consuming.

And because of this, we’re asking ourselves the wrong question. We’ve lost sight of what it is that is the source of all of our actions, hopes and possibilities. And of our productivity.

Instead of “how can I go faster?” we ought to be responding to “how can I be more alive?”. And understanding that everything we care about – everything – will flow from that.

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Living all the way through

Listening this evening to a beautiful radio documentary ‘The Living Mountain‘ (based on an equally beautiful book of the same name) I am introduced to the idea of ‘living all the way through’ – living in such a way that we get to taste, smell, see, hear and touch the world.

In our lives of busyness and distraction, in our striving to get wherever it is we think we have to be in order to be happy, in the midst of the frequent harshness of our inner worlds, how often do we remember to do this? To taste, smell, see, hear and touch any of it deeply enough that it can register?

And in addition to all your plans to achieve, to get ahead, to get things done, how about the coming year being one in which to remember this as a possibility?

So that this year is not a year you miss in your frantic activity, but a year that you actually choose to live?

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