A billion miles

It’s a small shift, but a potentially profound one.

What if you choose to see what you’re in the middle of right now from the point of view of a year ahead? Or ten years? Or a hundred?

Or if you were to watch this moment in life from the viewpoint of the moon? Or from the far edge of the galaxy?

From here, what changes?

Do your worries and fears have the same hold?
Do the same things seem important?
From what are you freed?
What’s called for, now?

Sometimes, we need the perspective of a billion miles and an aeon in time to see what we’ve got caught up in that’s trivial. And that what really matters is quite different from what we’ve taken it to be.

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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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Turning Towards Life – Days Are Numbered

The first conversation in the thirdspace Turning Towards Life project with Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn went live on Sunday October 1st. Lizzie and I took up the questions and possibilities posed in my post ‘Numbered‘, which Justin wrote in 2015 in response to the imminent death of a dear friend and teacher.

Our wide-ranging conversation covers living truthfully with the knowledge that life is finite, bringing ourselves wholeheartedly and courageously, and what it is to not turn away.

Recordings of all the conversations will be posted here week by week, and available under the new ‘Video‘ tab on justinwise.co.uk.

And the very best way to interact with what we’re bringing is to join our FaceBook ‘Turning Towards Life’ group, which allows you to see us live on Sundays at 9am and to be part of the conversation.

Hubert Dreyfus 1929-2017

A treasured teacher of mine, Hubert Dreyfus, died this week.

I never met him in person. But his undergraduate course on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, given at the University of California at Berkeley and made available online, deeply inspired me.

Dreyfus was professor at Berkeley from 1968, after tenures at Brandeis and MIT, and was probably the most important interpreter of Heidegger we’ve known in the English language. He took what might otherwise be considered a confusing, marginal work and explained what he came to see through it with clarity, elegance, good humour and no shortage of critical thinking.

Through Dreyfus a deep and more humane understanding of what it is to be human has been made available to us. His work has had impact on many fields – medicine, therapy, education, anthropology, sociology, computer science and, I can say with gratitude, the particular field of coaching and adult development which has been a central project of my own life these last 12 years.

What I appreciate most, though, about Hubert Dreyfus is the love of teaching and learning of which he was an expression. In the recordings of his 2007 lecture course (which, for quite some while, was among the most popular available on iTunes University) it’s clear that this was not a man who had settled on a rigid understanding of his field, nor someone who considered himself ‘done’. Even after 30 or so years of studying and teaching Heidegger’s work, the lectures show him questioning himself with both wonder and joy, revising his understanding as he goes, being honest about what still mystified him and – most importantly – learning from his students. In the lecture that I love the most a student’s question leads him to decides he’s misunderstood a central principle in Heidegger’s work for decades. Hearing him revise his understanding mid-lecture is simply thrilling to hear.

According to his colleague, Sean Kelly, Dreyfus was committed to the profoundly risky and courageous project of only teaching what he did not yet understand. He clearly saw that teaching and learning are not separate activities.  In his hands, as you’ll hear if you ever take the opportunity to listen or if you watch him in the lovely documentary Being in the World, teaching was an opportunity to bring all of himself and to invite us to bring all of ourselves to our endeavours too. It was an opportunity to be alive together.

So it’s no wonder that his lectures were often full to capacity. It’s rare in our culture to find a teacher who could combine such wisdom with such love, and who was so open to being changed and brought to life by his students and by the subject he was teaching.

A narrow bridge

Once again the feeling in my body is as it was the day after the UK referendum. Fear, and deep disappointment, and many imaginings (some wild, some not) about what is going to happen.

So I have spent the morning walking, among tall trees and beside water. It’s a practice that I rely on most to restore me to a sense of myself, and to a sense of my own capacity. And I’ve come to see (to be reminded, for I have seen this and forgotten this repeatedly) that there are at least two kinds of fear at play here.

The first is fear for the world – in this instance what will come of electing to high office (and military command) a man who has done so much to inflame tensions, to foster hate and distrust, to demonise anyone who is ‘other’. And the second fear is fear of myself – fear that I will not be able to respond, fear that I will not know what to do, fear that I will be overwhelmed.

Seeing that makes it all the more important, I think, that I learn to be good at feeling fear (because fear is always a reminder of what is at stake and there is so much at stake here) rather than being ruled by it, and that I keep on learning to be good at finding my own capacity, and courage, and hope.

Or, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said over two centuries ago about the world and what’s called for:

All the world is a very narrow bridge.
The most important thing is not to fear at all.

