The magic in getting out of the way

My latest daily mailout is as follows, I thought I would share it here but also share the full chapter from 'My Tao Te Ching' which I reference, along with another which is connected, in case you'd like to read a little more.

Having talked the last couple of days about presence, I felt moved to also talk about a useful kind of absence.  

I know that as a facilitator, coach, minister, leader, manager, parent - and in many of my other roles in life over the years - I have been amazed at how often the best work is done when I get out of the way!  There is a way that I can of course be involved in shaping the space, but it is the space which really enables the magic to happen.  An old saying I remember our tutors sharing in the Interfaith Seminary when studying spiritual counselling was:

"Godess/God does the work, I just make the tea!"

A related bit of 'My Tao Te Ching' is:

The Wise Fool leads by example
And when the job is done
Everyone celebrates
Their own success.

I'll pop the whole of this one and another related chapter on my blog if you want to go and read it.

Go well and simply my friends.

 

Chapter 17
The best acts are almost invisible,
The next best are known and loved,
The next: feared,
And finally, those that are despised.
As you trust, so shall you be trusted.
The Wise Fool leads by example
And when the job is done
Everyone celebrates
Their own success.

 

Chapter 11
A disk of wood can be fun,
But it's when we make a hole in the middle that we can use it as a wheel.
A ball of clay can be fun,
But it's when we scoop out the middle that we can use it as a bowl.
A giant box can be fun,
But it's when we cut a door that we can get inside.
The outer form – the thing – can be fun.
What's inside – the no-thing – is what gives it purpose.

 

Beautiful Poem - You Darkness - By David Whyte

A Translation of a poem originally by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
for everyone
so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight —

and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night.

Wild Adventures: A Personal Reflection on Uncertainty and Change

As coaches, therapists, or consultants we work with change every day.  In fact, change may be the most common thread to why people seek our help: whether they are seeking to make a change or dealing with the consequences of change being forced upon them by circumstance.  My recent personal journey has meant that I have faced a lot of uncertainty in my life and big changes, and, as is so often the case, while I have been battling my dragons, clients have sought me out for help with their dragons too.  I find myself reflecting on uncertainty and change, and what it takes to face these things gracefully…

My working life has gone through many transformations over the years.  I trained originally as an actor (a profession I was headed determinedly towards from the age of 12), then as I finished at drama school realised I didn’t want to be an actor anymore.  Since then I have adventured through many different jobs ranging from those more connected to what I do now to those more off the beaten track.  The last few years have seen me more stable in my role at least, working as a facilitator, coach, and trainer mostly with organisations. 

I have always brought a deep awareness of the body to my work which in the last few years has grown into co-leading a year-long training for other coaches and facilitators in how to work with the body in business.  Whether it is helping a coachee to learn how to manage their stress response in order to have a difficult conversation skilfully, or designing learning programmes which enable people to conduct embodied experiments to test and design their own best interventions, embodiment is often central to my work.  I also recently researched compassion for my work in health and social care looking at how to cultivate communities of consistent kindness.  Compassion is so often seen as something inherent and impossible to develop but there is a growing body of research showing how we can use simple practices to be kinder under pressure.  We worked with basic mindfulness practices and small personal changes (like slowing down a bit) with individuals and helped teams to introduce ways of meeting together and being in dialogue which encouraged greater equality and self-compassion.  I’m still seeking to understand how to really nourish the dialogue around sustainability.  This is an area of deep personal concern for me because, as a father of a young child I worry about the world my son will inherit.  I really believe in doing whatever I can to help when I see a problem in the world so while I am no sustainability expert, I am looking for ways to help leaders and organisations to change their ways of being and doing so that we can all work for a better world.  All of this work has been linked by the thread of developing conscious leadership.  I believe that if leaders are more self-aware then they are less likely to unconsciously perpetuate choices and systems which harm people and the planet.  This is likely to be a long-term journey of change and possibly a Quixotic quest but I do see shifts happening and I have a great deal of faith in the human spirit.

 So, my role has become more stable in many ways but my days have still been marked by a lot of personal change.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising for someone working freelance and helping other people to learn, grow, develop – essentially foster change.  However, at the start of this year a bigger shift took place…

I had recently moved house and, being a freelancer with a father who is a retired architect, we built a shed together for me to use as an office. And, as my father is a retired architect, you may be able to imagine that the shed was more like a wooden extension that happened to be separate from the house! I’d spend most of my time, when not working with organisational clients, in the shed writing, doing the necessary admin that goes into running your own business, and sometimes seeing 1-2-1 coaching clients. 

Since then my day-to-day reality has changed dramatically.  I now work full-time in a management consultancy and drive about an hour every day to get to the office (instead of my 10 second walk to the shed). I still work helping leaders in organisations learn and develop, but the environment within which I’m working, the social and cultural context, quite apart from the physical environment, is radically different.

I had been considering getting a job for some while, wondering if there was an organisation out there where I felt like I could enjoy the comfort of community, while staying in integrity with my individualistic heart, but, if I’m honest, I was sceptical such a place existed.  When a number of factors coincided and made for very tough times in my work, I had to challenge that scepticism and, as I am very happy where I am now, I feel blessed that I did. 

 

The Hero's Journey

During this period of upheaval, I was also planning a retreat in May that works with Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’[i].  What Joseph Campbell discovered as he studied the myths and folklore of the world was that there seemed to be many themes that were common in every culture.  Eventually he saw that at the heart of these commonalities was a single common story: human beings the world over tell stories about hero’s and heroine’s.  Not only that but those stories seem to follow a recognisable pattern.  The hero’s journey is marked by particular features, common trials, gifts, transformations, opponents and allies.  Perhaps as I am running this retreat I should not be surprised that I went on my own grand and painful adventure during this time. I have certainly seen that, as coaches, therapists and consultants, clients seem to enter our lives who offer us the opportunity to work with them on what we are also working on ourselves. No wonder then that, while we have been inviting in participants who are on their ‘hero’s journey’, I have been confronted with my own. 

I’m seeing this turn up as a theme in other areas of my professional life, this phenomena whereby my own areas of interest and personal learning are mirrored by the areas of difficulty and development my clients need support with.  Most organisations today are facing very high levels of uncertainty, increasing complexity and a faster pace of change than ever. I am wary of saying that we live in a time of unprecedented difficulty.  It wouldn’t surprise me if every generation feels that way and, when I look back, I see huge challenges faced by pretty much every previous generation. What does feel like a more valid observation is that things are moving faster than ever before and that creates a degree of uncertainty, which can be very challenging to live with.  While there are many things which can help in the face of change and uncertainty, having recently been through a period of such change myself, I felt like there were 2 things which became particularly necessary to get through that tough time: resilience and wisdom. Resilience might seem like an obvious thing to need when any system comes under pressure, but there are some areas of development which I think are particularly helpful to explore in developing resilience.  One of these is embodiment. 

 

Embodiment and Resilience

As embodiment is one of my areas of particular interest and exploration, it is perhaps predictable that this is something I consider important but I do think that, in the case of resilience, the body is a vital aspect of the self to engage with and, after all, if we don’t deal with the automatic physiological responses to stress, any cognitive or emotional work we might do is likely to be of limited effect.  Centring is a general term for a kind of embodied state management particularly useful in the face of the stress response but with much broader application when it is well understood.  There are lots of techniques for centring taught by different schools but the core principle is essentially the same: shifting out of the ‘fight or flight’ state in our mind-state and physiology and enabling our system to settle into a state where we can think more clearly and choose our actions more consciously, even under pressure.  It is simple to learn but for it to be applied consistently takes time and practice.  It also has a much more profound effect when taught well and embedded through practice – it can reconnect us to our bodily sensation, re-sensitise us when we have become desensitised or dissociated.  This body-mind reconnection can have incredible effects, often opening doors to intuitive awareness, clarity of perception, and a realisation of deep needs which may not have been met for a long time.  This is the wonder and challenge of working with the body: it can be a short-cut to deep territory so the potential for transformation is great but the potential to unlock deep and complex issues is also strong.

I was coaching a senior leader not that long ago who was struggling with the pace and complexity of their professional life which had been exacerbated by a recent promotion.  He had got in touch looking for help with a strategy for managing the complexity of his communication including the many conversations with senior leaders he needed to keep up with and managing a team of project managers who reported to him but worked on many different projects with a lot of independence.  As we had our first conversation it became clear that communication wasn’t really the problem – he was great at communicating and even managing his time and commitments, which are typical related problems when managing overwhelm with new responsibilities, were obvious strengths.  What we uncovered as we spoke was that he was struggling to think clearly whenever he approached his email-box and would spend too much time on some things and not enough on others.  His prioritisation was out of whack.  Again, as we dug into that I could tell that his strategic thinking and capacity for prioritising responsibilities was not the real problem.  The lack of clarity in thinking was a warning sign for me as when people are triggered into fight-or-flight cognitive function can be impaired.  So, I worked with my client to teach him centring, not just the technique but to use a kind of ‘embodied experiment’ to help him learn what his stress response feels like even when triggered to a tiny degree.  This meant that he was equipped to spot his own stress warning signs much earlier in his process, and then also had a tool to intervene and start the journey back to a clearer, more centred state.  He did 3 minutes practice daily on the train to work (using an mp3 recording I’d given him to ‘talk him through it’) and then used the technique whenever he felt he needed it.  The daily practice meant his background state was improving progressively and he was getting quicker and more competent at the skill of centring so he could use it more readily when most needed.  Within the first month his performance turned around dramatically, both in terms of how he felt and the feedback he was getting from his boss and his reports.  We went on to do further work to look at the underlying issues, continuing to use embodied methods for exploring through state and quality of presence, but the initial turnaround was dramatic and the increased integration of his body with his mind meant that he came to future coaching sessions calm and ready to work, usually with a memory, thought, or connection which had bubbled to the surface in the intervening time.

