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.

Photograph by Emma Gregory

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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The history of ordinary lives

The sweep of history is often remembered through the grand acts – the wars, the revolutions, the public acts of despots, geniuses, and heroes.

But it is lived for the most part by so-called ordinary lives. The people who, perhaps like you and me, will be recalled only by a handful of people, and whose memory fades within a generation or two.

It’s easy to compare our lives with the famous ones, to imagine that a life well lived is one that will stand out across time, one that will be remembered. But what about the everyday dignity of caring for a home, loving people close by, bringing home a living, touching others with simplicity and genuineness?

I can’t think of a better book about this topic than John Williams’ novel Stoner, first published in 1965. Stoner, a university professor, lives an undistinguished life, charted with exquisite precision and compassion by Williams. We know from the start that he will hardly be remembered – by his colleagues, his students – and yet we come to see the beauty in his humanity: in his doubts and confusions, his suffering, the gifts he brings to others, the deep currents of meaning that bubble below the surface, and in the sheer extraordinary everydayness of his life.

Stoner is a fabulous reminder of the preciousness of even the most apparently mundane life, and the shining jewels that lie within. And it’s a beautiful read.

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On Regret

It’s the nature of all of our lives that we have to choose, repeatedly.

And because we have to choose, it’s the nature of our lives that we experience regret.

Every choice we make involves not choosing something else.

Sometimes we forget this. We try to live without regret, as if we could avoid it completely. But that forces us in turn to live without choice.

And this in turn produces a bitter new regret all of its own – the regret of a life we have chosen to freeze in place.

And so regret cannot be avoided. But we can choose to feel it rather than run from it. This way we can allow our regret to bring us its hidden message, which is to remind us that we care, and what it is that we care most about.

Avoiding regret turns out to be a way of avoiding life. And turning towards regret a way of turning back fully, towards our lives and towards ourselves.

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On Comparison

Comparison – the key to so much suffering.

Obvious comparisons that cause us difficulty – comparing ourselves with others (what they have, what they do, how they look), and with standards (I should be able to do better than this, I’m useless, my efforts are not good enough).

These comparisons keep us in perpetual dissatisfaction and self-criticism, a state of never being sufficient.

Less obvious, our comparisons of life now to life in the past or in the future – everything was so much better when I was younger, before I had children, before I had to work; or will only be ok when I’m more grown up, when I’m promoted, when I’m famous, when I have time to myself again, when I retire, when I live in a different town, when I’m not confused or scared any more.

These comparisons keep us in stasis, unable to live now because of a life lost or a life as yet unrealised.

Both kinds of comparisons absent us from the life we’re already in, telling us always that life is not to be lived here, or now, but elsewhere, always elsewhere.

Can you see how deeply much of the marketing that surrounds us is invested in keeping us comparingamplifying our dissatisfaction, our restlessness and our rootlessness, rather than turning into the fullness of what’s already here?

Giving up comparison does not mean giving up hope, or giving up aspiration. And most significantly it does not mean giving up commitment to improving things.

But it does mean giving up our disowning of this moment, this place, this ground upon which we stand – the only moment, place or ground we ever really have.

Photo with thanks to Kate Atkinson

Accepting life

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.

And however magnificent or terrible it is, you are, conclusively, just here, at this moment in the life that you are living.

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 not ‘putting up with things’ but responding fully from where you are. Not pretending to yourself or to others that you are somewhere else.

Every situation, however glorious, however unwelcome, has its own possibilities. And you have precisely this hand to play in whatever way you can.

Many paths lead from this place.

Will you go to sleep to yourself, or step in to this, the one and only life you have?

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Life’s incompleteness

There are millions of books that you’ll never read.
Millions of films you’ll never see.
Places you’ll never go to.
People you’ll never meet.
Experiences you’ll never have.

Do you chase after what’s unattainable with resentment and frustration, raging against life’s limits? Or open in gratitude at life’s richness?

I am starting to discover George Steiner’s work for the first time. Here he is with a beautiful account of his move from fear to wonder on this very question, involving a fascinating story of the discovery and reburial of thousands of terracotta Chinese warriors.

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Your troubles and you

Because you’re not your failures, nor are you your successes, remember this:

Being in trouble, no matter how deep, is not proof you are broken.

And being successful, no matter how so, is not proof that you are saved.

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Wounding 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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Over time, we mostly develop a quite strong sense of our own identity. 

We understand ourselves as this or that kind of person, with certain kinds of cares and commitments, certain kinds of likes and dislikes, certain kinds of tastes and values. And we also know ourselves from the way our relationships go, as someone who is loved or not, gets close to people or not, can speak up or stay quiet.