Whatever will come now will come in large part because of what many people decide to do. Small actions, taken with others, become big actions. And this is going to mean many of us waking up, stepping outside the small horizon of our immediate concerns, and doing things. Actually doing things, rather than talking about it or hoping someone else will do something. It will mean actively helping one another, helping others beyond our circle, taking a stand every single time we encounter injustice or indignity or bigotry in politics or home or work, teaching ourselves, writing, speaking up, teaching each other, making art, asking big questions, thinking and feeling deeply.

There is another Jewish principle that I think can be illuminating here – that of tikkun olam, or repair of the world. The premise? That the world is incomplete, broken, and has been for longer than any of us can remember. That it can be repaired, by our day to day actions, or neglected, in which case the tear in the fabric of the world increases. That repair is possible.

It is this last part that I find so resonant today – just because so much is broken gives us no excuse to give up.

Indeed it may well be the case that the rise of hate, disdain, ridicule, indignity, violence and indifference in the world is always an opportunity to learn how to better ourselves if we choose – how to be more adult, how to be less narcissistic in our concerns, how to become more active, compassionate, wise, organised, connected to one another and impassioned about life.

I think we have an urgent responsibility to take up the practices that will have us be that in our homes, in our organisations, and in the wider world. And I think this can rightly be a cause for immense hope.

And I am sure that we have to start, right away.

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Humanities

It’s not just that fear is easy, that it makes us feel important, and that it sells.

When it’s unaddressed it also turns us away from our humanity.

When our society turns to fear as the background mood, the humanities themselves come under such assault. We’re turning away from the study of literature and poetry, art and philosophy, music, language and culture as ends in themselves. When we’re afraid and in denial about our fear, as so many of us are, we want just that which will demonstrably help us go faster, complete more, make the money, hit the targets, beat the competition, keep out the outsider, make us feel safe.

The humanities do none of those, at least not in obvious ways. They won’t settle, or soothe, or rush us into action. They’ll take their time. They’ll trouble us, stir us, have us ask bigger and deeper questions than we’re asking. They’ll open the horizon and the wide sky, connecting us with the wisdom and humanity of those who have come before (who may have a thing or two to teach us about our current circumstances), making us feel our vulnerability and possibility, opening us to others, inspiring us, and reminding us what a store of depth and capacity we human beings have to respond to life. This is the very depth and capacity which, as Marilynne Robinson writes in her latest book, might well be ‘the most wonderful thing in the world, very probably the most wonderful thing in the universe’.

When we turn away from the humanities as a serious path, and allow ourselves to be possessed by our fear, we reduce ourselves in profound ways. And, when our democracies and our organisations turn this way, we lose the very thing that makes both democracy and organising together work: our trust in the capacity and dignity of the other human beings with whom we share the places in which we live.

The humanities teach us how vital, how possible, it is to live and work with other people even when we disagree – and how much we must be prepared to learn from others, both those living now and those long gone, if the world is to be bigger, and better, than that tiny and narrowing patch of land we each defend at all costs simply because it’s the only remaining patch of land on which we don’t feel afraid.

The end of things

Walking among tall oaks in London’s Hyde Park, my thoughts turn towards the end of things. Leaves are falling, their curled crisp edges crunching beneath my boots. There are still many trees clothed in green. The end of this will come soon, I can see, leaving the dark shape of curling branches clear against the sky.

One day, each of these trees, too, will be gone.

It is a relief to know that this is how it is. That things come to an end. Quite naturally. Quite ordinarily. And that it is true for us too.

How many mornings I have awoken with such deep lonely sadness at all this. That I will lose myself. That I will lose all of my faculties. That I will lose everyone I love, and they will lose all this too. That all this has already begun.

But here, among the trees, I am gladdened. Losing it all is not my fate alone. It is not a gross unfairness visited upon me. It is not something I always need to mourn. It is the way of life, and always has been. It is the condition of humanity, and always will be.

I am joined in this path by every living thing that has ever existed, and every living thing that will exist. I am unified with all of life, indivisible from it.

Yes, deep sadness at how all of this ends has its place, reminding me how I long to live and how much there is to lose. But equally appropriate is joy, and wonder, exhilaration and radical amazement that any of this is happening. That I get to take part. That I am, for now, here.

My heart quickens and my eyes widen at the beauty and fragility of life, at its preciousness, at how fleeting it is. I see that there is no time to waste. There is so much to do, so much I can do. Whatever contribution I am here to make, now is the time. Every moment until now has been preparation for this. Every moment to come, however many or few, calls with the promise and possibility of participation in life’s grand, beautiful, tragic, surprising, endlessly creative unfolding.

It is time, as it always is, to begin.