 I had thought my fascination with wisdom and my study of embodiment and resilience were related by the field of human experience, but perhaps not much more. However, in my experience and exploration of uncertainty and how we find grace in the face of it, I’m seeing that the two are much more intimately intertwined.  When we are facing uncertainty, knowledge is simply not enough.  If knowledge was all we needed to sort out our problems then Wikipedia would have saved the world! By the very nature of uncertainty, a lack of reliable information may lie at the heart of what we are dealing with. As such, having access to our deepest wells of wisdom, having different resources to make the best decisions we can when we don’t have all the information we want, becomes vital.  As we can see from this case study I have described above, embodiment can help us to access these wells of wisdom.

 

Embracing Uncertainty

In the past when I faced difficult times in my self-employed life, I toughed it out. I had become used to facing the pain and uncertainty of freelance life and I carried on doing my work with a high degree of faith, even when I was very scared.  So, as I enter another adventure in the landscape of my professional life, I get interested in the fact that this time I did not tough it out, I chose to explore other possibilities. In the moment it just seemed like that was what was required of me, that was what I needed to do, but looking back, with this relatively small period of hindsight, I’m curious about my sense of clarity.  There were many factors at play, not least of which was my awareness of how pushing through difficult patches in the past took a toll, not just on me, but on my wife and family. That kind of stress can be very hard to be around. But even so, what was it that made me choose differently this time than each of the times before this? What was it that told me “This time you need to do something different”?

One of the tricky things with understanding, perceiving, and developing wisdom I think is that it is largely intangible.  We sort of know it when we see it but, unlike knowledge, it can’t really be recorded in books or easily pinned down. You can record someone’s wisdom, you can write down profoundly wise words, but they lose something in the translation from the moment in which they were originally spoken to the moment in which they are read. What seems strange and obscure one day, when seen in another light on another day, can awaken incredible insight in us and seem utterly profound and vice-versa. Referring back to my own circumstances, the situation I faced called forth in me a need to access my deepest wisdom or I could have drowned in the uncertainty.  I was having to make many small judgements every day about where to spend my time: consolidating the work of today or looking for the opportunity that might open up a more stable future.  I felt like I needed to be very mindful of how I applied my effort. Time is, after all, our most definitively finite resource.  There’s only so much we can do today but tomorrow will undoubtedly come – and, in today’s world, it seems to be rushing up to meet us faster than ever before. I didn’t have enough information to make these decisions entirely rationally.  When that is the case, how do we know best, moment to moment, where to work hardest?

If I return to my key theme - the hero’s journey - I wonder now if whatever the specific gifts of any particular time of difficulty, whether a new job, relationships or new learning, I wonder if the gifts that we bring back from every challenging adventure might be greater resilience and greater wisdom. After all, if we survive the road of trials, then we must necessarily have bounced back many times in the face of adversity, thereby growing and cultivating our resilience. And, if we have found that judgement to make the decisions that have led to us escaping the dark places, then surely we must have flexed the muscles of our wisdom and grown our capacity to make wise choices.

Perhaps this insight can offer us perspective in terms of how we view these uncertain times we are living in: maybe, by living in such uncertain times we are gifted with the opportunity to grow in resilience and wisdom.  While I feel a great deal of uncertainty about the world my son will inherit from me, the chance to live his life with a father who has grown in wisdom and resilience is no small gift to offer him, and that thought gives me hope.

 

 

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Coaching Today, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy: http://bacpcoaching.co.uk/coaching-today

 


[i] Campbell’s classic text on this is ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ but there is a more accessible book recently published by a friend of mine which offers specific exercises and advice aligned with the stages of the Journey.  It’s called ‘Your Life Plan’ by Erica Sosna.

The Path of Mastery

The path of mastery is something which is discussed a lot, sometimes written about, but seldom really understood. The wonderful writer and teacher George Leonard wrote a beautiful book about it and helped to define the field, but in some ways I think it may be even simpler, even more straightforward than what he and other great teachers have laid out. I think part of the problem is that historically the path of mastery has been shrouded in mystery. Some of that mystery is appropriate, much of life is essentially mysterious and if we are going to look at a concept as numinous and deep as the idea of mastery then I think we have to accept some of that sense of mystery. Maybe we can even enjoy it! I think some of that mystery is less helpful and possibly grows out of the fact that this concept of mastery in many of the dialogues where it arises originates in the "perfumed East" and as such is treated with a semi-magical reverence that nudges us towards unquestioning acceptance rather than deep and committed enquiry.

Something which I think could helpfully demystify the concept of mastery is to look at our own European tradition for something which correlates to it. I actually think we have a very close, corollary in the shape of the concept of the "True Artist." In many crafts or otherwise fairly technical professions when you get someone who is especially skilled, who we could say has reached a level of mastery, often people will say of that individual "that guy is a real artist." We already use the word 'artist' not just to mean someone who makes art, but to indicate someone who has reached a level of skill in their craft such that what they create, what they do has a sense of beauty and surpassing quality about it.

So, perhaps it is not such an alien concept but the 'how' of reaching mastery still maintains a certain level of mystery. Again, in some ways that's entirely appropriate: if you create wonderful things then people should wonder at how you did it! One thing which I have seen as clearly helping people to move towards a sense of mastery is having a great teacher. Now of course, you want that teacher to be excellent at teaching you the skill or capacity you're trying to develop, however I think if they're going to help you to really master something it needs to go beyond fantastic technical instruction. If you are really going to go places with a teacher then I believe they have to fully embody what they are teaching (the deep principles, values, attitudes, and philosophies) and then you have to absorb that. Speaking of absorption may seem strange but my experience has been that much of my greatest learning has come from what one of my teachers referred to as "spiritual osmosis." Just being in my teachers' presence has helped to inform my practice, sometimes almost more than the technical instruction itself. All of the best martial arts teachers I have studied with would not only show me the forms and techniques, or get me to practice them, they would also do them alongside me and it was often while practising together that something about the quality of the form, a way of being, a state, or an attitude would fall into place and the deep understanding of what I was really trying to achieve would emerge. So… Find yourself a great teacher! Then hang out with them as much as you can!

I had a new insight into mastery the other day however which may be even easier to make use of. In a way it's not a new insight but I felt like I was seeing it from a new angle, with a new clarity, and blessedly with greater simplicity. George Leonard certainly spoke about this, as did one of my teachers Lance Giroux, but like I say this feels like a new angle on that old chestnut. Essentially I would say that the path of mastery is exactly that: a path. It is not a destination, it is not a particular level of skill which you can achieve and then sit within, it is a continuing journey regardless of how skilled you become. Part of the nature of that path is that whatever you find mastery within (the discrete skill), what you learn in that environment helps you to better understand all of your life and how to live that life in a positive and empowering way. As such, in some ways what you choose to master, the skill or field of study, almost matters less than the fact that you choose to engage with it as your path. What you need from that path is a well-defined criteria for what you are trying to achieve. That could be as simple as sitting meditation where the criteria is to constantly bring your attention back to the breath, or it could be as complex as an extended Tai Chi form with all of its postural specificity, or ballet, or oil painting, or joinery, or any number of other things in fact I'd say it could be pretty much anything. I think the most basic distinguishing factor which means you engage with what you're doing as a path of mastery is that you have a deep enough understanding of the criteria you are trying to meet and then you are in a constant journey of bringing yourself back to that goal and bringing yourself back to that goal and bringing yourself back to that goal.For me it is this constant returning to centre (however centre is defined in your practice) which is the heart of a path of mastery. As human beings any strict goal or criteria is unlikely to be something we will meet 100 percent of the time, it is the constant striving to get back on track when we stray which defines the path of mastery.

So, find a great teacher, don't just learn from them but absorb the best about their way of being in the world, and keep striving - coming back to centre over and over again regardless of the difficulty or boredom. I'm not suggesting it's easy, but it might be simpler than those invested in shrouding mastery with mystery might have you believe.

Wishing you joy and grace in your exploration, with love.

A Poem for National Poetry Day: Enough

Enough

 

Though the road is long and I am far from the end

I have a glimpse of what it means to be the man I dreamed of being

I have a window to the wonder in my soul

And in moments

I find

I can be content with this…

This warm-hearted

This soft-eyed

This broad-shouldered

This deep-rooted

Man

I breathe

Deep and wide

And know the ancient longing

The friendship of pain and joy

The companionship of melancholy and grace

And I feel

Where the past and future meet in me

And I can be proud

Of what I have done

And who I have become

And how

From this place

I can face the challenges yet to come

With dignity

With vulnerability

With wildness and tenderness and strength.

 

I know now

That my capacity for love and hope

Is greater than my tendency towards fear and desolation

And I can look back when the world turns its gaze upon me and say:

“This is enough.  I am enough.”

Yin and Yang, The Scottish Referendum, and Competition and Collaboration

When many people think of the Eastern concept of Yin and Yang, they tend to think in terms of taking these opposite forces and bringing them into balance. I have thought in much the same way for a long time, but increasingly in the last couple of years I have come to think about Yin and Yang, and other such polar opposites as needing something more than balance: I think they need integration.

This is a subtle distinction, but an important one to me. The idea of balance seems to me to be a devil’s bargain where I take these apparent opposites and do my best to juggle them in my life trying never to let one or the other be too dominant, which I would suggest leads also to never fully committing to one, or the other. At the heart of this balancing act is what I consider to be a somewhat flawed belief in the first place - that polar opposites by their difference are necessarily separate.

