Turning Towards Life – a new and exciting conversation project

The technology available to us in our generation gives each of us an unparalleled opportunity to reach the world with our ideas and contribution. No previous generation in history has had this available to them.

I’ve been struck over recent days how remarkable this is, and how easy to take for granted.

Ideas that destroy, divide, and diminish our humanity, dignity and shared responsibility can spread as fast as those that can serve life. And so I’m starting to see that we have a responsibility, where we can, to bring our courage, generosity and gifts in service of that which could dignify, heal, and connect us. And that there’s no time to lose.

In this spirit I began today, with my friend and colleague Lizzie Winn, a freely available online conversation project hosted by thirdspace called ‘Turning Towards Life‘.

Every Sunday morning at 9am (UK) we’ll be speaking live online for about 30 minutes about a topic to do with facing life with courage, wisdom and compassion. Or, said another way, to do with how we might each come out of hiding and take up our places in the world. These are both topics I’ve been exploring here over the last four years, and are a continued source of both learning and struggle for me and I expect, most of us.

We’ll start each conversation with a source that’s inspired, moved or challenged us – a poem, article, reading, or book – and we’ll post the source on a Friday so it’s widely available before our conversation.

The best way to join us is in our new facebook group. You’ll be able to see us live there, watch previous videos, and join the conversation.

To get you started, here’s a short introduction to the project. Please join us, and join in. We’d love to have you with us.

 

Photo Credit: neil banas via Compfight cc

 

Escaping our smartphone dependency

We human beings are profoundly shaped by, and drawn out from ourselves, by the things that are around us. And the smartphones that most of us carry are purposefully designed with this in mind.

It’s no accident that we find ourselves checking and re-checking email, messages and social media, before we even know quite why. We’re drawn in by the promise of a brief, welcome surge of expectation and hope. This is going to be the moment when we’ll find out that everything is OK, or that we’re wanted, or that we’re loved. This is the moment that we’ll be saved from our anxiety.

But shortly afterwards, we feel a familiar hollowness and emptiness. The hit was but for a moment. Our devices call to us, wink at us, and buzz us with the promise. And we willingly succumb, knowing it will not satisfy us but feeling unsure about whether we can do anything about it.

We have, as Seth Godin writes, a Pavlov in our pocket. An ‘optimised, tested and polished call-and-response machine’, that works every time. And, because we’re so bewitched by its presence, will-power alone is unlikely to help us.

If we want to live lives that aren’t so directed by the insistent call and the instant dopamine hit, we have to find ways that our devices can serve us rather than having us, unwittingly, serve them. Specifically, we have to take steps to have our devices support us in what’s life-giving and in what actually matters to us rather than in what distracts us and numbs us.

To help us do this, we could consider putting the features that draw us in to the cycle far out of reach.

After finding myself increasingly unwilling to tolerate the effects of all this, I am experimenting with the steps listed below. I have found each of them to be  liberating, not least in supporting me in exercising much more conscious choice about how this powerful technology affects me. I’m less distracted. I feel less needy. 

And – I’m still reachable. I still respond to emails. I am still asked to do work for people. And I still have friends.

On my phone

  1. Turning off all phone notifications (buzzes, beeps, lock-screen messages) apart from those that come from real human beings who are trying to contact me directly. WhatsApp, messenger, phone and text notifications are on. Newsfeed updates, tweets, and anything generated by a machine are off.
  2. Removing all unnecessary social media apps. If I really want to check something, I’ll wait until I’m in front of my laptop.
  3. Disabling my phone’s email applications, and asking people who need to contact me urgently to use WhatsApp or a text message.
  4. Creating a tools-only homescreen, which has the eight apps I use for quick and important tasks, and launching all other apps by typing their names from the phone’s search function. This adds an extra layer of conscious choice making before I get access to an app.
  5. Disabling fingerprint access to my phone and using a long password so that access to my phone as a whole is a more deliberate act than before.
  6. Charging my phone outside of my bedroom, so that I am not drawn to check it when it’s time to sleep, or to assuage my anxiety if I wake in the middle of the night.

