Fuel for Your Fire

In just a month over 350 people have joined our new Turning Towards Life project on FaceBook. It’s been thrilling to find a new way to talk about many of the concerns, ideas and possibilities that are still an inspiration for the On Living and Working blog, and I think it’s likely that our conversations will in turn be the inspiration for more writing over the coming months.

I was particularly touched by our latest conversation on Sunday morning, which took John Neméth’s song ‘Fuel for Your Fire‘ as its starting point. The question we wanted to address is both simple and central to many people – how can we have our difficulties be a source of life for us, rather than a reason to turn away in shame, fear, or avoidance?

It’s certainly a profound question for me. It’s easy for me when I’m in some kind of trouble to imagine that I am somehow special, the only one experiencing life in this particularly challenging kind of way. And when I take on this relationship to my troubles what I notice most is my separateness from everyone and everything – as if I am uniquely cursed, isolated from others and from the possibilities of care and help.

All of this, it turns out, is a profound misunderstanding. If anything, it’s our troubles that show us how human we are, how essentially alike we are. None of us are free from disappointments, mistakes, changes to our circumstances both within and beyond our control. None of us is free from loss. And when we know this to be an essential truth of our human condition, perhaps we can give up self-pity and instead take on the dignifying work of contribution. This – that contribution is often the most dignified and life-giving path for working with our difficulties – has in recent months, and when I remember it, been such a blessing in my own life.

We’d be really delighted if you’d join us in the 30 minute conversation below, which takes up all these themes and asks ‘How can our troubles be part of the path?’.

And if you’d like to join in with the growing community that’s forming around this project, and the lively conversation that’s taking part in the comments, you can do so here.

 

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Balancing Judgement and Mercy

Whatever we say we’re most committed to, a great many of us live as if judgement were the primary human value, judging ourselves mercilessly and without respite. And, when we live in the stream of harsh judgement, no effort is enough, no achievement worth much, and our efforts to help seem to us nothing but disguised selfishness. In this relentless stream we find that the only way to bring ourselves to the world with the care and commitment we wish for is to fight an endless battle in which parts of ourselves – our essential goodness and our inner criticism – are pitched against one another.

In a battle there’s really never any time to rest. We live in state of vigilance, braced and ready for the blows that can come at any moment: for the offhand critical comment from a loved one or colleague, for the figures on our latest bank statement, for a tweet or instagram post that reminds us of all the ways we’re falling short.

And we find ourselves mounting all kinds of pre-emptive defence: doing our best to look good (which we’ll do even at great emotional, spiritual or financial expense), tuning out from our lives with distractions (so as not to feel the difficulty we’re in), shaming ourselves (to avoid the pain of being shamed in other ways) or deflating and collapsing (as if hiding from the world will save us).

Perhaps the worst of all of this is the way we hide the very battle we’re fighting, as if we are the only ones, as if nobody else has it this way. We become convinced that life has to be a battle. And that is our lot to live a life of inner harshness that only adds to whatever harshness and struggle we already experience in the world around us.

Nearly all of us are doing this – whether we’re teachers or CEOs, politicians or parents, artists or activists or accountants. And the more we live this way, the more exhausted we become, and the fewer of our gifts – the gifts we each have that the world needs from us – we get to bring.

All the while that we’re caught up in harsh self-judgement (which easily and also becomes harsh judgement of others) we’ve forgotten that judgement isn’t the same as discernment, and that discernment only becomes possible when judgement is balanced by a stream of mercy. I say ‘balanced’ here, but it seems to me much more the case that true discernment (the kind that can be life-giving, truthful and contributory) only comes into being when judgement is thoroughly infused with mercy – when judgement and mercy pour into one another, illuminate one another, become a single river.

And what is mercy? It’s a commitment to not turning away. It’s dignifying our anguish and confusion, the transience and unpredictability of our lives and the difficulties we’ve all had to face, and reaching for the essential goodness that is present in all of us. Mercy is indeed our turning towards life itself with a fiercely kind and loving embrace. It’s a commitment to see the beauty in our very unfinishedness, to cherish and honour both our inevitable falling-short and our capacity to improve things.

Most of us haven’t practiced mercy towards ourselves with anything approaching the diligence with which we practice harsh self-judgement.  But until mercy can become a serious part of our constellation of virtues, until we practice it as much as we long for it, we’ll struggle with more difficulty than we’re due and we’ll doubtless bring more difficulty to others than we intend.