When we introduced the idea of integration we step into an entirely different dialogue, one where opposites don’t just attract but are intimately linked, necessarily interdependent. For me this is a truth which is expressed by the Yin Yang symbol which contains a dot of white in the black and a dot of black in the white, Yin contains a seed of Yang, and Yang contains a seed of Yin. This is the essential paradox at the heart of Taoism from which these concepts originate: things which seem to be opposed are actually in support of each other. You can’t say yes to one thing without saying no to many others; to jump up you must push down; we only know there is light because we can contrast it against darkness.

This seems in some ways particularly pertinent this week where the debate in Scotland has been so hot about whether to separate or stay together with the rest of the UK. What seems to me to have so often have been lost in this debate is the fact that if Scotland chooses independence, in the turbulent and tough times we are facing in this world Scotland and the rest of the UK will need to find a way to be close allies. Equally, if Scotland chooses to stay in the United Kingdom, then the central UK government will need to be ready to give Scotland greater freedom. Either way it seems to me we will have to be ready to work together, and either way the people of Scotland who have been in such heated debate will have to be ready to live together. I think the divisiveness of this debate and the way the politicians have handled themselves has not paved the way well for either of these 2 things.

We can draw a wider application when we consider the broader positions of competition and collaboration. So often these 2 things are seen as being mutually exclusive, so often I hear competitors speak with scorn about collaboration, so often I hear collaborators speak with distaste about competition. In my opinion, as with any Yin and Yang the 2 things at their heart are completely interdependent and it is when one is exclusively heralded and the other pathologised that systems and relationships begin to break down.

I used to be very much in the collaborators camp having had a difficult time with competitive sport at school and found my home in theatre where the cast depend so much on each other. However, playing Capoeira at University, studying the Samurai Game, and discussing this with Jane Magruder-Watkins when I trained in Appreciative Inquiry shifted my perspective. In Capoeira competition is strong but playfully and joyfully held, in the Samurai Game fierce combat is conducted with total respect, and what Jane helped me to see is that in any competitive situation short of the death-match collaboration is necessary.

No matter how competitive the sport, let’s take football as an example, unless I walk onto the pitch armed with weapons ready to slay anyone who tries to stop me putting the ball in the goal then collaboration has to be a play! In even the most collaborative environments, unless we are all going to “play small” desperately trying not to be better than anyone else then some kind of competition is at play: we each bring our best game and want everyone else to do the same but some ideas will be pursued and developed while others won’t. When we can stop trying to make one approach right and the other one wrong competition and collaboration are mutually nourishing and supporting.

Let’s hope that whatever the outcome in Scotland we as nations and regions can find a supportive and nourishing integration of togetherness and apart-ness.

I invite you in your communities and organisations to consider the place of competition and collaboration and how they can be better integrated.

If you’d like to explore the integration of Yin and Yang I will be running a workshop 27th of September on this theme, and I will soon be releasing a new book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable’ which is a modern take on the most ancient Taoist text exploring the expression of Yin and Yang in the world.

A Spiritual lesson from Drama School

A learning from my past has come to the surface recently because of some work with one of my students on our Embodied Facilitator Course and I felt to share it in a blog.

It revolves around a moment of breakthrough for me when I was training as an actor at drama school. Acting was something I had always been good at, amongst the best of the people I knew, but in going to drama school I had to face a reality that I think many do: going from being a big fish in a small pond to be a small fish in a big pond. I was still good, but so was everyone else. The teachers were more granular in their feedback and by its very nature the feedback they were giving us related to our blind-spots. If we had known about these problems, if we had been aware of them, we would have changed them already have – we were all dedicated students. I remember envying my fellow students their feedback when it related to such concrete things as working with their posture or their voice. I’m sure for them that was just as difficult to change as what I was being told was difficult for me, but in the moment their feedback seemed so tangible and technical that I wished my problems were so “simple.”

My feedback took various forms. I needed to:

 

“let go”

 

“take a risk”

 

“just try something”

 

“be more spontaneous”

 

I’m certain my teachers meant well with this advice, but at the time it felt like they may as well have said “just stick the North wind in a bottle and drink it.” No problem!

So I continued to struggle with it.

What I realise now but I didn’t know then was that I was so busy trying to “get it right” that there was always a part of me sat on my shoulder watching what I was doing, critiquing what I was doing. That inner observer didn’t make me self-aware, it just made me self-conscious which made everything I did on stage seem overly considered and it therefore lacked the kind of theatrical truth that makes for a great performance.

One director I worked with said “you have the look of someone being looked at.” This was of course no more helpful at the time, but in hindsight it was an interesting comment for him to make!

What I’ve found is an interesting link to my work today teaching embodiment and personal development in that I noticed one of my students had a similar quality, like he was watching himself all the time. In speaking to him about this he found it very useful, and in some ways slightly confusing information because so many spiritual teachings talk about cultivating an inner observer - and that’s part of what he had been working on. I am sure it is the case that in the spiritual traditions that speak of cultivating that “inner observer” or a part of us that neutrally witnesses who we are and what we do, don’t intend for us to become negatively self-conscious. I’m sure it is intended to be more about non-judgemental self-awareness. However I have seen this quality in many other people on similar paths which makes me think that it is a common misunderstanding and may be causing other people difficulties too, so I wanted to offer my solution from when I was at drama school.

The solution I found came to me during my 2nd year at drama school. I was working with a director who I often clashed with because we had such different philosophies and outlooks but he got great results with some people and I was nothing if not tenacious student so I kept diligently trying to do what he asked. We were working on a scene and had been working on it for quite a lot of the afternoon session, running through it over and over again. I was heartily sick of the scene and really fed up with what felt like a litany of criticism and my own sense of trying constantly to do what the director was asking of me and constantly failing. We were nearing the end of the afternoon and I got to a point in myself where I thought “I’m just going to walk onto the stage, say my lines, and walk off again, we will have to give up at some point!”

We did. We stopped right after that run-through but the director seemed surprised and happy. The next morning I ran into him outside the drama school and he asked me:

“Do you know what you did yesterday?”

Me: “if I’m honest, I walked onto the stage said my lines and walked off again.”  (clearly I was done with being the ‘good student’!)

Director: “Right, right, brilliant. We need to work out how you do that in the rest of the play.”

This was all said without a hint of irony and was followed by the closest thing to a compliment I had ever heard given by that director. I came away frankly shocked! I also came away with a profound realisation.  This was what people had been trying to tell me for all this time but never finding quite the right words (or maybe they did and I just didn’t hear them, or they weren’t offered to me at the right time) :

“don’t give a shit, none of it really matters!”

Like I say, I think I needed the realisation not just the words, but there was something profound in this that gave me a sense of freedom, nonattachment, and relaxation. Suddenly I was able to let go, and take a risk, and try something, and be spontaneous because on some level I had found a way to just not really give a shit anymore.

So there it is, my profound spiritual realisation! If like me you have a tendency to care too much, be too cautious, or try to get things ‘right’ then you may like to try a healthy dose of not giving a shit. It could be transformational!

With love.

Radical Embrace

Here is a taste of the book I am working on:

Radical Embrace: Integrating Leadership, Embodiment, Compassion and Sustainability - A Philosophy and Framework for Changing the World

It's about taking the radical act of really loving the world.  Let me know what you think and if you want to be told when it's out sign up for my newsletter.

I frequently feel completely overwhelmed. When I look reality in the eye and honestly reflect on the state of the world around me I feel swamped. I can drown in the combination of the very real danger of environmental collapse, the hazardous imbalance of the current financial system both locally and globally, the all-too-often petty and self-serving political climate, the immediate challenge of keeping food on the table for my family, and the very real potential that I will burn myself out if I don’t manage the pace of my work better. Facing all of that I feel totally overwhelmed and I’d be very surprised if I’m the only one. Optimist that I am on a good day, I like to think that at least some of these challenges will shift and be addressed or resolved in the not-too-distant future. Obviously the smaller, more personal ones I have more control over in some ways but all of these difficulties on all of the levels feel to me so utterly interconnected that while I am earning a living today that could all come crashing down as a result of some aspect of the larger picture tomorrow. Looking after myself feels like a short-term solution, especially as I have a son and I don’t want my legacy to my child to me a broken world, too far gone to repair.

Can you recognise this picture? My guess is, that if you are reading this, then at least some of it will be ringing true for you too. I want to be clear early on that I don’t have a magic bullet. I am no political, financial, or environmental expert here to offer you and the world a five-point-plan for fixing everything. What I do want to offer here is some of my thinking about how we can positively turn towards these many difficulties that lie before us rather than running away. In many ways I am a creature of structure so I have been working this stuff out for myself, trying to make sense of the world and my place in it in these troubled times. So I want to offer it to you for two basic reasons: firstly out of compassion and in the hopes it may help you to feel less overwhelmed when looking modern life in the eye, and secondly because it is my conviction that if we don’t all start taking a deep personal interest in taking care of our world then it may soon be too late. I’m not convinced that some kind of super-hero leader is going to come and tell us all what to do and make it O.K. If we find solutions to our problems then I think it will come from a groundswell of concerned and caring individuals and I’d like to be one of them. I hope you do too.

I have been considering 4 aspects: Power, Posture, People, Planet - a flow from self to world. As well as finding structures or models like this useful in giving shape to my thinking, I also think structure is a useful metaphor in how we consider our approach. Different movements tend to emphasize different aspects of this flow but I believe that if we don’t work through an integrated whole then our approach to our challenges will be structurally unsound and liable to collapse. This is one possible meaning of integrity: that the structure of our approach is sufficiently connected and coherent, the different aspects not just balanced but integrated with each other, that it becomes a strong whole rather than a combination of parts.