Stories

We can’t help it. We’re sense-making beings, us humans. And so you and I are always living our lives from a sense of story.

The story profoundly shapes our interactions with other people, and with ourselves. Watch how you’d relate to your sister, your colleagues, from the narrative of ‘the burdened one’ – the one who has been handed too much to carry, and who can’t find any place to put it down. See how much busyness it breeds, how little time to rest, how much resentment, how much of a sense of being in life alone.

And see how differently you’d encounter all of life from the narrative of ‘a healer’ – the one whose responsibility it is to heal herself by taking care of her own body, mind and heart so she can take care of others. Or ‘a painter’ – looking for the hidden light and beauty in everything. Or ‘a bestower of blessings’. Or even ‘an ordinary person’.

The stories we’re living seem so compelling, so true, especially as they seem to account so coherently for everything that’s happening. But any story is only one out of many possibilities, and each story conceals much even as it reveals.

And so it’s important to ask ourselves what other stories we could imagine, particularly those that would bring forward our virtues – patience, kindness, courage, imagination, integrity, compassion, love, commitment, steadfastness, playfulness – qualities that allow us to meet the world more generously, more creatively, and let more of life through.

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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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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

The limits of happiness

This being human is a guesthouse, writes Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the 13th century Persian poet. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

I think Rumi’s right. To be human is to be visited by a stream of experiences, each arising and fading away after the other in a mysterious succession. We know only a little about how to influence the stream. Sometimes we find ourselves able to direct its course by being with certain people, or taking up certain activities, or by being in a place resonant with beauty or with memory. And we can sometimes influence the stream by trying to block it – holding on to sadness, or resentment, or anger through the stories we tell ourselves about life.

But, mostly, to be human is to have a stream coursing through us that arises of its own accord, without our volition. And when we seek to constrain the movement of the stream so that it consistently feels a particular way we also end up having to constrain some portion of our aliveness and freedom. Our fullest humanity comes when, as Rumi recommends, we learn to meet all our experiences at the door laughing, and invite them in. 

Each year, as I experience ongoing rivers of sadness, joy, tenderness, rage, sorrow, fear, longing, love, satisfaction, frustration, deep confusion and hopefulness that flow through me, Rumi’s advice seems more necessary, and more true. And it seems no more passing mood gets me in more trouble than the expectation of happiness. When happiness is the standard, almost anything else falls short. When I imagine that happy is the way I should most often feel, I can twist myself into all kinds of knots trying to bring it about, and invest myself in all kinds of comparisons, and standards, and unforgiving judgements about the life I’m already living. I can imagine that others have found the key to happiness – that they have it in a way that I don’t. And I have found out how easily I can end up narrowing my life in its pursuit, pushing away or disapproving of many other kinds of experience that arise, quite naturally, in day to day living.

Let me be clear – I think happiness is wonderful, and I love to feel it. And I’m also saying that I think there is a trap in making it life’s primary purpose, and in thinking that it’s even possible to cling onto it without in one way or another narrowing ourselves. Because happiness is just one of Rumi’s visitors, destined to be followed by all kinds of other experiences in any life that is allowed to breathe. And also because we ourselves are changing all the time, so that many of our attempts to generate future happiness are deeply flawed. The person we’ll be when the time comes for the happiness we’ve longed for to arrive will be different in so many ways, and may feel happy about different things, than the person who is making future happiness plans today.

So if happiness is transient, and if chasing it can so easily diminish us, what is worth pursuing? I think the answer almost certainly lies not in trying to feel a certain way but in the purposeful cultivation of what the ancient Greeks called the virtues – those capacities and qualities that allow us human beings to live in meaningful, vibrant, engaged ways, whatever our circumstances. There’s a wide freedom and much possibility in cultivating integrity, goodness, kindness, creativity, connectedness, flexibility, forgiveness, devotion, gratitude, resoluteness, intimacy, patience, truthfulness, warmth or wisdom, to name just a few.

Each of these virtues can be nurtured in an ongoing way through our everyday practices of speaking, listening, working, making, resting and expressing. Each may bring us happiness, yes, some of the time. And each may sometimes bring disappointment or frustration, or any other of Rumi’s guests. But it’s also the case that each of the virtues, if we’ll be disciplined enough to work on them and to attend to them, can also bring us deep opportunities for meaningful engagement with life, for belonging, and for contribution, whether we’re feeling happy, or sad, or despairing, or whatever else comes our way.

Photograph by Justin Wise

Poetry of the Storm

storm

Yes, there might well be a storm brewing. An economic storm. A social storm. A storm which will call on us to rethink ourselves, to undo ideas and categories we’ve become attached to. A storm that will at times have us be afraid. That will sometimes throw us apart from one another and at other times bring us in close.