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Flowers from the darkness

What struck me most at Sunday’s Yom Hashoah ceremony was the way in which each of the survivors who spoke had committed themselves to life.

One woman, who’d entered Auschwitz as a teenager, had dedicated herself in adulthood to teaching young people about the dangers that come with ignorance of one another. Now nearing her 90s, she was fiery and warm and loving and energetic. It was clear how passionately and completely she’d taken up both living and being of service to a life much bigger than her own.

Another speaker described how being exemplars of love and kindness had become central for her parents during the time after the genocide, when they’d chosen to raise a new family in the long shadow of those dark years, still unable to speak of their shattering personal experiences and their grief at the deportation and murder of their two-year old daughter.

A dear friend of mine told me recently that the artist Roman Halter, himself a survivor, used to say to her how important it is to trust life – to turn towards life’s goodness and not lose ourselves in self-doubt and worry.

And Etty Hillesum, who wrote diaries first from her home in the Netherlands during the early years of the oppression and, later, from Westerbork transit camp (the holding camp for Dutch Jews on their way to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1943) wrote from the camp about her sense that ‘that one day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb.’

I write all of this in no judgement of the countless millions who lived and died in those times – and in other horrors – and were irreparably broken by the experience. Which of us could be sure we’d be any different? But I’m struck by our responsibility in the light of all this, and how easily we can confuse ourselves about the times we are living in. 

This moment in the early 21st century is full of uncertainty and many dangers, yes. But however bad we fear things are, and however frightened we get about it, we can and must learn from those who found in themselves a way to live, and to turn towards life, in the midst of the most unimaginable horror and its aftermath.

That they were able to plant flowers that grew from the darkness leaves us, who right now live in not nearly such dark times, with the responsibility to find a way to do the same.

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Blessings and Curses

At every moment in life, you can choose whether to be a blessing or a curse to others.

How you open the door to her when she comes come, how you reach across for him when you wake, how you speak when you order your coffee, how you move through a crowded train, how you are with a crying child, how you put out the bins.

How you answer the phone, how you begin a meeting with your pressured and anxious team, how you write the next email, how you announce your intentions, how you respond when you’re hurt, how you listen to the request of a lost stranger.

The capacity to bless will have its seeds in your capacity to bless yourself, which always means welcoming yourself and what you’re experiencing rather than denying it, raging against it, or judging yourself for it.

Will you turn towards that of you which loves without dismissing, or denigrating, or criticising it for its impracticality?

Will you turn towards your fear and acknowledge how afraid you are with dignity, rather than pretending it isn’t true?

Many of the curses in the world arise from our denying our own very basic, vulnerable, mysterious, confusing humanity. Much of that comes from being afraid and pretending that we’re not – a curse upon ourselves which curses others as we go. And many blessings come from the discovery that this one, brief, precious life simply won’t go exactly how we want it.

Of course, it’s rarely as simple as just ‘deciding’ to bless as we go. Too much of us has been shaped by years of habit for that. But the good news is that the capacity to bless – which is given to all of us – grows with practice. And that you can start today.

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Losing it

This morning, after swimming, I overhear a conversation between two men who are sitting by the water. One has lost his sunglasses on an earlier swim and is quite distressed.

‘They were expensive. Armani.’ he says. ‘I paid a lot of money for them. And they are the third pair I’ve lost this summer’.

He is too agitated to be present with his friend who, after some minutes of listening, says ‘You seem really shaken up by this, too shaken up even to really be interested that I’m here with you. You’re saying the same thing, over and over again. But,’ and here he pauses, ‘tell me something. Did you enjoy having them? Did they bring you pleasure? Because although you’ve now lost them, for a while you did have them too’.

For a while, you did have them.

And at that moment it occurs to me that this is true for everything, and for all of us. We wail and fret about what we lose, and rightly, because our loss is so often a source of suffering for us. But we will all lose our sunglasses, eventually, just as we will lose all our possessions, our friendships, our bodies, and everything we know.

And because losing is terrible and difficult to bear, we can spend our lives fretting about what’s yet to lose, and clinging madly to it, or becoming consumed with longing or remorse for what we’ve lost.

And all the while forgetting that, for a time, we did have all of this, and missing the wonder that there is anything at all – sunglasses, friendships, work, life – worth having enough that its loss matters to us in the first place.

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On Difficulty and Understanding

As we encounter each of life’s difficulties, we get to choose:

Consider ourselves cursed or mistreated, as if we are owed freedom from hurt, pain or confusion. As if life owes us happiness. As if we are meant to be in control of everything. This is, essentially, a fight against life as it is.