The first layer, the intra-personal is about me relating internally with myself, this can happen through thinking, reflection, meditation and other internally focused processes.  I seek to access my power to lead and influence the world. The second layer, the personal is the bridge between this internal world and the outside world which I am seeing here primarily as the body. However, I am viewing the body through the lens of embodiment, as my subjective experience of my body as me, not the body as an object which I ‘use.’ The third layer, the interpersonal, is where I interact with other human beings through relationships - with compassion. The fourth layer, the trans-personal, I am defining a little differently than it’s normal use. It is usually used to describe an awareness or sense of extending beyond (trans) the ordinary to encompass wider aspects of the psyche or the cosmos. The way I am using it here is not dissimilar but has a subtle distinction. I am using it to refer to our relationship with that which is greater than ourselves. This can include a concept of God, spirit, or the Divine if those aspects are meaningful to you but as you can probably guess from the fact that I have also labeled this layer ‘Planet,’ I am seeing the planet Earth as a being which is greater than us. I consider there to be literal truth to this in terms of viewing Earth as a huge organism, an integrated whole, as well as being made up of many disparate parts. There is also a spiritual aspect to this for me which comes from earth-based spiritual traditions whereby nature (the Earth) is seen as the visible face of spirit and we as humans belong to the Earth rather than the Earth belonging to us. I will explore this further in the chapter addressing this ‘circle of concern’ but wanted to give you a basic sense of what I meant and how I am using the word ‘trans-personal’ in this context.

In many ways this model is not new. Ancient wisdom traditions such as Yoga, when you look at the whole system, had models or methods for integrated action which spanned the internal through the social, to the external world. However, many of these traditions have been only partially learned, passed on or practiced in their transition to the modern world. They also require a certain level of acceptance and commitment to the associated religious or spiritual beliefs. What I am seeking to do here is offer a model or way of seeing our choices for action in a way which honors the wisdom of these ancient traditions while setting it in our modern context and, as far as possible, making it as accessible and free of specific belief-systems as I can.

I can’t promise salvation for you, anyone or anything else, or this beautiful planet we inhabit. I don’t have definitive answers about where we most need to use our finite resources to right the potentially sinking ship of humankind’s survival on planet Earth. However, I can offer a framework, a guide to a way of being that is helping me to face into the difficulties and pain in the world rather than turning away from them. One thing is for sure: pretending nothing is wrong won’t work, numbing ourselves to the pain and distress in the world or living in denial will only narrow our window of opportunity for effective action. We may be facing more and greater challenges than ever before in human history and it is my conviction that we need to do something. So, this philosophy, this framework is my contribution. It is not another argument for a particular cause, it is a way of being which as well being a framework for certain kinds of action in and of itself is also intended to help you to work out which are the battles you wish to engage in. I don’t believe there is a single battle we can all lend our weight to and thereby resolve the difficulties we are facing. I wish there was. I wish such a simple conclusion was something I could offer you and myself but it’s not. If we can all find a graceful way to turn towards the conflicts in the world and in ourselves, however, I believe we can all also see clearly which battles are our battles and by taking our place in the bigger picture perhaps the collective action on multiple fronts will make the difference needed to usher in the kind of planetary healing that is needed to build a better world for future generations.

This then is Radical Embrace. I think we must have integrated action in ourselves, fully inhabiting our bodies, with each other, and in the world. We must embrace ourselves, each other and the world if we are to have the integrity to face the profound challenges of our time. We must take the radical and difficult step of really giving a shit. We need to find that place of absolute care and compassion deep down in ourselves and make the radical choice to bring the world with all it’s pain and difficulty closer to us. And this embrace of the world cannot be limited to only the small immediate picture of our own healing and development, or the big future picture of the world’s healing and development but must be an embrace that starts within us and ripples out-wards.

 

I am a Chimaera: Wildly Imaginative and Implausible

I have long searched for a tribe.  A place of belonging.  Somewhere I ‘fit.’  And I have come to the conclusion that there is no clear place for me.  It’s been too long a search and no category, place, group, field of study, practice, spiritual tradition, community, or profession I have explored has ever felt like home.  I feel a growing acceptance of this: I am a beautiful mutant, a monster with a heart, a fusion of reclaimed oddities.  I am a Chimaera.

The Chimaera was a mythical beast of ancient Greece made up of parts of several animals, and as the Wikipedia entry puts it:

“The term chimera has come to describe any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals, or to describe anything composed of very disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative or implausible.”

I like the idea of being wildly imaginative and implausible. 

I feel heartened by what Joseph Campbell, who many would consider a specialist in studying mythology, says in talking about his own life and work as an academic:

“In our sciences today – and this includes anthropology, linguistics, the study of religions, and so forth – there is a tendency to specialisation.  And when you know how much a specialist scholar has to know in order to be a competent specialist, you can understand this tendency….

Specialisation tends to limit the field of problems that the specialist is concerned with.  Now, the person who isn’t a specialist, but a generalist like myself, sees something over here that he has learned from one specialist, something over there that he has learned from another specialist – and neither of them has considered the problem of why this occurs here and also there.  So the generalist – and that’s a derogatory term, by the way, for academics – gets into a range of problems that are more genuinely human, you might say, than specifically cultural.”

Although I have studied a number of topics to significant depth, I don’t think I am a specialist by nature, I am a generalist.  And I think that is often harder for others to understand, not least of all because it’s very hard for me to accurately describe.

To put it in a positive light, I have been blessed with a life which has been rich and diverse.  I sometimes joke that I have a checkered past  - not legally but in terms of my ‘career path.’  I remember having a chat with my friend, Kate, when I was applying for a job once and the conversation going like this:

 

Me - “Who’s going to hire me?  My CV looks like I have no direction whatsoever!”

Kate – “That’s what a CV is for isn’t it?”

Me – “What do you mean?”

Kate – “Taking the mess of your life and making it look like you did it on purpose.”

 

So perhaps this is me creating my tribe like Kate suggested making my CV:  taking this messy creature that I am and saying “THIS is where I belong, I am my own home.”

On a bad day I can feel like a creature cobbled together from clunky and ill-fitting hunks of experience, a monster without a home.

But on a good day I know I can be a fascinating and fascinated bundle of wonder able to dance across many domains, to find connections between people and subjects others can’t see, to be a gifted generalist helping make the world more whole.

 

I have found my new prayer:

 

I am a Chimaera.

Wildly imaginative and implausible by nature,

Perfect and problematic,

Wonderful and terrible,

Fabulous and flawed.

I am my own home,

This is where I belong.

 

With Love.

Death and Life

You are going to die

You

Are going to die

There is no avoiding it

Pretending it won't happen won't prevent it

And more than that,

Everyone and everything you love will die too.

There is no solace in this world, no legacy great enough to ensure your immortality.

You are closer to death now than when you started reading.

Take another step my friend,

There is no avoiding it.

There could be misery in these thoughts...

Terror,

Disillusionment,

Pain.

But there is a gift as well:

It is only by embracing the reality of death that we truly learn how to live.

There is a fierce urgency that is yours to claim,

A freeing knowledge of your own doom

That waits

Like death

Just around the corner.

Many imagine the knowledge of imminent doom

To bring a rush

Of hedonism,

A selfish 'fuck you' to the world as you pursue your own pleasure.

...But that is not what I see.

That is not what I feel in myself as I contemplate my own demise,

No.

I want to share,

to give,

to love.

I seek belonging

Not belongings,

I welcome simplicity and peace, not a chaotic feeding of my inner glutton,

I seek substance not substances,

Because.

In confronting my death

I have to confront my life,

In facing the fact that I could disappear at any moment

I have to ask the question

"What if I could appear at any moment?"

What if...?

What if...?

What if I stepped out from behind the cloud of my own inhibitions and really lived?

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

Not for fame,

Or greatness,

Or money,

Or any of the other egoic delights

I may pick up

Incidentally along the path,

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

for ordinary wonder?

What if seeing death could help me to see life?

What if the marvel of life lies not in the marvels but in the minutiae?

The light on my cup,

The moment of satisfaction after eating a meal,

Or speaking to a friend.

What if I could appear to myself at any moment?

What if I could see myself with fresh eyes now, and now, and now

And know:

This is who I am.

And tomorrow I will be someone else,

And that is wonderful and terrible.

Wonder-full and terrible

To have to face

My own death

Every day,

The possibility of my physical death

And the reality of dying to myself every moment,

Because I am not the same person now as when I started writing this,

You are not the same person who started reading this,

You are not only dying but dead.

You are dead.

You are dead already.

You don't owe anyone anything,

And you owe a great legacy in every moment

Because you are your own ancestor.

Are you going to let the million you's who died so that you could live

Die for nothing?

Knowing that you will die anyway, can you sacrifice yourself in this moment

So that the you who is being born

Might receive a legacy of choice?

 

Can you embrace death, dear one,

so that you might learn how to live?

Appreciation as a way of life

I've just released my new book 'The Little Book of Appreciation' so understandably perhaps I have been writing a lot about appreciation.  However, that doesn't come out of a pure drive for self-promotion!  The work of appreciating the people we have relationships with has proved time and again to be one of the simplest, most profound practices in my life and work.  It has improved my marriage, enhanced my working relationships and improved the effectiveness of my management, and in training numerous groups in both the 'hard corporate' and health and social care environments I have seen a relational 'warming and softening' which enables greater humanity and intimacy between people in very short spaces of time.  For efficiency of relational improvement there is nothing I have found that works better.