We’re probably already in the storm.

In one way or another we’ve always been in it, even when life seemed calmer, more straightforward. Even when we were turned in the other direction.

It’s easy to understand the upending energy of the storm as an entirely negative or malevolent force. But as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in The Man Watching, the more turbulent and uncertain times in our lives are precisely when our concepts and sense of ourselves are most open to being reconfigured. In the storm, that which we thought had a solid name can become un-named, and from here we can find better names – more accurate, more compassionate, more useful – for what’s around us. And in learning that we are not omnipotent, in some sense by being defeated by the storm, there’s the possibility that we emerge limping but strengthened, more in touch with our essential qualities, capacities and inherent goodness.

Mary Oliver’s poem Hurricane concurs. When we find we can’t control the world any longer (could we ever?) it can feel as if the leaves are being stripped from the trees, as if all we know is bending. The back of the hand to everything. But it’s so often the case that if we turn towards what needs doing, if we turn towards one another, and if we tend to things, then the leaf-stripped trees push out their tiny buds even in the wrong season. They may look ‘like telephone poles’, as Oliver says, but they really don’t care. And after the leaves come blossoms. For some things there are no wrong seasons.

We can get so afraid facing the unknown not because we don’t know what will happen but because we are secretly sure we do know what will happen. The world will be worse. We will be unable to cope. That’s an under-interpretation of current events right when creative over-interpretation is called for. When we’re sure how things will go, and paralysed by our certainty, we need abundance of stories about what the future might hold and who we could be in it.

And Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems are a wonderful place to start.

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Messiness

We like to think we’re over messiness. Done with it.

That the world – our families, the organisations we work in, found, lead – can be ordered by the sharpness of our reason, by the power of our technology, by our sophistication, categorisation, and strength.

That all disorderliness will be excised. That the world will bend to meet our will. That change – in ourselves, in others – will happen on our schedule, to our specifications. Like the world is a machine. Like we are too.

And when it does not happen – when the mess of it all seeps between the lines, bulges out around the edges of our spreadsheets and to-do lists, whips the corners of our carefully planned timetables and calendars, unravels our hard-planned goals – we think someone must be to blame.

We blame others, fuelling our frustration that they don’t get it, won’t get with the programme, won’t make themselves into the image we have for them.

We blame ourselves, turning the blade of self-doubt and of self-criticism. If the world can’t be kept to order then we must not be trying hard enough. So we redouble our efforts – the inner wheel of perfectionism, the outer wheel of agitation. We tighten the armour across our hearts another notch. And we feel our bodies grip as the mess spills out behind us, just when we’re not looking.

And what we’ve missed in all this is that messiness is inevitable. Messiness is the underpinning of the world. Messiness is life’s sacred heart. Messiness is the only way this crazy mix of quarks and protons, atoms and molecules, people and conversations, firing neurons and imagination, poetry, pulsing blood, falling rain, money, children being born, ethernets, tumbling rising markets, music, dust, pencils, love and egg-shells can be.

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What’s needed

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
David W Orr

This morning I simply want to share this with you, a quote from David Orr, who thinks and writes deeply about design as the primary activity of human beings, and about how the way in which we think about design profoundly affects our engagement with the wider world of which we’re a part, how we educate ourselves and our children, and how we live.

I’m so glad to have come across his work for the first time this week, particularly as what he says here expresses so clearly what I’ve become committed to in the coaching work that I do, what I’m teaching when I teach others to be coaches, and what the organisation development projects I get involved in are really for.

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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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Decades

I start my 47th year of life today. Around 160 years ago (less than four of my current life spans laid end-to-end) a full third of my contemporaries would already have reached the end of their lives, and less than half of us could have expected to live beyond our late 50s (see source [1] below).

Today, at least in the UK, two-thirds of us will live into our late seventies and many into our eighties. What a blessing, if we’ll choose to appreciate it while we can. And what possibilities, if we’ll find a way to use our chances of vastly extended life in service of those around us and those yet to come.

Readers of my work here will know of my interest in ongoing adult development, which takes place through marked increases in our capacity to make sense of the world, to inhabit longer time horizons (knowing ourselves as inheritors of a deep past and contributors towards a long future), to be less ‘had’ by impulsivity and narcissism, to understand the world of others, to exercise more autonomy, and to take action in systems and contexts which are bigger than our own immediate concerns [2].