Or draw on difficulty as part of life’s path, an opportunity to turn more deeply into life rather than away from it.

And while, with each successive difficulty or joy, we find that we understand life’s movement less and less, perhaps this way we learn to live it more and more.

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[after Jules Renard – “As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more”]

Back to the garden

The myth of the Garden of Eden is so brilliant and powerful because it expresses our sense of having profoundly lost something essential and elemental from our lives, something we need.

We long to return to the peace and beauty of the garden. It’s a place we feel we once knew but from which we’ve been exiled, and we imagine there’s something we can do to get back so that everything can be alright once again. When we return we will at last stop feeling so separate from the world, so alienated from it. It will be a place where we’re fully welcomed and loved, where we don’t need to strive any more, where the resources of the world will effortlessly meet our needs, and where we no longer need to feel afraid or ashamed. And in this way the myth of the garden promises to fill an enormous hole that we don’t otherwise know how to address. 

Perhaps we’ll meet the right person, a friend or lover or saviour whose acceptance and care for us will be our return (maybe it’s this sense that draws us towards particular people in our lives in the first place). Or perhaps it will come through fame, a big enough bank balance, or through attaining a certain status or prominence in our work or our wider culture. We can become convinced we’ll be readmitted to the garden by following a spiritual path, by being kind, or by cultivating depth, integrity, knowledge, power, courage, or equanimity. Maybe receiving the right email in our inbox will do it (is this why we check so often?).

We wonder if we haven’t found our way back because we didn’t try hard enough. So we keep on with the same strategies, despairing that they don’t seem to work out.

Our suffering is magnified by our finding that nothing and no-one we encounter is able to return us as we’d hoped. We are terrified that it’s our own failing, and if not that then the unfairness of the world towards us, that keeps us away.

The story rings true because we all know Adam and Eve’s loss at loss first-hand. We began our lives in the wondrous and cushioned embrace of the womb, deeply connected to the being of another inside whose body we floated, totally and unquestioningly cared for. And now we find ourselves thrown into the messy physical world where nothing ever quite goes our way, where we don’t feel held, where we feel anguish as well as joy, and where we have to take responsibility for ourselves. The pain of leaving the garden is nothing less than the pain of living in the world with the memory of a once simpler time when we experienced only our oneness with all of it.

The Eden story’s brilliance is not only that it so perfectly describes our deep longing, but that it also calls into question our wish to return. Adam and Eve are children – barely aware of themselves, barely able to know anything, unable to distinguish between this and that, between actions that bring wholeness to the world and actions that destroy. They can remain in the garden only as long as this remains the case. Once they eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, once they develop the capacity to engage with the world in its fullness of both dark and light, once they grow up, the spell of the garden is broken and they have to face the world as it is. A return to the garden would not be the idyll we imagine because it would mean giving up the capacities and faculties that make us adults, most notably the capacity to discern, and the capacity to choose.

So, how should we live in the light of this? One path, for sure, is the path of nihilism, the certainty that all is lost and that, faced with the prospect that nothing ever works out apart from death, nothing is of meaning. The other path, which seems much more life giving to me, is one in which we simultaneously turn towards that of the garden which is already present in the world (beauty, love, compassion, the wonders of nature are just a few) and towards doing what we can to reduce the suffering that we know cannot be avoided completely. This second path also means learning to live with the hole-like feeling of incompleteness – perhaps to be human is always in some way to feel incomplete – and yet continuing to bring as much of our capacity for goodness and integrity as we can. The second path means giving up the idyllic myth of Eden for the much more grown up task of living with dignity and compassion with the world as it is and us as we are. And in order to do this, we have to give up on our fantasy of returning to the garden, a fantasy that adds difficulty to difficulty and so readily has us hold back what we could bring.

And, as well as this, there is another possibility, which is to look deeper into life than we are yet accustomed to doing. The separateness of our bodies so convinces us we are separate from everything and from one another – and it’s the very compelling feeling of distance that has us long so urgently to return. The anguish of this, and the longing of it, is very familiar to me as I write this today. But from another perspective, which I glimpse now and then, we all arise from a wholeness from which we have never been apart – call it the universe, ‘the one’, emptiness, God, life itself – there are many names. In those moments when we get to see that we’re all together an expression of something which has always been our home, perhaps we get to relax our desperation a little, and this in turn allows us to contribute without trying all the time to grasp too tightly something that is already here.