More than that, however, I think it has the potential when applied in a subtly different way to transform our relationsip with the world around us.  There is the potential that we can become more intimate with our day-to-day surroundings and through this visible face of spirit we walk through each moment, perhaps more intimate with the universe, with the divine - whatever you call it.

Whether what I've said above speaks to you or not, for any of you out there who are already master appreciators, if you've practiced a bunch appreciating your friends, loved, ones and co-workers and want another step, or even if you just want a slightly different way to welcome appreciation into your life here's another practice: Blanket Appreciation. 

This is an adaptation of 'blanket blessing' which has been a practice of mine for many years inspired by some of the work of Serge Kahaili King who teaches a particular school of Hawai'ian Shamanism.

In Blanket Appreciation you bring your attention to just appreciating the bejeesus out of everything you come across - not just people, things too.  In your mind, as you move through your life, this is an opportunity to more fully notice the world around you.  Each person or thing you notice, you take a moment to appreciate.

Just as with appreciation, the more specific you can be about what quality of a person or thing you are appreciating the better: a building being strong and enduring, a yellow line down the side of the road keeping people safe, a flower adding a splash of colour and delicacy to the world.  Whatever it is, you notice and appreciate its unique gifts.

In some ways, noticing and appreciating things that you otherwise wouldn't notice, those things that fade into the background, can be both the best challenge and the richest opportunity.  It's an opportunity to transform your world into one filled with wonderful things and unique gifts. Who wouldn't want to live in a world so blessed? And all the while you are doing that you are refining your skills of appreciation, perfecting your practice, honing your habit...

 

Now go practice!

 

If you want to find out more about 'The Little Book of Appreciation' then when you sign up to be a member of this website and receive my newsletter you will get access to a members area which includes a mini-version of the book as a gift.

To buy a copy of 'The Little Book of Appreciation' follow this link, it's available now a 40% discount and free delivery until 10th April:  http://www.lulu.com/shop/francis-briers/the-little-book-of-appreciation/paperback/product-21567213.html

10 ways heroic leaders will fail

Obviously this is a pretty negative heading, and intended to be a little provocative. However I do think that the heroic mode of leadership is necessarily in decline. Partly that is to do with societal factors, in my opinion, such as how we culturally relate to our leaders. I think the modern, Western world is a place where heroic leaders are likely to be met with cynicism - for better or worse. That said, built-in to the heroic mode of leadership are a series of self-destruct systems which even in the face of adoring followers are likely to make even the best and brightest trip over their own feet if they fall into the trap of trying to be the great golden leader.

Here are my top thoughts on the subject:

 

  1. Isolation and burnout - If you are the golden child that everyone turns to for the answers to every problem then people are so unlikely to treat you like a normal human being that you will probably end up pretty isolated.  On top of that the weight of the world is on your shoulders so the odds are that sooner or later you’re going to run out of juice! In many ways all of my subsequent points are variations on a theme with this first one at their heart. I could say lots about this and probably will at some point, but the simplest antidote to this that I know is humility and vulnerability. Simple but not necessarily easy…
  2. Cult of celebrity - essentially this is about projection. People see you in this role, doing amazing things, and they make up all kinds of stories about what that means you are and do as person. Those stories in and of themselves can limit your capacity as a leader. It starts to be difficult to get your real message across because it is so muddied by people’s assumptions and projections. People start acting like they know you when you’ve never met them before which is not just irritating but also gets in the way of having the most basic human interactions.
  3. Deification - a flavour of projection. The people actually start to believe that you have the magic touch, they set you on a pedestal and you can do no wrong… Until all you can do is wrong. Maybe once upon a time  leaders got deified and stayed that way, but the modern media voice and our collective thinking habits along with it have come to love knocking the brilliant off their perches and seeing them squirm in the gutter.  Which leads to…
  4. Demonification - another flavour of projection! Often this follows the fall from grace, but not always. In this instance people really start to believe you might be the root of all problems. This might sound unlikely, or even comedic, but the amount of organisations I go into where I hear people talking about all the terrible things that “management” have done convince me that this is more pervasive than we may realise. In any situation where we create an “us versus them” mind-set whoever “they” are become the enemy and are therefore easy to dehumanise and despise.
  5. Shaggy underdog story - There are various famous underdog organisations and leaders who have become known for being the heroic “other guy” in competition with “the big guys.” The most obvious of these is Apple as the underdog when facing off against Microsoft. The problem is that when you become this kind of underdog hero, if you are successful then eventually you are no longer the underdog! Apple is now very much part of the mainstream no matter how much they try and keep an edgy and unconventional brand. As I think we are now seeing happen to Apple, when people have loved you for being the underdog, it’s easy for them to fall out of love with you when you’re no longer in that role.
  6. Bland disappointment - People expect a lot, you promised great things, maybe you are the one great hope for the future… Except, then when you eventually reach the position of leadership you have been aiming for you find the restrictions of that senior position are such that you can’t quite deliver on the promises, you can’t quite make the radical change you’d wished to, you have to compromise far more than you’d imagined you would. Barrack Obama could be an example of this. I still have hopes for him, but I get a strong sense that many of us had hoped he would bring much more radical change to America and the world than he has done. Even with a fair degree of awareness, I can own that when I witnessed Obama’s rise to power I had hopes that maybe this one would be the leader to save us all. I wanted him to have all the answers because it is such a big, complex world.  Seeing what has happened to him and the way he seems to have been blocked in so many of his great dreams is a part of what has formed my conviction that heroic leadership will never deliver what we want it to.
  7. CEO disease - This is common and relatively simple. When you get senior enough no one is willing to give you really honest feedback and because of that you end up doing stupid things because you lack the information to know any better.
  8. God complex - Not only do people believe you are the golden one, but you start to believe it yourself! Maybe this is supported by the fact that you do seem to get stellar results where others have failed. Whatever the circumstances, you start to believe your own hype, get cocky, and become a diva or a tyrant. “Quail before me minions! I have the answer, so verily go forth and do my bidding or suffer my wrath!”
  9. Egoic implosion - essentially the next step on from the God complex. Having become the tyrant you realise what has happened, maybe you have a turning point moment where you catch yourself saying something you swore you would never say. However it happens, having realised what you have become and regardless of success, you realise that everyone hates you and you kind of hate yourself. Your ego implodes and you don’t know who you are anymore.
  10. Self-combusting volcano of doom! - This is essentially the next step on from Egoic Implosion. At the same time you realise that you hate what you have become, you also realise that lots of people are depending on you and you don’t know how to do what you do without being the tyrant you now hate. So you keep doing it out of a sense of duty, and on top of hating yourself for the monster you’ve become, you start to hate everyone else because their dependence on you keeps you locked in the role of tyrant. In this instance leaders can be burning themselves up on the inside while spilling vitriol on to those around them as well.

As is my habit in this series of lists of 10, I am treating this subject with some humour. However as you can probably tell, when this stuff starts to play out it is no joke. I think more than anything else, leaders need to maintain their humility and vulnerability, and those of us in the position of follower have to remember our compassion even when a leader seems to be unreasonable. Compassion doesn’t have to be a soft thing, it could be about setting a hard boundary and saying “that is not okay,” or giving some tough feedback but we must do so lovingly not viciously. For those who are brave enough to lead others, life can be very hard and very lonely. The question I increasingly find myself sitting with is how we can create distributed leadership, how leaders can grow other leaders and we can all take greater responsibility for ourselves, our organisations, and our world.

 

These are just thoughts on-the-fly but hopefully they have triggered your thinking on what leadership means in your life, and if you're a leader, perhaps what brings life to your leadership. If you've enjoyed this blog post then sign up for the newsletter to receive free stuff and updates on my future work.

 

Check out previous ’10 ways…’ articles and look out for future parts of this series:

 

Spiritualising the Body

Often in the modern dialogue around spirituality we can be disconnected from the body. For various reasons with roots ranging from certain periods of Christian teaching, to Descartes' philosophical mind/body divide, right through to very contemporary ideas about spiritual 'transcendence', many of us seem to have ideas that the body is somehow less spiritual or even not spiritual at all. I have observed many times in many people some version of the thought that in order to be spiritual we need to disconnect from the physical. While materialism and fear of physical threat can be traps which keeps us from really focusing our attention on our deep values and higher ideals, if we are ever to reach towards enlightenment or any other kind of spiritual development, we must do so in our bodies, with our bodies, and through our bodies. I would suggest that our dissociation with our own bodies is a large contributing factor in creating the behaviour which has damaged and is destroying our planet. If we dismiss our own bodies as 'un-spiritual' and therefore not worthy of care, then how likely are we to bring deep care and attention to the 'body' of Mother Earth? I would also suggest that while we need large scale cultural change around how we relate to our environment, large cultural change can begin with small personal change. One way to approach this is to Spiritualise the Body. It doesn't need 'spiritualising', it is full of beauty and spirit already, so really this is more about remembering that. Remembering is a wonderful word in this context. We have been dis-membered, taken apart by these ideas of an 'un-spiritual' body and it is time to put ourselves back together – to re-member. This exercise is a first step towards that by taking something we do all the time – washing – and turning it into a spiritual practice.

 

In many traditions there are ways of physically cleansing the body which are also considered to be deeply spiritual acts. This can take the form of internal cleansing or external cleansing.