Such development is very natural, if the opportunities come our way and if we’re courageous enough and have enough support to take them. But it is quite different from the rote-learning, keeping up appearances, and getting ahead that so many of us are taught at school and in our workplaces. It typically requires facing into difficulty rather than turning away, welcoming back the parts of ourselves that we’ve disowned, failing and falling and getting back up again. It’s not served by looking good, or knowing the facts, or keeping it all together, or learning just what’s comfortable and familiar, or comparing ourselves with others.

And it’s probably the most important work we can do with the gift of these extra decades, if we’re lucky enough to have them. Because the world faces challenges of a complexity our ordinary way of speaking, thinking, acting and relating to one another are often ill-equipped to face. And perhaps we have been given these decades – through the long slow evolution of human beings as a species – precisely so that we can work on the problems our shorter-lived ancestors never got the chance to tackle.

References:

[1] Modal Age at Death: Mortality Trends in England and Wales 1841-2010, monograph available for download here
[2] In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan and Changing on the Job, Jennifer Garvey Berger

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The slavery of freedom

How important it is to discover that often it’s our very fixation with freedom that most enslaves us.

We easily think that we’re most free when we can choose whatever we want, whenever we want. Or when we’re free of binding, lasting ties (anything we can’t get out of when we choose).

But one of the defining qualities of our humanity is our capacity to care, deeply, about things. Care always implies commitment, and always implies dedication. How much can we say we care about anything or anyone if we can leave them behind when the whim takes us?

It’s a paradox, for sure. Our freedom to be completely free holds us back from dedicating ourselves. And the very act of narrowing our options, of choosing what we’ll commit to and what we won’t, opens up the widest freedom to participate in the life that’s in front of us.

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Still

Who can by stillness, little by little
make what is troubled grow clear?
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

So often, faced with a difficulty, a confusion, a blow to our expectations, we dive into activity. There must be a way, we tell ourselves, to resolve this. We have to do something.

Now.

So often this move into moving comes from fear. That we’ll be powerless. That we’ll be shown to be inadequate. That this event will change us, and we don’t want to be changed.

Such an anxious, frantic move is familiar habit for many of us in organisations, where motionlessness is seen as akin to death. And where the stillness it takes to clarify our troubles is considered an abdication of responsibility rather than an act of deep care and wisdom.

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Opening

As Mark Nepo points out, trying to bend the world to my own shape is not only exhausting and painful, it’s also ultimately self-defeating. The world is much too big, too mysterious, too deep to be shifted in this way. And it is an act of grandiosity – of trying to making myself into a god – to imagine that I can force life to be just the way I want it.

But this is not a cause for despair, because there is another way to meet the world. Instead of trying to make life like me, I can work on allowing myself to be like life. This means giving up trying to have the world be an imprint of my preferences and my wishes, and instead opening myself so I can include more and more of the world within me. In this way, development happens very naturally.

And the more of the world I can open to – the more people I can open to – the wider the possibility of responding to life not with frustration or resentment, but with acceptance, and grace, and wisdom and compassion. And there’s more of a possibility of also doing what’s really called for, rather than what would make me feel better, safer, or more self-satisfied.

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Questioning our stories

Given that we are the only creatures (that we know of) that can tell stories about ourselves;

and given that we live bound up in the stories we tell;

and given that stories of any kind can be more or less truthful, more or less kind, more or less generous, more or less creative, more or less freeing of our enormous potential…

… given all of this, don’t we have a profound responsibility to question the stories we were handed? To not just take things ‘as they are’?

And to actively find – and consciously live by – the most truthful, kind, generous, creative, possibility-freeing stories about ourselves, about others, and about life that we can?

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Learning again how to trust ourselves

Rene Descartes’ method for discovering what’s true starts with a bold and radical move – distrust everything until it can be proven. It’s not hard to see how powerful a way this is to cut through superstition and confusion. By starting from first principles, and using step-by-step logic, he gives us a way to prove things for ourselves, doing away with our need to rely on anyone else’s claims.

In order to make the method work, it’s necessary to start with one thing that can be assumed to be true without proof – and for Descartes it was that he was thinking. Hence cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’. The one thing I can be sure of is that I’m thinking, because here I am, thinking it! And in this move, he both makes his method possible and sets up the condition of our society ever since.

Without this we may never have lifted ourselves beyond the confusion of Descartes’ times. But when we take Cartesianism to be the only way to relate to the world (a project at which our education system is very effective) we quickly become estranged from ourselves. Our bodies, emotions, our subjective experience, and the experience of others are all to be doubted, or considered irrelevant. Even the existence of others is something we can no longer take for granted without proof (and conclusively proving this everyday, common-sense aspect of our experience turns out to be extraordinarily difficult in the Cartesian paradigm). Though we often don’t know it, we’re deeply educated in and profoundly conditioned by the Cartesian principle that thinking is paramount and that everything else is to be distrusted.