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Purposeful / Purposive

Purposeful – the projects we’re committed to that we know we’re committed to. That which we feel we have chosen.

Purposive – the projects we’re committed to that we don’t know we’ve chosen, and which show up in our actions more than they show up in our minds.

Our being human is an inevitable mix of purposeful and purposive, and much of our difficulty comes from the conflicts between the two. When I’ve purposefully chosen to be a kind and loving parent, for example, at the same time as having a purposive commitment to being right, or never being criticised. Or when I’ve purposefully chosen to lead others in a way that’s wise and inclusive, alongside a purposive commitment to looking good, or being seen as perfect, or being in control.

The trouble with our purposive commitments is their invisibility to us, which so often means we take them not to exist. But it’s these very commitments that others often see most clearly.

And it’s in uncovering what’s purposive for us, through careful observation and through the loving support of others, that we have a chance of freeing ourselves up to do what we intend. And a chance of undoing the silent battle with ourselves that causes us and others so much suffering, and which has us hold back so much of what we’re here to do.

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A life without troubles

It’s tempting to try and live a life without troubles. After all, it’s what we’ve been promised by endless advertising, by fairytales and by the myth of our own omnipotence.

In difficulty? There’s a product that promises to heal your ills, grant you happiness, soothe your pain. Sometimes we think that we’d find it, if only we were more together, more intelligent, richer, had a different job or a different partner, lived in a different country, were born to different parents.

But life isn’t shaped that way. It’s complex, mysterious, chaotic and surprising, whatever your circumstances. And whether you deny it or not you have to live as a biological creature in a physical world in which death cohabits with life, illness with vitality, wounds with healing, loss with love.

So the question is not how to live without trouble, because the only way to do that is to deny life itself (and that itself brings no end of difficulty). Instead, you might ask again and again how to live fully in the world. You might look for ways to live with wisdom, and not make things more complicated than they are already.

It might take giving up fighting the way things are, and instead turning at last towards life that you actually have.

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One step, and then one step

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

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

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

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

And then one step.

And then one step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Numbered

Sometimes I remember that my days are numbered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hollow

That hollowness you feel.

Are you sure that running from it – into work, busyness, emails, surfing the web, eating – is such a good idea?

What you’re experiencing is at the heart of the human condition. Not an error, but an understanding. An insight that there really is nothing to stand on.

We’re thrown, without our permission, into a world that is bigger, more complex, and more mysterious than we can understand. And we have to find a way to live, knowing that we know so little, and that everything is shifting all the time. That at any moment it call all be taken away from us.

In that way hollowness is not a mistake, but is instead a sign of your deep sensing of the way of things. By fleeing from it again and again into shallow distractions, you’re deepening your suffering. You’re fleeing from life. And whole industries exist to help you to do this.

Today, perhaps, it’s time to turn fully, with courage and openness, into the hollow heart so it can give up its gifts.

Let it become your home.

Let it support you in standing, rather than fleeing, in the storms, uncertainty and huge possibility of a life that you did not ask for, but nevertheless have this one glorious opportunity to live.

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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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Movies of the Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One choice you get to make

As we encounter each of life’s difficulties, we get to choose:

Consider ourselves cursed or mistreated, as if we are owed freedom from hurt, pain or confusion. As if life owes us happiness. As if we are meant to be in control of everything. This is, essentially, a fight against life as it is.

Or draw on difficulty as part of life’s path, an opportunity to turn more deeply into life rather than away from it.

And while, with each successive difficulty or joy, we find that we understand life’s movement less and less, perhaps this way we learn to live it more and more.

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Good enough

I’m tired of organisational ‘stretch’ goals, increased productivity year on year, more-better-faster, doing-more-with-less, change after change, restructure after restructure. I’m tired of the push for endless growth, non-stop better performance, climbing the pole, getting to the top, being a ‘world-class’ whatever-it-is. I’m tired of squeezing out extra profit, running a lean-mean six-sigma machine. I’m tired of people being human ‘resources’ instead of people, of the way we’ve replaced the simplicity and directness of conversation with procedure and process, and of the increasing bureaucratisation of our workplaces that replaces practical wisdom with monotone rules and repeatability. I’m tired of endless criticism, not-good-enough-yet, and the self-judgement that comes with it. I’m tired of busyness and back-to-back meetings and no-time-to-talk and a million emails in my inbox and staring at my smartphone to see if anyone needs me. I’m tired of impossible targets and five-year-plans that everybody knows won’t come to be and corporate visions and values that box people in and try to make them all the same.