 

A number of shamanic traditions from around the world feature some form of 'purging' which often literally involves spitting or vomiting up matter which is considered to be linked to negative energy. Perhaps the best example of this is the Ayahuasca traditions of Brazil where they are ingesting a 'teacher plant' which has both hallucinogenic properties and purgative properties. The plant brings the shaman or practitioner visions which are considered direct interactions with the spiritual realm and at the same time the body is purged of negative energies, sometimes through vomiting - you don't need to worry that I'm going to get you to do that! A less extreme example of internal cleansing might be the use of fasting. When you fast, typically toxins are purged from the body, that's part of why you often get headache's and bad breath during a fast – that's the nasty stuff that's collected in corners being swept out of the body. While this has physical health benefits, in some of the traditions which work with fasting, the evacuation of physical toxins from the body is also seen to have a spiritual correlation so that your spirit or energy body is being cleansed by the process of the fast as well.

 

An example of external cleansing can be seen in the First Nation (or Native American) tradition of the sweat-lodge. The sweat-lodge is one of the most common traditional ceremonies that I have come across in the North American tradition and there have been suggestions that similar ceremonies may have been used in Europe too. The sweat-lodge is a small dome built from bent branches and then covered with hides or blankets with a pit inside to put heated stones in and a fire outside to heat the stones. The precise construction of the lodge and it's alignment to the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) varies but is always considered to be of great importance. This was a sacred place, not unlike a church. The symbolism of the sweat-lodge is that it represents the womb of Mother Earth and you go into the be ritually 'reborn' after the ceremony. The emphasis that I have experienced is always on the spiritual dimensions of the 'sweat' but there is a reality that this is a very real physical cleansing process too. Not unlike a sauna, the heat makes you sweat and by sweating you are releasing toxins from the body, on top of that the steam in the air means that once you towel off after the ceremony you are actually pretty clean, not just caked in sweat! Another example of external cleansing can be found in the Hindu tradition. Within Hinduism it is considered that each of us carries a seed of the divine within us so if we don't take care of ourselves then we are failing to take care of the divine within. As such, personal hygiene (for instance) is of great importance. You have probably at least heard of Yoga, and may know it was originally a Hindu discipline. What is less well-known is that what we commonly call 'Yoga' is actually only one of the 4 primary Yogic paths. What we usually call 'Yoga' is Raja Yoga. There is also Jnana Yoga which primarily involves exploring the nature of being through certain types of dialogue and enquiry; Karma Yoga which involves engaging in good works in the world; and Bhakti Yoga which involves devotional practices (ritual expressions of loving the divine). One of the traditional devotional practices of Bhakti Yoga is bathing statues of Gods and Goddesses, sometimes just bathing the feet.

 

So... what I want to invite you to do draws on the principles expressed in all of these traditions but most directly on these last aspects of Hinduism. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make a ritual out of having a bath and bathe yourself like you are bathing a God or Goddess! Once you have done one really special one, you could make your daily shower, bath, wash, teeth-brush or anything else into a small personal ritual or spiritual practice. However, I really recommend doing one really special one and setting aside time to do it with great care and attention. If you can, I suggest a bath because showers tend to be quicker and more functional so a bath lends itself more to slowing down and taking greater care. Rituals or ceremonies typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end – like a story. The beginning tells your mind and being that something special is about to happen and helps to raise your levels of awareness and attention. The end lets you know when you are done and can step back out into a more ordinary awareness. The middle is whatever journey you want to craft for yourself in this special space of heightened awareness. So for this ritual you need to find a way to mark the beginning – this could be anything. Some simple ones could be the 'ding' of a Tibetan singing bowl, playing a special piece of music, or lighting a candle. At the end you can just do this same thing again (the 'ding', play the music again, or blow out the candle) – or you can find some other way to mark the end point such as writing a list of 5 things you are grateful for, reading a beautiful poem out loud, or a moment of silence. Then in the middle your task is to make your bathing as nurturing, loving, beautiful, present, and aware as you possibly can. Light lots of candle, use scented oils, have a lovely soft towel waiting afterwards, or even without any special 'stuff' you can bring deep care and attention to how you wash every part of your body. Slow down and take sensual pleasure in it all. As you pour water over your feet, pour love over them too. As you rub soap into your hands and face, be gentle, loving, kind, and deeply attentive to how it feels and how you could make it even lovelier, more caring, and attentive. Move through it all at least a little slower than you usually would and love every part of you, encountering it as if for the first time: with fresh eyes and wonder in your heart. Allow yourself to be newly amazed at this wonderful bodied being that is you, this awesome embodiment of your consciousness, this body that does so many amazing things – moving, and healing, feeling, sensing, touching, stretching, breathing, eating, connecting you with yourself, your loved-ones and your world. Love every inch of yourself, especially the bits you usually struggle to love, with the idea that this body-being is a vessel for the divine. God, the Goddess, spirit, soul, Love, the Tao, Buddha-nature, or Christ-consciousness – whatever name you give to that ineffable thing from which all things come, all things return, and which connects all things, play with the idea that some part of that divine awareness lives in you and by this act of loving and caring for yourself, you are loving and caring for the Divine.

 

Wishing you a beautiful time!

 

This article is an excerpt of the online Spiritual Exploration course I will be releasing soon.  Sign up to the email newsletter to get access to a 30 minute guided visualization which is also part of it along with many other free resources.

What is Wisdom really?

What do I mean by ‘Wisdom’?

I first began thinking about how we can cultivate more wisdom when I was reflecting on the differences between fields of knowledge such as the sciences and mathematics; and the wisdom traditions from around the world such as religion, philosophy, and spirituality.  If you look at what texts have emerged from these two broad areas of human endeavour over the last 500, 1000, or even 2000 years the sciences seem to have seen a lot of progress with the core messages and underpinning concepts and assumptions having completely transformed; while the texts from the wisdom traditions contain basically the same messages, expressed in subtly different ways over and over again.  Different traditions may vary a bit but within any given tradition the core teachings, messages, underpinning concepts and assumptions are basically the same.  Now, this suggests to me that either the sciences have been progressed by generations of brilliant minds while wisdom has been at best handed down faithfully by some minimally creative bozo’s, or,  that what is being passed on is profoundly different in each case.  The first possibility strikes me as extremely unlikely!  It would be very hard to argue that there haven’t been some brilliant minds and deeply insightful people working, studying and teaching in the wisdom traditions even in recent times, let alone over the centuries and millennia.  So, the question for me then becomes: What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

As I considered this question I came across a quote from David Brooks[1]:

Wisdom doesn’t consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”

While it is still strongly focused around knowledge, I love this as a definition.  It has a poetry and humility about it which really speaks to me.  As I was thinking about all this, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of senior leaders about wisdom.  To speak with any validity to these deeply pragmatic people, I felt I needed to get really practical about what I meant when I said ‘Wisdom.’  Going back to where I started, it seemed most useful to compare and contrast knowledge with wisdom and what I came up with is the following simple chart:

Knowledge

Wisdom

+ Quantifiable

- Unquantifiable

+ Easy to pass on

-Must be ‘lived’

- More specific

+Transferable

- Ungrounded

+ Grounded

Replaceable

Irreplaceable

 

As you can see, they both have advantages and disadvantages; my work isn’t about arguing for wisdom instead of knowledge, I think we desperately need both.  The reason I’m focusing on wisdom is because all of our systems are brilliantly calibrated to capture, value and assess knowledge, while I see wisdom as being progressively lost, de-valued, and dismissed.  I want to be clear early on that I am not against knowledge, I am for wisdom.

So, let me explain what I mean in my chart.  By ‘quantifiable’ I mean that knowledge can be clearly recorded and tested for.  We are overflowing with sources of knowledge from the billions of books in existence to academic papers, to the internet.  We have lots of knowledge very clearly recorded, and for many people, easily accessed.  You can also relatively easily test whether or not someone has a particular body of knowledge by asking them questions and seeing if they get them right.  That’s mostly what we do in schools (and by schools I mean academic environments in general)[2].   

Conversely, wisdom is unquantifiable, it can’t be recorded and it can’t be tested for.  “What about all those wisdom books you mentioned before?” I hear you cry.  Ah well, I think there’s a reason that the core messages have stayed the same over the centuries: they are not about recording wisdom, they are maps to guide us towards cultivating our own wisdom.  If you are recording knowledge then as the data changes, the record must change, but if you are trying to provide a map or set of sign-posts for someone to have their own experience of one of life’s essential guiding principles then that is not going to change generation to generation.  I would argue partly because these things have a timelessness about them, but more concretely, if knowledge can be passed from one generation to the next then one generation starts from the point the last one ended and progress is therefore linear.  If wisdom must be based on your personal lived experience then while one generation can be guided by their elders, they can only ever progress for the length of a human life.  Wisdom is cyclical in each generation rather than being linear and progressive.  Here we come to the second point in the chart: that wisdom must be lived for yourself, it cannot be passed on.  You can be mentored in developing your own wisdom but it can’t be directly handed down.  With knowledge you just have to have access to the information, you don’t even have to have access to the person who made the discoveries – it’s relatively easy to pass on.  For any of you that have older children, or perhaps you remember your own adolescence, if you have ever tried to give a teenager advice, you’ll know that your wisdom cannot be passed on!  Typically it works like this: You offer advice (your hard-earned wisdom), they ignore it and do what they like anyway, and if you and they are lucky then a few years later they offer you the same piece of advice you gave them, in their own words, as if you had never spoken.  People, to a significant degree, have to make their own mistakes – and that’s one of the ways we gain wisdom.

By ‘transferable’ I mean something different than the capacity to pass it on.  I mean this in terms of the application – that knowledge is mostly specific to a particular field you are working on, and the more knowledgeable you get to be in a given topic, generally, the more specialised that knowledge becomes.  When there is so much knowledge out there, this is a natural consequence of that abundance.  Wisdom on the other hand is more attitudinal.  It is not as specific and, although you can develop wisdom in the environment you spend your time in, generally speaking a lot of that wisdom will still be applicable when you move to a new environment.  If we go back to Brooks’ contention that wisdom is: “knowing how to treat knowledge” then that can be applied to any body of knowledge in any field.  It is an attitude towards knowledge rather than knowledge itself, and that attitude can help you to approach any environment in a more effective way than you would have done even 6 months ago, but certainly 10 years ago.