The consequence? We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.

We don’t know how to trust what’s true in the senses of our bodies (we’ve often barely learned how to pay attention to this at all). We don’t trust the felt-sense of situations, and we don’t know how to tell what action to action take when we feel distorted, disjointed, incongruent, afraid. We don’t trust what we love. And we don’t know how to listen deeply to the longing and song of our hearts.

We’ve become experts at distancing ourselves from ourselves. And because we can’t feel what’s happening to us we launch ourselves into many projects – in our work and in our private lives – that harm us, and harm others, and harm the planet. We justify our actions, if we’re prepared to justify them at all, as ‘reason’ or ‘business’ or ‘productivity’ or ‘best practice’ or ‘getting ahead’.

We need the cold, sharp blade of the Cartesian method as much as we ever did. But if we want to create lives and a world in which we can thrive, a world which brings about wisdom and beauty as well as truth, it’s time to learn how to feel things again. And it’s time to teach ourselves and our children once more about the discernment and understanding of the world that comes not just from the sharpness of our minds, but from the intelligence of our bodies and the sensitivity of our hearts.

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Subjective, Objective

René Descartes’ method gave us a way to find truth by making a clear distinction between subjectivity and objectivity.

Subjectivity, the particular way of looking at the world that is unique to each of us, is to be roundly distrusted because of the way it distorts understanding: introducing errors of judgement, errors of perspective, and the errors that come from being confused by our emotions, bodily sensations, commitments and desires.

Objectivity, the way of looking at the world that comes from dispassionately observing and measuring the properties of things, can be trusted – as long as careful observations are made and conclusions formed by the step-by-step application of tried and tested methods of reason and logic.

By restricting what we take to be true to that which can be found in the objective and logical realm, Descartes gave us a powerful way of establishing truths that had previously eluded us. No longer did we have to believe that flames go upwards because it is of the essential nature of fire to rise above other kinds of matter, and no longer did we have to believe that the sun and stars went around the earth because it is the essential nature of human beings to be the centre of things. We could observe, and test, and reason and conclude, establishing cause and effect relationships free from superstition and free from prejudice.

It was a world-changing shift of perspective that moved reason to the centre after centuries during which it had been in the margins. At the same time, it established mathematics and physics as the central sciences. Mathematics took up a particular specialness because of its power to explain and predict without recourse to any subjectivity or, indeed, any need to rely even upon the physical, objective world in order to do its work.

It’s hard for those of us who have grown up in the world ushered in by Descartes and his enlightenment contemporaries to see what a radical change this was, so schooled have we been in its assumptions and its way of looking at things. But we can see it in the way we go about science and proof, in the way we look for particular kinds of facts or measurements before we’ll take something as true, in the way we make ‘objective’ more important or valid than ‘subjective’, and in the explosion of science and technology in our era. There’s no doubt that our world would be radically different, and in so many ways vastly impoverished, without our having taken up reason as the central project of the last few hundred years.

But I think it’s worth asking questions about where we have taken Descartes’ project too far. We routinely rely on it to produce truth in fields where its methods and its insistence on discarding the subjective lead us to look in a narrow way and can direct us into all kinds of confusion. How we educate our children and ourselves, and about what, working together in organisations, pursuing what’s meaningful rather than what’s simply useful, being in relationship, loving others, community, art – each of these are among the fields where the subjective, where our experience of things, is central, and no recourse to a subjectivity-free objectivity can hope to show us much. And reason, while vital in establishing truth (I would not want to do without it!) cannot help us alone with two other important human projects – beauty and goodness – both of which are vital if we are to have flourishing and ethical institutions, politics, education and organisations.

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Reason and truth

Over the past few weeks I have been reading, and very much enjoying, Rene Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’, a book he wrote in the early 17th century with the intention of cutting through the confusion of the times in which he lived.

Insight into the genuine nature of things, Descartes said, had become so hidden behind layers of superstition and dogma that even the most intelligent and sharp thinking people of his generation were muddled and incoherent. It rightly bothered him that wisdom was so hard to find, and that attempts to establish a more solid basis for truth about the world were rewarded with punishment and scorn. He was keenly aware that his contemporary, Galileo Galilei, had been condemned and imprisoned by the Church for showing that the earth revolved around the sun and that human beings, contrary to dogma, were not the centre of the universe. And he became committed to laying out a new way of understanding the world that could influence the very people who held the newly emerging sciences in such contempt.