What we don’t often see so strongly is how our daily practices – the repeated way we go about things – are an active force in maintaing the particular identity we’ve got used to. And how they can be an equally active force in changing it.

How you get up, how you get dressed, how you eat, how you speak with people, how you listen, how you move your body, how you care for yourself, how you apportion your time, what you choose to pay attention to, your habitual patterns of thinking, when you shrink or come forward, how you stop (if you stop) – are all shaping you every time you do them.

Our unconscious practices quickly form a self-sealing circle, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, making possible certain experiences and actions, and keeping others far away from us.

So, if you want to shift your sense of yourself, and the way others know you, consider consciously and purposefully finding practices that can take you in a new direction.

The more comfortable and familiar they are, the less possibility they’ll have to change you. The more they take you into new territory (into a new world), the more they stir up, the more they call on you to learn a new way of being that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable, the more powerful they can be.

New practices interrupt the way we’ve gone about constructing ourselves.

An example from my own experience: after a lifetime of knowing myself as thoughtful and considered, as one around whom people feel safe, a bringer of peace in the midst of conflict, I’ve taken up kick-boxing.

And now, I’m starting to know myself also as fierce, super-disciplined, sharp, graceful and expressive. I’m learning how rage can be part of me – integrated – rather than forever denied or kept in the shadows. And I more and more have a body that can do all of this. As a result new conversations, new relationships, and new ways of working with other people are becoming apparent to me.

And all of this is so important any time we find that the identity we’ve taken up holds us back from contributing, or leads to suffering for ourselves or those around us.

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Among the most healing of all human possibilities.

Today, can you start by forgiving yourself?

.. for your forgetfulness, your anger, your irritability, your desire to please, your frustration, your resentment, your boredom, your rushing, your waiting, your confusion?

Can you forgive yourself, please, for everything you judge so harshly about yourself? And for everything that makes you, simply, human?

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Hollow heart

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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Telling the truth

The more I look, the more it seems to me that among the most personally damaging acts each of us can take is that of turning away from truth.

I’m not talking grand universal truths here – the kind that people claim apply across time and space and across people. It’s quite easy to see that establishing truth in this way is fraught with difficulty.

No, I’m talking about something more basic and immediate: what’s true about this moment, this experience, from the place in which you stand.

If you pay attention, it’s not so difficult to tell when you’re turning away from truth in this way. The truth that you are sad, or joyful, or angry, or despondent, touched or numb, feeling whole or split apart. The truth that this is difficult or painful for you. Or the truth that this is bringing you to life.

The truth that these thoughts you are thinking, whatever they are, are what you are thinking. The truth that what you’re feeling in your body is what you’re feeling. The truth that this place is where you are, and that what you are doing is what you are doing.

When we deny these simple, basic truths to ourselves and others – when we speak of ourselves inwardly or publicly with deliberate inaccuracy – we assault our own integrity. And we cause ourselves tangible harm, in our minds and in our bodies, by putting ourselves at odds with ourselves, fuelling the inner battles that pull us apart.

And then being whole again requires a kind of return, a turning back to the part of ourselves that understands how things really are. A turning back to something simple, and straightforward, the heart of which we’ve known all along.

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One thing to know about the inner critic is that it cannot be appeased.


It doesn’t help to reason. Whatever the facts you produce, however tight your reasoning, the critic can always come back with a question, or a doubt, an objection, or a demand for more evidence.

It doesn’t help to collapse, imagining the inner-critic will settle down once it sees you’re beaten. Because the moment you rouse yourself from your fall, it will be back, baying for more.

It doesn’t help to join in the fight, trading blows, getting into battle. The critic has more energy and more persistence than you know – it’s been around as part of humanity for much longer than you have.

Two ways to go that might support you:

The first is to understand that having an inner-critic is human, and that it’s being stirred is a sign that you’re up to something stirring. All art, all creativity, all speaking wholehearted truth, all genuine self-expression, all standing out, all taking the risk of saying what needs to be said, all stirs the critic into its defensive action. Reinterpret the critic – not as a sign of your failure and your brokenness, but of your aliveness. The very aliveness it wants to have you keep in check.

The second is to give it lots of space. Yes, let it rage, let it complain, let it hurl accusations at you. But, instead of having your face pressed up against the bars of your cage while it takes chunks out of you… instead if you can feel your enormity, your spaciousness, it’s less like being trapped in a small space with a tiger and more like being the whole zoo, or the whole city. How much can it hurt you when you’ve that room within you? How much can it eat you, or throttle you, or force your collapse?