What I am describing as ‘grounded’ is that it is, by its nature, in contact with life as it is lived in the rough-and-tumble of daily life – roots deep in the dirt.  Knowledge does not innately have this quality; it can be recorded, passed on, and digested in isolation.  We have the phrase “Ivory Tower Academic” to express this exact phenomenon.  This is a label we have for someone who is the pinnacle of achievement in their field of knowledge – an expert in the truest sense of the word – but their knowledge has been developed in such isolation, the atmosphere of their thinking so rarefied that it is distant from day-to-day experience to the extent that it no longer seems relevant and applicable.  There is much knowledge and many academics who are wonderful practitioners as well, but this distancing from human experience is inherently possible in the nature of knowledge and simply cannot happen with wisdom.  If it has become that distant, it’s not wisdom anymore!  As I said earlier, wisdom must be lived – personally and intimately in contact with the realities of life. 

Graduate trainees can be a perfect example of this kind of knowledge developed in isolation.  In my work on programs developing graduate management trainees I am working with young people, many of whom are far more academically qualified than I am – arguably more knowledgeable than I am by most conventional measures – and part of what I think we do in those programs is create an environment where it is safe for them to have their first car crash of learned knowledge with human relationships and professional challenge.  No few of them arrive armoured in their arrogance and surrounded by the golden aura of having been the best of the best in their educational establishments, and often they will leave a little more humble, a little more human, and I would suggest, hopefully a little wiser.  They have learned better how to wield the wealth of knowledge they have gained through schooling, and as Brooks’ poetically puts it, they have a better “…feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”

It seems important at this point to make a small distinction between wisdom and experience.  It would be understandable if you had started to wonder if they were not the same thing by this point.  I may speak more about this later articles, and will certainly address it in the book I am working on 'The Wisdom Economy', but for now I just wanted to lay that thought to rest a little.  I would suggest that you can have plenty of experience without gaining wisdom.  Most of us will have met someone who has been working or living in an environment for many years and doesn’t seem any wiser now than someone 2 weeks in.  Most of us will recognise the character in the workplace who, in spite of their many years on the job is still a pain in the bum to work with and has relatively little to offer except completion of the most basic tasks.  In Britain the term ‘Jobsworth’ is often associated with such individuals.  Developing wisdom is not just a matter of passively sitting somewhere for many years.  The passing of time helps with the cultivation of wisdom and cannot be bypassed by speed-reading or having an eidetic memory, but it is not the only condition.  Someone can have a lot of experience and have developed very little wisdom.  I see wisdom as being akin to a distillation of experience.  The distilling process is what I will explore more in future articles, videos and the book, but for now it’s enough to know that experience and wisdom, while linked, are not the same.  I would also add a note of compassion for those who have many years of experience but little wisdom: we are all living with the legacy of many generations of systematic neglect or even destruction of the methods by which wisdom is cultivated in ourselves and those who come after us.  While laziness or just sheer apathy may well have played a part in the missed opportunity for growing wisdom, a decimated cultural legacy has affected all of us and many people genuinely don’t know any other way to be.  Part of my hope with this work I have developed is that it could be part of a return to collective wisdom which will make it much less likely people will numb themselves to the passing of days and years and miss the beauty, wonder, and learning that life itself has to offer us.

So, finally in my chart we come to replaceable and irreplaceable.  Hopefully you are already seeing how this applies to these now distinct fields of knowledge and wisdom, but I want to be explicit.

Seeing the world only through the lens of knowledge, as long as you have a record of their knowledge, a person can be replaced.  If you find someone with a similar background in learning then they will be able to read the notes of the person they are replacing and be up to speed fast.  If the last few things they were doing are missing, the largely linear nature of knowledge means that there’s a good chance of extrapolating what they were developing.  Even if you just get someone with a very high IQ, good basic education, excellent recall and then make sure they can speed-read, then you can replace someone almost from scratch relatively fast (at least compared with how long it took to grow that person in the first place!).

Most of us would recognise that what I’ve just described is rarely how it works.  It can sometimes, I have seen people in organisations replaced ‘like-for-like’ with shocking speed at times, sometimes even quite successfully, but much of the time we’d recognise that the person isn’t replaced and the ‘getting up to speed’ takes much longer than our efficiency-driven systems would like to tell us is possible.  So while I think that many of us would recognise the irreplaceability of a person it can be rationalised away because even in the 'Knowledge Economy' with its aspirations to valuing people, knowledge can be replaced – or even upgraded.  I think this rationalisation is made at our peril.  When we fail to recognise the innate and specific value of other human beings it’s easy to make them less than human, just cogs in a machine.  And once they are not fully human we don’t have to treat them like real people, we can treat them like things.  And you only have to look at the world’s hazardously growing rubbish-tips to see how we, as a culture, treat things: they have a limited value and when we decide that has run out we throw them away.  I am of course not recommending total stagnation – change is necessary, in fact I’m advocating it here!  But the attitude we take to that change, the way we create it together, the way we treat each other, and the responsibility we collectively take for making a world where people learn, grow, and are honoured for that rather than becoming ‘obsolete’ is deeply needed.  I think a wonderful step towards that kind of change exists in the opportunity we have to re-learn how to recognise and value wisdom rather than, at best ignoring it as un-measurable, and at worst dismissing it as irrelevant.

 

If you'd like to join me on my journey of exploring and cultivating wisdom then join the mailing list.  This is the first of a series of articles on this topic, there is the book I am working on, and I will be sharing free resources exclusively with members of the mailing list as I continue to develop and write about this work.

 

I'd love to have you along for the journey.

 


[1] In his book ‘The Social Animal’

[2] This isn’t limited to cognitive knowledge either.  Even if we break it down into domains of knowledge using a model such as Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, practical skills can be recorded and tested for and while growth in feelings or emotional areas is hard to record as knowledge (and may bridge knowledge and wisdom as I am defining them), sophistication in this realm is increasingly measurable using psychological methodology.

10 ways to inspire people (inspirational leadership)

 

  1. Walk your talk and talk to your walk- I figured I'd start with 'walking your talk' as in many ways it's the most obvious one. Really it boils down to doing what you say you will. If you say you'll be inclusive, include people; if you say you will be collaborative, collaborate; if you say you will be a demanding ass-hat, demand stuff, like an ass-hat. It's straightforward to explain but much harder to do, and when you do it well it inspires powerful trust. When I say talk your walk, what I mean is make sure that people know what you're doing. If you're invisible, it's impossible for anyone to follow you! This may sound like a joke but I fell foul of this some years ago managing a team: I was working very hard to get them opportunities they wanted, but was doing this in the background without them knowing so all they saw was a manager who wasn't at his desk very much, and therefore seemed unavailable. Positive intention, negative impact. So if this sounds like something you might do, get over yourself, it's not bragging - just let people know what you're working on, it helps them know you care.

  2. Give a shit! - Put simply you've got to care about what you do. That might seem ridiculously obvious but I meet plenty of managers and leaders (and people more widely too) who, with the absolute best will in the world, are not really connected with a sense of pride and purpose in what they do. I think this may speak of a greater cultural malaise and that tough-reality situation that many of us, myself included have, or will, find ourselves in: doing the job because it pays the bills. I am not in any way wanting to criticise that, all of us have to earn a living. However, out of a sense of care, I would encourage you to find or re-find a sense of purpose in your day-to-day grind. Maybe it's for the people you care for as a manager, maybe it's a niche passion in your workplace for making sure the recycling gets done. Whatever it is, find it and follow it because if your experience is anything like mine the alternative is a slow death of the spirit. I wouldn't want that for you, and it sure as hell isn't very compelling in terms of leadership either!

  3. Appreciate people - I've said it before, I'll say it again, I will probably bang on about this a lot. The simple act of saying thank you, the mindful moment of asking permission and offering positive feedback, the gentle noticing of someone's gifts, the hiding round corners to catch your people doing something right. Whatever it looks like, appreciating people builds relationships and creates a better world. Why wouldn't you do it? There are some great resources to help you do this in the members area if you go and create a login and join the mailing list.

  4. Be daring - I grant you this can be a risky strategy, but life is full of risks so why not choose some that feel good, that connect you with who you want to be. Your stretching, reaching out of your comfort zone, will inspire others to do the same. If you dare to lead a big life others may dare with you. That doesn't mean being a noisy idiot, big doesn't have to mean loud, it is about taking that scary step of really offering what you have to give.

  5. Know what you're "for" - This is a tough one because there are instances where campaigning against something can be a powerful and necessary act. However, even when that's the case, my experiences is that it serves the cause better and is eminently more inspiring to more people if you are "for" something rather than "against" something. This is the difference between an activist and a reactionary. So whatever you're fighting for, whatever you're leading for, whatever you want to inspire people about: work out what you are "for."

  6. Invitation not indoctrination - Telling people what to think and do is not attractive. Even when it is an effective strategy, hammering home the point with a mallet formed of your frustration, pain and un-shed tears is, I would suggest, a sub-optimal way of embodying your leadership. While giving commands can be necessary in a crisis, under any other circumstances it's likely to come across as arrogant at best and bullying at worst. So get clear about the adventure you're going on, the journey your taking, the challenge you're facing, the task you wish to complete, and invite people to join you. Work out what is compelling, exciting, or intriguing about what you are trying to do and share your excitement with people. This relies on you being vulnerable, letting them see something of yourself, but ultimately is a much more sustainable and inspiring way to get people involved.