I see all of this in so many organisations I work with. And I see much of it echoed in myself. And I’m tired of it all.

I think there’s a chance you may be tired of it too. Even if (especially if) you’re one of the people arguing most to bring all of this about.

We enslave ourselves to the idea that we’ll be saved if we can just keep going faster – an idea that produces so much of the difficulty above, and so much stress in each of us.

What would happen I wonder if, instead, we freed ourselves into the possibility that so much of what we do is just fine as it is?

And that we, and all we are up to, are good enough already?

It’s not kindness

Sometimes, a commitment to everyone around you being ok can cause more suffering than you know.

You might think you’re just being kind, principled – a person committed to harmony, peace, and the wellbeing of others.

But it’s not kindness if your habit of saving others from their difficulty:

denies them their dignity or freedom
hurts the people around them
has them become dependent upon you
acts so that you, principally, can feel better about yourself.

It’s not kindness to insist all is well, that everyone look on the bright side, and in doing so ignore others’ difficulty or judge it as moaning or whining.

And it’s not kindness to turn away from important conversations that can liberate people from their suffering, simply because you fear that you or others might get upset.

Kindness like this might still feel like kindness to you. It might feed the story that you’re really there to help. But what you’re doing each time is covering up the difficulty. And in each case there’s some significant suffering that calls for a much bigger contribution from you.

Kindness that makes a genuine difference to others requires enormous courage, because it can never just be about fulfilling your story about yourself, or making you feel better that you did the right thing.

This kindness knows when to wait as well as when to act. It knows that cutting the bonds that hold others in their difficulty can require fierceness and sharpness as well as softness. It has a much bigger perspective than just this moment, just this incident, just what you’re feeling right now.

And this sort of kindness – which looks long into the future to assess the consequences of its actions, and which casts a broad net to include many others in its care – has so much more possibility for bringing about the peace and freedom you really long to bring into the world.

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East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem

Yesterday evening singer-songwriter David Broza was in London. I was fortunate enough to be at an event where he spoke, and sang, and showed his film East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, which documents the recording, over eight days in an East Jerusalem studio, of an album featuring Palestinian and Jewish Israeli musicians.

The music itself is really quite something, but what struck me even more was the deep longing and humanity expressed in the film by each of the musicians participating, both Jews and Palestinians. The longing to be seen, the longing to be in I-You relationship with others and the longing to express hope and despair and love and sadness. And what happens when that longing can be met with sincerity by the longing and humanity of others, however apparently different their culture and background.

In his talk about the project David spoke about how important hope is. Once hope is replaced by the cynicism and despair so familiar in our times, he said, nothing is really possible any more. Cynicism closes off so many avenues that hope keeps open. And so hope, or a faith in our capacity to improve things, becomes a moral imperative, a necessary condition for the resolution of suffering and the solving of our most complex and confusing difficulties.

He also said something deep and important about time. Peace, he said, like so much that is important to us, requires a multi-generational commitment. We misunderstand it, as we do so much else, by insisting on immediacy, too quickly concluding that it is impossible because we’re not personally seeing the fruit of our labours. There is a significant kind of peace and understanding between people that can only be brought about by the diligent commitment of many over long periods. It requires persistence, and patience (surely in great decline in our current age), as well as the hope I described above. How many of us, I wonder, are willing to dedicate ourselves to anything big enough, and difficult enough, that it takes more than the span of our own short lives?

And he spoke, as did Du at our event last month about what it is to respond to a vocational call (though he did not use this word). The East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem project, he said, is but the latest expression of the one and only contribution he finds he can uniquely make, given who he is, when in history he is living, and what he loves. It’s clear from being with him and listening to him play that this is not so much a choice he is making as a call that life is making on him – where his heart’s particular longing and gladness meets the particular troubles of the world in which he lives. And in responding to life’s call his part is not to make grand political gestures, but to be in close, in intimate relationship with others, making music and inviting the humanity of close-in relationship and singing about what he uniquely sees and what uniquely moves him.

And what beauty it brings about, as you’ll see if you have an opportunity some day to watch the full film, which as yet does not have a distributor.

There’s a film of David Broza speaking recently at a TEDx conference in Jerusalem which you can see here. I strongly recommend watching at least the first few minutes in which he plays and sings one of the central songs of the project. And if you’re prepared to dedicate a few more minutes of your time, you might find something of what I’m saying above in what he has to say.

Here’s a video of the title track from the album, recorded with Wyclef Jean.

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Perfect world

You want a perfect world.