And, each time it gets to you, please remember to be kind to yourself. Being caught in an attack by the critic is not proof that you deserve the attack – just that, this time, you didn’t find a way to separate yourself from it.

There will be a next time, and a time after, and a time after that. And over time, in no rush, perhaps a tiny bit more space will open, and a bit more, and a bit more – with many steps back along the way.

And each step, forward or back, is part of the necessary and life-giving work of becoming free to speak, act, lead and contribute with your whole heart.

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Climbing the mountain

We’ve believed that somewhere, at the top of the mountain we feel like we’re climbing, everything will be alright at last. We’ll be fulfilled, at peace, happy.

And so everybody’s climbing the mountain, and everybody else seems to be trying to sell us something that will get us there more quickly. ‘Buy this product’, the advertisements scream, ‘and at last you’ll be ok. At last you’ll be able to rest’.

So we climb, faster and faster, harder and harder, exhausting ourselves along the way. We’re sure the answer is at the top. We tell ourselves, ‘When I have that job, that house, a beautiful lover, children, money, fame, the right car, or body shape, or clothes, an advanced degree, my name on a book, when I retire, I’ll be there’.

And the climb becomes more frantic, more determined, because it seems that other people have reached the top of the mountain already. Film stars, celebrities, billionaires, models, TV presenters, novelist, the people in the next street with the nicer houses, your friends – many of them look like they have it together, that they at last have reached life’s destination.

There are books, and courses, and coaches and products that promise you all of this – that there’s some secret to the climb that’s right in front of you if only you’ll buy it, some magical way to accelerate you to the top.

And all the while, you’re hardly in life at all. Always postponing, always deferring, and piling suffering upon suffering as you compare yourself with others who seem to be further ahead, living the life you should be having.

But the mountain has no top.

Each crest simply hides another, and the genuine, heartfelt relief that comes from reaching it is soon replaced by the understanding that you didn’t arrive yet, that you have further to go. Gradually you realise that staking your life on reaching a peak that never existed isn’t what you’d bargained for.

Or – alternatively – you discover that you’re already at the top of the mountain. And that you always have been.

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Not personal

I wrote yesterday about the pitfalls inherent in taking the impersonal events of the world as personal – living as if they are out to get you.

Now, let’s come close in, to the actions of the people around you.

What about when

your children don’t tidy up their rooms,
your partner leaves the washing in the sink,
your friends don’t call on your expected schedule,
your colleagues are absorbed in a task that’s unimportant to you,
your client turns down an offer,
your boss decides priorities are different to yours,
someone cancelled your project,
someone you were relying on didn’t meet your standards or expectations?

It’s hard not to experience ourselves as the centre of our known world. Was there ever a time when you were not the person closest at hand in your life? Because of this, your tendency may be to take much more personally than is ever the case. And each time you do, the possibilities for responding intelligently, rather than reacting impulsively, close down dramatically.

Mostly, it’s not personal. Not when the train is late and not when people didn’t do what you expected. Do these affect you, often deeply? Yes. Do you have an interest in what happens next? Yes. Is this proof that everyone and everything has it in for you? Unlikely.

When you drop your insistence that it’s all about you, you’ll be able to drop your resentment, your indignation, and your need to get even. And you’ll open up a huge space for responding – creatively, powerfully, compassionately, imaginatively – a much bigger space than the one you might be thrashing about in right now.

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When it’s raining, it can sometimes feel like the rain has chosen to fall on you specifically – to mess up a plan, to ruin a day you were hoping for. But you know, even though it doesn’t feel that way, that it’s not raining on you in particularThat is to say, rain really isn’t personal.

So the same goes when there’s a traffic jam, when the cupboard door comes off its hinges, when your computer crashes before you’ve saved your work, when the train is delayed, when there’s a power cut, when the price of shares you own goes down. None of these are happening just to you.

Taking each of those events as personal does nothing to help you respond intelligently to them. In fact, it may lead you down some manifestly unhelpful paths such as raging at nearby drivers, or hitting your computer, or resenting the people around you who have no influence on the situation, or freezing in fear and paralysis. It does much to increase your suffering and to limit the courses of helpful action available to you.

The more you imagine the world is out to get you, the more you’ll rob yourself of many productive ways of responding: you’ll feel more alone, you’ll need to find someone or something to blame.

And you’ll make it harder to reach out for help from, and offer support to, all the others of us who are thrown again and again into difficulty alongside you.

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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”]

Life’s inevitable difficulty

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.