Reading Descartes is illuminating. He is warm, witty, playful and extraordinarily clear. And, throughout, he painstakingly describes a powerful method for arriving at truth that cuts through misunderstanding, prejudice and confusion. In many ways his method is simple. Doubt everything and only take as true that which you can prove by stepwise logical reasoning from first principles. Distrust your own judgements. Distrust your heart and emotions. Distrust your body. Distrust all of your experience of the world. Start with the only thing that you can really know – that you exist and that you are thinking – and rebuild the world from there, rigorous careful step by rigorous careful step.

The genius of Descartes’ work is that it works. By doubting all that we take for granted, and by establishing a method by which we can observe the world and prove things from it, he cut through centuries of irrationality and provided a firm basis for the sciences that have revolutionised the world in which we live. And not only is his method robust, reliable and truthful, in principle it can be learned by anybody.

No longer was it necessary to believe something simply because someone else told us to believe it. With the Cartesian method we could find out for ourselves that something was true. Or we could ask those making a claim to show us the steps they’d taken in claiming it. And so as well as establishing a new way of generating truth about the world, he democratised it, taking it out of the hands of those with power and giving it to all of us. The explosion of creativity and insight in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and the computational sciences that followed have transformed every aspect of the world – what we can make, what we can understand, what we can do, and what we make of ourselves and our place in the universe.

While there are many limits to the Cartesian way of looking at things, which I’ll get to another time, his plea for rigour and clear thinking strikes me as incredibly important at times like these when there is such polarisation, superstition, uncertainty and manipulation in our public discourse, our media and our politics. Descartes reminds us that there is a much firmer basis for our decisions than how we happen to be feeling in the moment, than our prejudices and fears, and than the stories about ourselves and others we were handed.

He reminds us that in many aspects of human life, doubting is a helpful and necessary orientation. And that there’s no substitute for looking closely, for checking evidence, and for talking with one another about how we’re reaching the conclusions we’re reaching rather than deciding in a vague, muddled or mistaken way on the big issues of how to live together.

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From this place and no other

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

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

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

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

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Help, truthfulness, kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The human function curve

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

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

Some features of this graph that are worth noticing.

(1) The anabolic phase

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

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

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

(2) The catabolic phase

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

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

(3) Tipping past exhaustion

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

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

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

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

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

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

(4) Towards ill-health and breakdown

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

But I’ll be letting them down.

But you don’t understand.

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

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

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

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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.

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Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic

Here’s a way to categorise the things we work with (from Dave Snowden), and the things we struggle with:

1 Simple

Things we can make sense of quickly and easily, for which no particular expertise is required beyond what we’d all be expected to have in our culture.

A light switch is a good example of ‘simple’. It’s obvious how it works, and what it does. On is onOff is off. And that’s it. There are no other ways to use a switch. No nuance, no special techniques, no room for creativity. A switch is just what it is.

We can learn how to deal with simple phenomena easily – a simple set of instructions, a little while shown it by another person, and we’re done.

2 Complicated

Complicated phenomena, such as the engine of a car, require something different. Most of the time an engine, to most of us, is a simple phenomenon. We turn the ignition, and off we go. But when the engine breaks down, or needs tuning, it becomes clear to us that it’s not simple at al.

Quite specific and broad-ranging expertise (theoretical and practical know-how) is required to work with a complicated situation. Any fault may have a number of causes, and it takes discernment and skill to both to discover the causes and to fix them. Many years of study may be required, and lots of practice. But built into our understanding of complicated phenomena is the understanding that there is a cause which leads directly to the problem and, with the right skilfulness and tools, dealing with the cause gets the engine working again.

We learn how to deal with complicated phenomena by developing expertise.

3 Complex

In complex phenomena, the link between causes and effects is much less straightforward and, in most cases, there is no way of saying that this cause produced this effect.

Organisations behave as complex phenomena much of the time, in large part brought about by human free will, our mysteriousness even to ourselves, and the complex web of interactions that changes us even as change things. Because every relationship and conversation I’m in affects me as I affect the conversation and relationship, and because this is happening in many interactions simultaneously, there’s really no way of knowing quite what causes anything.

Expertise can only get us a little way here. What to do has an emergent quality. We discover it out only as we engage in doing and experimenting, and it relies on our openness and our capacity to feel our way.

4 Chaotic

With chaotic phenomena, such as occur in many sudden and unexpected crises, we can’t find any link between cause and effect. There’s no way of knowing what will happen from what we do, but we have to act anyway. Best practice and expertise can’t help us.

It’s our ability to come up with novel actions and new ways of making sense, to free ourselves from our rigidity and habit, to observe accurately and truthfully, and to trust ourselves in the middle of not knowing what’s going on that serve us here.