You want a world in which you no longer have to experience longing or confusion. You want a world in which all your needs get met, all your desires.

You want a world in which you get to be peaceful, undisturbed – in which you don’t have to fight or disagree with others; or in which you know yourself always to be loved; a world in which you achieve unparalleled success and the recognition it affords; or a world in which your uniqueness is understood, treated always with respect and dignity.

You want a world that will teach you, in which you can pursue a topic uninterrupted to its very end; or a world in which you feel no fear, a world in which you can trust. You want a world which will allow you to do just what you want; or a world you can control.

All these wants, these hopes, the pursuit of which can carry you so far – and the pursuit of which can lock you in an unending cycle of desperation, resignation, comparison, cynicism and suspension (for, perhaps, you’ve decided that you cannot really live until you get what you want).

So perhaps as well as wanting to bring about a perfect world, you could also attend just as vigorously to learning how to live in the imperfect, messy, always incomplete world. A world where people won’t always show their love (but in which there is love, just the same). A world in which you will fail, repeatedly and painfully. A world which will not always seem to see you, and which cannot always reassure you. A world which will constrain you, and over which you cannot be in control. In short, a world just like the one in which we all live. And a world which, perhaps, alongside all your efforts to change or get away, you might find the possibility of loving, just as it is.

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Something missing

Behind all our activity, all our busyness, we live with the constant, gnawing sense that there’s something missing.

Often we try to hide it:

From others. From ourselves. This is the root of much of our rushing and many of our addictions (shopping, email, browsing the web, eating). But numbing ourselves in this way numbs us to the rest of life too.

Or we try to fill it:

We imagine the perfect relationship, house, holiday or job title will have the feeling go away. We pursue power, money, sex, recognition, fame. We imagine there’s a mythical island somewhere where we won’t have to feel this way. And we imagine that others – upon whom we project the image of a perfect untroubled life – live there already. All of this fuels our suffering, our desperation, and our feeling that somehow we didn’t work out how to live a properly successful life, while others did.

The feeling that there is something missing is, to our surprise, not solved by having more. See Lynne Twist’s book The Soul of Money for a first-hand account of the anguish even billionaires – those who want for nothing material – so often seem to have that their billions did nothing to assuage.

No, to live with the sense that something is missing is an essential aspect of being human. It arises from our capacity to see possibility in every person, every thing, every situation. We know, always, some sense of that which is not yet here. And it is this very capacity that affords us our creativity, our compassion, and our ability to act to improve things both for ourselves and for others.

Trying to rescue ourselves from the queasy hollow feeling of ‘missing’ fuels our obsessions and our distraction. Let’s, instead, learn to do the difficult work of turning into it, towards it, living in it and with it and from it. And then, maybe, we can respond to the situations we find ourselves in rather than reacting mindlessly, blindly, and madly to banish what cannot be made to go away.

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The difficulty of being present

Mindfulness, the art of paying attention to what’s here and to what’s happening now, has become a fashionable topic in recent years. Perhaps this is a way in which we acknowledge that there’s a limit to the back-to-back scheduling of our lives, and the way that everything is always interrupting everything else.

When our culture has us skate over life at a breakneck pace, when the only response we seem to muster to our busyness is more busyness, the idea of some peace – some respite – seems understandably appealing.

But we misunderstand the practice of mindfulness, and the possibility of being present, if we see it as a technique to quell and soothe our restlessness.

Because being present means we actually have to face our lives rather than run from them.

When we quieten ourselves enough to really listen, we come to feel our own pain and our own anxiety – as well as our love and our joy and our deep unfulfilled longing . And if we stay still for long enough, we also begin to see all of this in others. And we are called to respond.

Most of us, I think, don’t want to experience that feeling, or that responsibility, for too long. We’re happy to toy with the idea of being more present in our lives, without wanting to commit to it, at least not too much.

And in this way being present in our lives becomes another fad, a passing phase, rather than something we’ll dedicate ourselves to for its own sake.

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Defending against the critic

I write here often about the inner critic because it has been the cause of so much struggle and difficulty since I was very small. In writing I discover new angles and new waysof responding. I hope it will be of help also to some of you who are reading.

For years I did not want to hear anything that others had to say about me, whether praise or criticism, loving or ill-intended. It was all pretty much the same to me – a wounding reminder of my own constant self-judgement. Such harshness in my inner world led me to take on inner self-numbing as a serious project. The comments of others, however offered, simply reconnected me with what I was working so strenuously to avoid.