On my laptop

  1. Checking my email and social media accounts only on my laptop, which means making deliberate decisions about when and where rather than reacting in the moment.
  2. Using an inbox batching system (BatchedInbox) which delivers email to me only at three specific times of day rather than the moment it is sent, and which completely takes away any potential hit from repeatedly checking for new mail.
  3. Disabling my Facebook news feed using the Chrome browser extension News Feed Eradicator, which allows me to check messages and post updates without getting drawn in. I can still check for updates from specific people and pages when I choose, by searching for them by name or by allowing notifications from their updates.
  4. Limiting access to the sites that hypnotise me, using the StayFocusd Chrome extension. This allows me to restrict access to websites (such as news and social media specifically) to certain times of day only, to constrain my total time on them to 10 minutes each day, and to completely block others that don’t add richness and depth to my life.

I know that not all of these will suit everyone’s life, responsibilities and commitments. But I encourage you to try some of them out, particularly those that seem most doable for you, and let me know how you get on.

For more support and information on all of these, you can read Khe Hy’s article ‘I was addicted to my iPhone‘  and read more at timewellspent.io

Photo Credit: John Flinchbaugh Flickr via Compfight cc

What it takes to listen

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

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

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

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

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

Photography by Justin Wise

Seth Godin, Rojan Rajiv, William Defoe

An inspiration for my nearly three years of writing On Living and Working has been Seth Godin, who has been publishing daily for over a decade and who is such an invitation to bring our creative possibilities to the world. It was Seth’s book, The Icarus Deception, which convinced me it was time to stop imagining myself as a writer, and instead start to write. I’m extraordinarily grateful to him for that.

It’s for this reason that I’m continually interested in the work of others who take the step to share their learning and experience with us in an ongoing way – those who are prepared to risk enough to be our teachers and our guides. 

Today I want to share two such people with you.

One is Rojan Rajiv, currently an MBA student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Rojan’s Learning a Day blog is wide ranging and insightful, and I marvel at his optimism and his abundant curiosity about the world. Rojan’s commitment to teach us what he’s learning himself, and his clear, big-hearted writing, offer thought provoking, pragmatic, and often extremely useful insights. 

Another is William Defoe, whose work I’ve been following for many months now as he explores his struggles and ideas on identity, suffering, truth, sexuality, and the work of finding a home in the world when the public stories by which others know us differ profoundly from the private stories.

What William is doing, it seems to me, is an act of real generosity – describing from the inside the experience of discovering, anew, how to live. I found this recent post, on his deepening understanding of the inseparability of his mind and body, both moving and courageous, particularly when read in the light of earlier posts that recount the story of his awakening understanding of himself as a gay Catholic man inside a long-term marriage. I know there are many people in the world who’d be greatly supported by knowing that they’re not alone in the questions William is exploring.

As well as the writers above I’ve also been following educator Parker Palmer and musician Amanda Palmer (as far as I know they’re not related) who both have so much to say, in very different ways, about our tenuous, beautiful existence as human beings. 

There are of course many millions of other people doing the work of writing, exploring, and making themselves vulnerable and available – to all of our benefit – by teaching us through what and how they write. 

And as this year ends, I’m keenly aware of what a privilege it is to live in a time where it’s possible to write and share ideas and experience so freely and so widely.

Photo Credit: drubuntu via Compfight cc

What causes what?

What’s your understanding of the cause of your actions and other people’s actions?

Mostly we’ve been taught to think that it’s something within that produces what we do. We talk about motivation, or goals, or drive, or inspiration. We think of ourselves as separate from the world and that our actions and relationship to everything comes from inside us out into the world. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.

But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

We’re not as separate from the world as all that. Much of the time what’s happening is that we’re being drawn towards situations, equipment, or possibilities that we meet.

So, when there’s a chair in the room we’re drawn to sit down when we’re tired. Or when it’s time to go out of the room we’re drawn towards the door and reach for the handle, which draws us too.

This is different from the way you might think you relate to doors and chairs.

It’s not so much that before we act there’s a thinking process by which we first decide to find a door and then reach for the handle in a series of discrete steps. In the middle of everyday human life all of this just flows out of us, from the everyday familiarity and skilfulness in being in the world that we’ve embodied over a long time.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger called such features of the world that draw us out in particular ways affordances.

Being around different kinds of affordance draws us out of ourselves in different ways. Perhaps you’ll see this most clearly if you start to watch for a while what you’re drawn into – what you find yourself automatically doing, before you’ve even thought about it – in particular places.