So much of our difficulty, and our suffering, comes from failing to see that there are these different kinds of phenomena and that they require different kinds of response. In particular, in so many of our organisations and in our politics, it’s our determination to treat everything as if it’s simple or complicated that gets us into so much trouble.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that our determination to understand everything as a machine where an expert can determine cause and effect – the same instinct that leads us to punishment and reward, carrot and stick, bonuses and KPIs, process and best practicebehaviour frameworks and forced-ranking performance ratings, rigid hierarchies and command-and-control – doesn’t seem to help us nearly as much as we imagine in our organisational lives.

It’s only when we see the limits of expertise, in so many of the domains that matter in our lives, that we can open ourselves to responding in a way that’s called for. And that’s why working on our development matters so much – because development is always a process of loosening our grip on what we’re most certain about, and most rigid about, and opening more and more to the world as it presents itself to us rather than the world as we’ve concluded it to be.

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Fear and love

There are, I was reminded this morning, really only two orientations to the world.

One is fear. The other is love.

And everything follows from which we choose.

There are endless reasons to live from fear if we so wish, and almost anything can be its source. Our fear that we will lose people, property, identity, and all the ways we know ourselves. Our fear of illness. Our fear of growing old. Our fear of dying. Our fear of not being loved. And of losing love. Our fear of not having enough. And, this Monday morning in the cities of Europe, our fear of the world’s instability and our own insecurity. And all the fear that arises when we see that we cannot control the world or what happens to us in it.

I think it’s necessary to allow ourselves to feel fear when it comes. To do otherwise is to deny our care for what matters to us. Our fear shows us our care for our lives, and for our society, and for the people we love. Our care for our lovers and partners and friends and children. Our care for our freedom.

To deny our fear is to push part of ourselves away, into the shadows, where it can have much more of a grip over us than when brought into the light. When we don’t feel our fear we easily find ourselves living from it, constructing our lives from the midst of its constricting, narrowing grasp and all of the reactivity and self-obsession it brings.

I’ve come to understand that when I’m in the grip of unnamed fear, there’s so much that I don’t see. I don’t see the stability and resilience of the society in which I live. I don’t see what a blessing it is to sleep in my house at night safe from the terror of shelling and bombing. I don’t see what a gift it is that I can meet with whom I choose and where I choose, and have the freedom to express my thoughts, feelings and commitments openly. That my children get to go to school. That we have food to eat, and water to drink, and systems to bring it all to us from across the world. That I have wide open choice about what work to do, and how to do it. That my family are cared for by health systems, and transport systems, and by a system of law and order that is so easily part of the taken-for-granted background. I forget that this is true even when terrible, frightening things are happening in a city only a few hundred miles away and, perhaps, in time, in my own city too. And I forget that in many parts of the world none of these blessings are a given.

When I’m in the grip of my fear I forget how much more there is to bring to the world than worries about my own safety. From fear I hardly have any sense of the power and possibility of my own contribution. From fear my world shrinks to the tiniest of proportions.

On this Monday morning in the cities of Europe, I am reminded how afraid I can be and how easy it would be to live this way.

And it’s for all these reasons, it seems to me, that it’s our responsibility whenever we can, not to turn away. To feel our fear, and talk with one another about it. To see what it shows us about what matters to us, and then to respond as fully and as generously as we can – to ourselves and to those we meet – from love.

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On thinking

I can think. I really can.

I can think long, and hard, and deeply, about complex problems.

And because I can do it well, I often live as if that’s all there is to do in the world. To think, and to solve, and to work it out. As if this is what I’m here for.

It’s got me a long way. It brings many blessings. But it also creates great difficulty.

When I live in this way, I have a propensity to believe the truth of my thinking, far beyond its actual truthfulness. I try to understand that which cannot be understood in this way – life, or relationships, or what I’m here to do. I think myself away from situations where what’s called for is stepping further in. I seal myself away from the world with a shield of thought. And I judge myself mercilessly for not yet having thought enough or well-enough.

When I live this way, my mind is never still. There is little room for mystery, awe, and wonder. I’m anxious (because no amount of thinking is ever enough). And because of this I’m working, hard, all the time, to work it all out.

And what gets forgotten is that there are other kinds of wisdom upon which I can call. The wisdom of others. The wisdom of my heart. The wisdom of my body. The wisdom of breath. The wisdom of not-knowing, and of un-knowing. The wisdom that can only come from stillness.

And my work, if I am to be fully in life, is letting go enough, surrendering enough, opening enough to let these other kinds of wisdom in.

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