I extended this project into the outer world too, of course, trying not to draw too much attention to myself. I’d stay out of the limelight when I could. And I developed a reputation for shyness and quietness, for not being too much trouble to anyone, for looking ok, for being humble and self-effacing: all powerful supports for the inner numbing to which I was so committed.

At the time, I doubt I would have understood any of this as something I was actively doing. But such is the power of the critic, it can shape a life from the inside out, and for that reason I think it’s a topic of enormous importance.

It was only in my mid-thirties, when a teacher of mine was generous enough to tell me how self-critical he found me, that I began to see that I had a critic at all. Until then I’d thought it self-evident that the world was made up of exactingly high standards that I could never reach and populated by others who knew my many failings even before I discovered them myself. It had never occurred to me that my hyper-vigilance for criticism, inside and outside, was just one possible way to live an adult life.

The foundational, liberating move was to identify the critic as an entity in its own right – a part of me – and to see that the harshness it generated was not life itself. In this way the critic became something I have rather than something that invisibly has me. And having it opened up the possibility of cultivating a new relationship with it.

I learned how to see the critic as an attacking force and, gradually, how necessary it is to defend against its attack. Reasoning with it (a familiar habit for me) or otherwise engaging with it does not help, because the critic is insatiable. It has higher standards in all domains of life than I can ever reach. Whatever I do it’s on the immediate lookout for what else is undone or not perfect. It cannot be placated by persuasion, by argument or by giving in, and it is not at all interested in the evidence of my eyes and ears and heart. Living with the critic is like living with a rabid dog.

Defending requires meeting the critic with equal and opposite energy to its attacks, pushing them away with considerable force. Expletives help – the more evocative the better. What does not help is passivity: quietly waiting, staying small, until it goes away. This strategy, familiar to me from my childhood, just invites the critic to keep going.

When I remember to defend myself adequately I gain a measure of freedom, some space, into which the longings of my heart and conscience can step forward. It turns out that the critic – though it will defend itself by telling me it is my conscience – is interested neither in what I long for nor in what is right. It cares only about maintaining a vanishingly small world in which nobody can ever be disappointed and no shame can occur. And it’s willing to use the very disappointment and shame it so fears from others in order to keep me in line.

And so I have to remember to defend, every day. As time goes on the attacks become more disguised, more wily. It’s a lifetime’s work. And necessary, if I am to live fully, and if I am to take up the freedom and capacity to contribute that is my – and everyone’s – birthright.

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A telescope, the wrong way around

How much of your energy do you devote to managing other people’s impressions of you?

It’s probably so much more than you think. It may even, invisibly, be the single biggest focus of your attention.

Kind. Devoted. Generous. Creative. Helpful. Courageous. Strong. Powerful. Important. Intelligent. Successful. 

As well as managing other people’s impressions you’re also likely to be managing your impressions of yourself, which means that in one way or another there’s always a part of you watching while other parts make sure what is watched-for is always being produced.

All those eyes on you. All those expectations you’re upholding. All that work and attention devoted to making sure you never get seen in ways that don’t fit your own self-image.

Perhaps you hardly even know you’re doing this at all, so convinced have you become that an image you may have been holding for many years is you.

The irony here is that the more effort and vigilance you put into maintaining an image the less space you have to let your most genuine qualities come forward. Life-as-image-management is life lived looking down the wrong end of a telescope – only a tiny part of what there is to be seen ever gets to show up.

If you’re going to lead, or create, or enter into deep relationships with others and with life, it pays to find a way to work with this. To, over time, gradually learn to let go.

This is, in many ways, a project big enough and difficult enough to occupy most of us for a lifetime.

And it’s vital. Because a life of keeping up appearances is also a life in which so much of what you have to bring is held back before it has any chance of being seen.

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When we wound others

We all have those moments when, perhaps even before we’ve thought about it, we’ve wounded others – with a well-chosen barb, a dose of sarcastic humour, by locking them out or turning away, by yelling or insulting, by shaming.

Perhaps it happens for you often.

Maybe it’s worth checking what the source of this is.

So often we’re wounding other people because we just got wounded ourselves, sometimes by a thought or a memory rising quietly inside that nobody else can even see. We deal with our own pain by swinging it out onto somebody else.

And sometimes we wound others because, to put it simply, it’s what happened to us repeatedly along the way and now it’s their turn for a share of it.

Whatever the cause, if you’re regularly wounding your colleagues, your team, or the people close to you as a way of handling your own suffering, it might be time to consider an alternative.