What do the affordances of the kitchen draw you towards?
The lounge or sitting room with sofas and perhaps a TV?
A meeting room at work with a big boardroom table?
The bus-stop or the inside of a train?
A cathedral?
The waiting room for a doctor’s surgery?

If you watch for a while you’ll see that each place draws from you not just actions but a particular style of engaging with and relating to what’s around you that includes how you relate to others.  It’s all happening long before you’ve even thought about how to respond in this or that place.

This is an important topic because it shows us quickly how much place affects us and because equipment (whether paintbrushes, books, teacups or desks) and people are affordances too.

And there are huge practical consequences of this for all of us, that mostly we’re not paying attention to.

Photo Credit: emmequadro61 via Compfight cc

Where it comes from

It’s easy to relate to the objects which fill our world as if they were just there – a taken for granted, already existing feature of human life.

But the materials in everything you own or use – everything – had to either be grown by somebody or dug out of the ground first. Even the most synthetic and complex of products start out this way. Growing and mining, the source of it all.

That’s quite a thought to consider. Take any object around you, from the smallest bolt to the tallest building, and imagine back through the long and complex chain of people and interlocking processes to the raw materials that came from the earth itself.

Remembering the source of everything, and the commitment and ingenuity that makes it all possible, can be a way of cultivating deep gratitude and wonder that any of it is available to you in the first place.

These must be more possibility-filled moods than the resentment or frustration we can so readily feel at all the products that don’t work as expected, at the chaos of the world, at the sheer everyday humdrum repetitive ordinariness of things. And gratitude, for this aspect of life’s many wonders, can go a long way to awakening the sense of possibility, responsibility and focussed commitment we need in order to do our best work and inspire others.

Photo Credit: robjstanley via Compfight cc

No email in my pocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will, action, and driving on the left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Talking to ghosts

First, we had talking.

Given half a chance, we human beings can be very good at talking and listening to one another. It’s a capacity we’ve built by doing it for hundreds of thousands of years.

If we settle and quieten ourselves, if we tone down our inner chatter and impulsivity, we can  speak powerfully with one another in ways that foster deep understanding and the exploration of wide-open possibility. And we can take action together, directly and effectively, by making and responding to each others’ promises and commitments.

But our technology, to which we are so addicted, does not always help us with this.

We invented the telephone, a revolution in connectivity, opening up wide new possibilities to talk and listen with those not physically present with us.

This, at least, is synchronous. We must speak to a person who is actually there, when they are there. We have to be in conversation. We have no choice but to witness to their reactions to what we’re saying, and they to ours. Though stripped of the bodily presence of another, a conversation by phone brings us in contact with them.

But then we invented voicemail (first, the answer machine), allowing us to speak when the other person is absent.

And we invented email and text messaging, forums and Facebook and social media of many kinds, which enabled us to exchange messages more quickly and fluidly than recorded voices would allow.

And we found that we loved them.

These are asynchronous technologies. They afford us the possibility of speaking and listening without the other’s simultaneous presence. And we like this because leaving messages feels much less risky, much less exposing, much safer than the delicate work of speaking with another live human being with emotions and reactions, thoughts and judgements, cares and commitments.

We get to speak without having to be vulnerable.

And, because we like this feeling of safety more than we will admit, today we drown under a deluge of messages. We spend our time interacting with ghosts – distant others who are not there to feel or hear what we have to say. We do not even have to speak. And, most importantly, we are spared feeling or experiencing others’ reactions to us.

We say this drowning is ‘just how it is’, but fail to see that we’re making a choice. A choice to stay secure behind our machines. A choice to accept a flood of disembodied words at the expense of the shakiness and power of speaking directly to other people.

We’ve made the world this way, and it’s killing us.

But we can do something about it because, first, we had talking.

And we still have it, if we would choose to turn towards one another.

Because given half a chance, we human beings can be very good at talking, and listening. It’s a capacity we’ve built already by doing it, very well, for hundreds of thousands of years.

Photo Credit: Nathan T. Baker via Compfight cc

Waiting

I’m waiting for some friends to pick me up in their car.

All around me, people are coming and going on errands, on their way to meet friends or loved ones or business acquaintances. Some are hurrying, others earnest, some struggling with the pain of simple movement. Seagulls are calling. There’s a distinctive fresh salty tang to the air. The sun is low, soft-edged, orange-yellow in the late afternoon sky.