You can’t avoid having been wounded. It’s an inescapable part of reaching adulthood. And just as this is true for you, it’s true for everyone around you.

Knowing this, perhaps you can catch on to what you’re really up to each time you lash out. And then, by cultivating ongoing tenderness and kindness – first to yourself – you can work more and more on having your wounds become a gift of understanding to others and not an excuse to act out.

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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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Who to help

A crisis.

Somebody is in need.

Time to jump in.

That way I know I’m being of use.

That way I can feel good about myself.

That way I know I’m needed.

But I have to ask

Am I helping the person in difficulty?

Or am I making this all about me

Helping myself, and not the other?

And could I assist in a different way…

…One that actually does something?

For some fabulously clear advice on this question, read The Ring Theory of Helping. It’s of value in all kinds of crises – medical, existential, organisational.

And it answers a most important question when we want to be of use – not whether, but who to help.

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How to help

Of course you want to help.

Of course you want to relieve other people of their suffering and difficulty where you can.

But it’s easy to confuse what’s actually, genuinely of help with what makes you feel better.

In other words, it’s easy to do what makes you at ease and then take your ease as proof that you must be doing good.

But being of help does not and cannot always feel that way.

Genuine helping is an act of vulnerability and courage and openness towards another. It requires you to give up all your demands that things turn out or feel a particular way. And to give up needing a particular kind of response from the other person. In real difficulty, it might involve you giving up knowing, or pretending to know, what to do at all.

Confusion over this, and of course your wish that others not feel pain, can lead you down some queasy paths. You reassure a friend facing a possibly life-threatening illness that everything will be alright. You ask someone who is grieving if they are ok, when ‘ok’ is the word furthest from their experience.

In your attempts at kindness, you end up missing the other’s simple deepest wish for connection: being seen and understood, their difficulty recognised for the suffering it is. Your kindness leaves them feeling more alone.

From speaking to others who have experience of this, and from an interlude of my own acute, frightening illness, it seems clear to me that the most compassionate and most helpful way you can speak to someone who is in difficulty of any kind is to first, simply, to ask them

“What is this like for you?”

And then listen. With every ounce of presence, openness and receptivity that you can muster. For as long as it takes for them to speak.

Allow yourself to hear something quite different from what you were hoping to hear.

And allow yourself to be changed by what they have to say.

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What makes our difficulty possible…

Of course it’s not just by being good that we think we’ll be deserving of escaping life’s difficulties.

We imagine that if we make enough money (always more than whatever we have now), have enough friends, own the right kind of house or car, or make a name for ourselves, then suffering will not be able to touch us. That everything will be ok.

And all the while we’re pursuing this, we’re turning away from life, denying our inescapable part in it. It’s another version of the mountain myth about which I wrote in September.

I wrote yesterday that part of growing up (which may come very late in life) is finding out that this is not true, and that there is nobody to save us from life itself.

But releasing ourselves into life at last is our opportunity to discover that we don’t need saving at all. That our life, which itself is so incredibly unlikely, is holding us at every moment. And that this is precisely what makes all our joy, delight, trouble and pain possible at all.

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On being good

When we are young we are taught that rewards come to those who are good. Good grades, good behaviour, good work, we learn, guarantee recognition and the next big opportunity. A place in a new school. A prize. A degree. A job.

And so as adults we come to think that being good will save us: from pain, confusion, failure, and from having to face life. If we’re good, the world will bring us what we want, and what we need. If we’re good, we secretly hope, we’ll be spared illness, and perhaps even death. People seen as good, we think, are exempt from all of that.

Growing up – whenever it comes – means finally finding out that none of this is true.

The world is not set up to guarantee, or owe, anything. It is not waiting for you to show how good you are. There is nobody to save you from life itself.

We’d better do our best, most important work not because of what it will bring us, or because of how it will look to others, but for its own sake, then.

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Holding back

Our attempts to hold back from the difficulty of our lives, paradoxically, bring us exactly what we are trying to avoid.

Why? Because suffering, confusion, feeling lost – as well as joy, and fulfilment, and meaning – are an inevitable part of any life. How could it be otherwise? Life promises only that it will bring us change. And it does this, even when we wish it were not so, endlessly.

Our attempts to deny our anxiety, fear and loss are attempts to control what cannot be controlled. They end up with us holding back life itself.

And in this way, perhaps we could learn to see our difficulties as an invitation to step deeper into our lives, rather than turn away.

I came across this, from Franz Kafka, recently, which says it beautifully:

“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

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