But I miss all of it. Because a small device in my pocket, bevel-edged and glassy, has grabbed my attention. I’m enchanted, responding to emails, checking for news that I’m wanted and needed, feeling the weight and promise of everything I’ve offered to do for myself and for others.

And I’m at least a little afraid of what I’ll feel if I put this down.

Wherever I am I always have something to do. I’m defined by my doing, my to-do, my not-yet-done. I become, always, some form of producer or some form of consumer.

And, because of this, I no longer know so much about the art of waiting.

I am rarely freed, rarely cut loose to fall into the depths of my own longing, my confusion, my boredom, or my simple capacity to wonder at all that is around me.

Photo Credit: waferboard via Compfight cc

 

How it begins

For the past few days, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I have been republishing favourite posts from the first year of On Living and Working.
To conclude this series, here the very first post, where it all began.

This is the Olduvai hand axe. It sits in a far corner of the British Museum, nestled among artifacts from earliest human history. It’s around 1.2 million years old. It’s strikingly beautiful. And it marks the beginning of the distinctively human practices of tool-making and art that lead directly to what you’ll find here.

Hand axes are among the first great inventions of humanity, and probably came into being at the dawn of the development of both language and culture. They made it possible for the first time for people to cut with skill and precision, and would have opened up the possibility of turning animal skins and wood into products that went far beyond the immediate need for food.

They mark the moment when we extended ourselves from living in the world as it is to actively and consciously shaping it, when we first began to create the complex web of tools, words, work and culture that – a million or so years later – could bring about the society of today.

Millions of hand axes have been discovered around the world, but what makes the Olduvai axe so striking is that it’s much bigger than can be comfortably held in the hand. Its size renders it unusable for most purposes. In all other respects it’s a perfect tool – beautifully balanced, sharp-edged, symmetrical – the result of many hours of skilled and careful labour. But it’s also a work of art, with a purpose that is a much symbolic as practical, an expression of the artfulness of its maker. That it was made at all reflects the human concern for beauty, for creativity and ingenuity, and for expression. And it’s deeply entwined with the practical world of making and doing, the work of providing for a life well lived.

The industrial age of the 20th century taught us that efficiency and predictability were to be prized above all else. Big organisations, mass production, standardisation all became possible. But the rise in living standards this brought still left many people’s experience of life flat, mundane. When we’ve tired of climbing the ladder or pursuing status, we find that living fully, fiercely, artfully and courageously are needed to lift us beyond the ordinary into the life and work from which we can make our fullest contribution. The Olduvai hand axe, from the dawn of our history, is a reminder of this – and the inspiration for everything that follows.

Affordances

What’s your understanding of the source of your actions and other people’s actions?

Mostly we’ve been taught to think that it’s something within that produces what we do. We talk about motivation, or goals, or drive, or inspiration. We think of ourselves as separate from the world and that our actions and relationship to everything comes from inside us out into the world. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.

But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

One of the important contributions of the work of Martin Heidegger last century was to show that we’re not as separate from the world as all that. Much of the time what’s happening is that we’re being drawn towards situations, equipment, or possibilities that we meet.

So, when there’s a chair in the room we’re drawn to sit down when we’re tired. Or when it’s time to go out of the room we’re drawn towards the door and reach for the handle, which draws us too.

This is different from the way you might think you relate to doors and chairs.

It’s not so much that before we act there’s a thinking process by which we first decide to find a door and then reach for the handle in a series of discrete steps. In the middle of everyday human life all of this just flows out of us, from the everyday familiarity and skilfulness in being in the world that we’ve embodied over a long time.

Heidegger called such features of the world that draw us out in particular ways affordances.

Being around different kinds of affordance draws us out of ourselves in different ways. Perhaps you’ll see this most clearly if you start to watch for a while what you’re drawn into – what you find yourself automatically doing, before you’ve even thought about it – in particular places.

What do the affordances of the kitchen draw you towards?
The lounge or sitting room with sofas and perhaps a TV?
A meeting room at work with a big boardroom table?
The bus-stop or the inside of a train?
A cathedral?
The waiting room for a doctor’s surgery?

If you watch for a while you’ll see that each place draws from you not just actions but a particular style of engaging with and relating to what’s around you that includes how you relate to others.  It’s all happening long before you’ve even thought about how to respond in this or that place.

This is an important topic because it shows us quickly how much place affects us.

There’ll be more to say about this over the coming days because equipment (whether paintbrushes, books, teacups or smartphones) and people are affordances too. And there are huge practical consequences of this for all of us, that mostly we’re not paying attention to.

Photo Credit: mx2-foto via Compfight cc

Our longing for reassurance

I’ve written before about my sense that what we’re doing, in our incessant and habitual checking of our devices, is looking for reassurance.

For many of us, it’s a way of settling the restless, anxious, fearful longing that arises from a world that’s always shifting and from the sense that there’s nowhere solid to stand.

Rather than turn towards the longing, to explore it and know it and be changed by it, we numb it by turning away into our devices. Perhaps, we think, we’ll see the message or news item or tweet that will show us everything is alright, that we don’t need to feel so afraid or uncertain any more.

And, of course, such a message can never come. The momentary soothing of our jitteriness is soon over, and we reach impulsively again for a glowing screen that we hope can save us.

I saw this short film for the first time this week. It shows us clearly what we’re doing, and some of the consequences.

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

Talk not mail

Do you think it’s possible that your daily commitment to respond to all your emails simply invites other people to send more to you?

And that what you’re doing is adding to the email madness that many people’s lives have become?

What would happen if you put some of this down and became a stand for talking to people instead?

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Waiting to be saved

It seems more and more to me, as I watch myself and others, that the source of our endless checking of email, Facebook, twitter and all is that we’re secretly hoping to be saved.

Seeing this first requires admitting how lost many of us feel so much of the time. There really is very little solidity to stand on in the world. Everything changes so fast. We have to navigate through boundless complexity, of which we understand only a fragment. And everything we know and care for can be taken away in an instant.

So there’s a part of us that is longing for the moment when someone bigger and more solid than us will show up to show us the way, to tell us that everything is going to be ok, to soften and soothe our racing thoughts and secretly pounding, anguished hearts. And wishing for this is not so surprising or unusual: anyone who had caring adults around them when they were small will have visceral memories of just this happening when the world got too big for them.

Perhaps that’s the secret promise we’re holding out for in our email and social media – that in among all the updates will be the message from beyond which will at last, conclusively, set the world straight again, and release us from our fear.

So we check, soothed momentarily by our hopefulness. But the message we longed for is not there. We check again, and again. Each time, for a few seconds, the anxiety abates. And we get addicted to this fragmentary feeling of safety.

Weaning us off our addiction requires each of us to let go of the saviour myth and, ultimately, let go of needing to feel safe all the time.

Then we can face the weird and incomprehensible world in its fullness, and feel it all without the need for a glowing prop to see us through.

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The habits that diminish you

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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Enchanted

Does the way you use technology send you to sleep or awaken you to life?

It’s not a trivial question. Despite the extraordinary life-giving capacity of the devices that surround us to liberate us, to educate us, to connect us to one another, many of us use them to numb ourselves, to soothe ourselves, to prevent us from the risky and rewarding act of being in contact with ourselves, in contact with our fears, and in contact with others.

We’ve become enchanted. It’s not so different from the enchantments in the old fairy stories, in which a prince or princess would fall asleep to life until awakened by a kiss.

When you look back at the hours scrolling through facebook posts and cruising YouTube clips, your incessant checking of your email, the evenings carried away by whatever happened to be on TV, what will it amount to?

More importantly, does what you’re doing actually address the concerns you’re numbing yourself to by being enchanted in this way?

And what will it take for you to feel the awakening kiss that life is already and always in the midst of giving you?

What are you running from?

Most of the time we’re running, doing whatever we can to avoid experiencing the anxiety and fear that are an inevitable part of living. 

Do you really need to check your emails on the train, at the bus stop, while we’re talking, in the bathroom, as you’re about to begin a new project, instead of calling me, when you get home, while you’re putting the children to bed? Is reading the latest tweet or news headline as important as you make it out to be? Or are you just numbing yourself, falling into the soft reassuring glow of the screen, longing for the message that will soothe you, save you, make everything alright again?

Over time, your habits of disconnection render the world a shadow of itself, dull your relationships, and blunt the sharp sword of your contribution. It might not look like it, but given enough repetition you really do become what you do.

Is your habit of distracting yourself actually supporting you in being the kind of person you want to be?