  7. Persist - Don't bash away at people's patience like a sugar drunk the toddler trying to mash a puzzle piece into the wrong place- "if I keep doing this long enough eventually it will fit!" Do stand up for what you believe in. You are going to face knock-backs, even the best of us do, but if you're the person who keeps doggedly fighting for the things you consider to be important that will inspire others. Sometimes hard work is what makes success sweet!

  8. Be human - Not only will you face knock-backs, you will face failure. Let people see that. You don't need to be the scary liquid metal guy from terminator 2, coldly marching forwards to execute your mission oblivious to the pieces getting blown off you. You don't want to be sobbing in the corner either, but it is inspiring for people to see that you're a human being who struggles sometimes. It's inspiring because that's how we all feel at times, and if people can see you have those feelings but then pick yourself up and keep going, that can inspire them to do the same.

  9. Be better! - Being human doesn't mean you fail to learn from your mistakes. Always be learning, always be growing. Meeting someone who seems almost super-human, someone amazing is… Well amazing! But in some ways meeting someone who we can see is deeply human, but we can also see is learning all the time can be even more inspiring. I can identify more with the journey of another human being and if they are growing and learning all the time, then I can too.

  10. Be you. - Even if you did everything I've listed and a million things more but you did it falsely, as an act, in-authentically, then people will smell that. Maybe not everyone, maybe some people buy the act, but some people, and over time and that number is only likely to grow, will spot the bullshit. To reference one of my favourite quotes:

 

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

- Howard Thurman

 

If you can work out what your unique gifts really are, then embrace and embody them fully, I think that will be the most inspiring thing you do. Because you'll be inspiring others to do the same, to find their gifts and embrace them, and that is a kind of magic that spreads.

 

 

These are just thoughts on-the-fly but hopefully they have triggered your thinking on what leadership means in your life, and if you're a leader, perhaps what brings life to your leadership. If you've enjoyed this blog post then check out the others in the series, sign up for the newsletter to receive free stuff and updates on my future work.

 

Look out for future parts of this series:

 

  • 10 ways heroic leaders will fail

  • 10 ways to connect with leadership through metaphor

  • 10 ways of being a leader embraces

  • and more...

 

10 ways to be a leader in daily life

It's my belief that leadership is not a specialist field of expertise for managers and those who run organisations; I think it's a foundational human capacity. I think it is a natural way of being which many people are either not very aware of, or avoid. That's understandable it is a domain that has largely been claimed by positional leaders - those most obviously in charge. However, reclaiming leadership is in some ways relatively simple because it's not a matter of what you do (like a role or job) it's a matter of who you are.

 

At Westpoint Military Academy in the US, the definition of a leader is:

 

"anyone who influences others to take effective action"

 

So when a baby cries and its mother picks it up, that baby is a leader! We are born leaders, so here are some ways you can embrace that birthright:

 

  1. Develop your powers of self-awareness - as I go on you'll see I get specific about some of the aspects of yourself you will need to be more aware of, but before you can do any of that you need to be developing a sharp sense of yourself, a deeper understanding of who you are: What's important to you? What motivates you? What do you care about? What nourishes you? What the sam-hill do you want to do with this crazy thing we call a life?! Without a foundation of self-awareness the rest of this is going to be very hard… Growing self-awareness is a skill and one seldom taught in schools so it may take some work to get good at.

  2. Reflect on what is meaningful to you - if you don't know what's meaningful, what is important to you, then it's going to be very hard to work out what effective action looks like, let alone influence other people to move in that direction!

  3. Grow your sense of purpose - put simply why do you do what you do? Again if you're not clear about your own purpose how can you help others to find theirs? There have been various studies which seem to suggest that most people want a sense of purpose in their lives. If you can help people find that sense of purpose in life not only will it be easy to lead them, but you will be enriching their lives by doing so. Even if you don't want to lead them towards anything, you'll be being a leader by example, helping people feel more purposeful and engaged in their lives. Things like that subtly make the world a better place – Go you!

  4. Work out what inspires you - one of the key forms of influence is to inspire people and if you don't know what inspires you, you will find it hard to inspire others. What lights you up and gets you talking into the middle of the night?

  5. Get clear about what you stand for - what will you stand up and be counted for? What would you defend if it was threatened? What do you love? What do you wish to nurture in the world?

  6. Appreciate skilfully and beautifully - most of us are to some degree starved of appreciation and I would say that it is one of the best ways to nurture and care for people. More than that it can be an amazing way of spotting and then cultivating the unique gifts each of us has to offer. In terms of winning people over when you're working for a cause, whether they feel appreciated or not will win or lose the loyalty of others. I think this is true in all of our relationships: if you want to stay connected with people, appreciate them. If you want to help others find and use their unique and wonderful gifts, appreciate the bejeesus out of them!

  7. Develop mad listening skillz man - I see more leaders struggling because they failed to pick up on small things that are important to their people than for just about any other reason. Indeed, I have failed in this way myself. And when I say "their people" that could mean people you very obviously lead, or just the people in your life. We are all influencing each other all the time, we are all leaders and followers in all sorts of circumstances, and listening can be the Yin to inspirations' Yang.

  8. Cultivate courtesy - it's a basic one but no one wants to follow a douche! Just basically being polite to people, holding doors, saying please and thank you. These are the old-fashioned and oft forgotten foundation-stones of greatness.

  9. Get cosy with your floors - you know, roll around on the floor that kinda thing… Oh no! I didn't mean that. Oops! I meant flaws. If you spend enough time with anyone they are going to spot some of the ways that you are less than perfect. We all screw up, we all get frustrated from time to time, we all make mistakes. That's human. All the best leaders I've met are very familiar with their flaws, and can therefore more readily spot when they are falling down a hole. At the very least, when someone calls us on it we are more likely to take it on the chin rather than fiercely denying it and persecuting them for reflecting our most painfully crap habits. The really great leaders I've met have got fantastic at apologising to people as well. In relationships I think there is very little you can't repair but getting skilled at apologising is necessary to make that work.

  10. Know your greatness - you're awesome! I mean that, let it land for a moment: You Are Awesome. Just as you have to know your flaws, you also have to know your gifts, you have to know what it is that you uniquely can give to the world. Beautifully, skilfully, gracefully, joyfully. That is your leadership. Being you, authentically, fully, offering all that you are to the world with love and a passion as fierce as a rutting Tasmanian Devil and the tenderness of a mumma-bear curling up with it's cub (should those 2 metaphors go next to each other, probably not...) is the heart of what I think it means to "lead by example." If you take one thing away from this list, let it be this:

    Offer the wonder of you to the world with an open heart again and again and again.

    What could be more effective or influential than that? ...And maybe if you can be that courageous other people might join in the fun.

 

These are just thoughts on-the-fly but hopefully they have triggered your thinking on what leadership means in your life, and if you're a leader, perhaps what brings life to your leadership. If you've enjoyed this blog post then sign up for the newsletter to receive free stuff and updates on my future work.

 

Look out for future parts of this series:

 

Fudoshin

This is a Japanese word most commonly used in the martial arts. Broadly speaking, Fudo means immovable; and Shin means spirit. As you can probably guess sometimes this is used to describe a martial quality of being so firmly rooted and grounded that you cannot be moved even with great force. However, the deeper philosophical meaning has as much to do with flow as it has to do with solidity. The "immovable spirit" is the essential nature at the very heart of our being that is unchanging; that within us which is constant, absolute. It is considered that when we are deeply connected with our unchanging core, then everything else about us can be fluid, graceful, and able to blend with the changes and challenges life brings to us.

So Fudoshin, is both the mountain and the waves that surround it. The mountain, immovable, a constant of the landscape across millennia. The waves, always changing, always flowing; rising and falling with the tides; fierce and dramatic one moment, still and tranquil the next.

For me, developing Fudoshin is a journey of contacting and cultivating our immovable, essential spirit, while also growing our capacity to flow gracefully in the dance of life. That is what I seek to grow in myself and to develop in others.

Environmentalism and our relationship with the world

I’m a city boy.  I also love nature.  The tension between these two things is not always easy, especially as nature doesn’t always seem to love me.  I have bad hay-fever and pale skin so I burn easily in summer.  The times when most people spend most time in nature and when many people state frequently that  “it’s a lovely day,” I find myself most often responding by saying “well, it’s a hot day.”  I am to summer what the Grinch is to Christmas!  I am however passionate about caring for our planet.  I love Mother Earth and I have spent enough time studying shamanism and indigenous tribal cultures from around the world that my world view is heavily influenced by animism.  I see the world around me as deeply alive and I am one of those people who sees the destruction of our rich, natural environments by the steady progress of unthinking industrialisation as deeply concerning.  However, unlike many of the people who are seeking in some way to save the planet I also love cities.  I don’t subscribe to the view that some people of the earth loving persuasion seem to have adopted that human beings may just be the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet Earth.  I love people.  And there is a reality as far as I can see that more people live in towns and cities, and in the future even more people are going to live in towns and cities.  Short of a mad Max-style apocalyptic Armageddon lots of people are going to continue to live in cities.  I deeply admire the people who are caring for our wild natural environments, and leading others out into this wilderness to experience its beauty.  However, while all of our attention in caring for the environment is focused on caring for the wild natural environment then for those many people like me who live in a town or city, we are at best stuck caring for something that is all too often distant, abstract, and insufficiently integrated into our daily lives.

The distinction is frequently made between what is natural and what is man-made and while I understand the making of this distinction I think it may be our biggest problem, our biggest barrier to really transforming our global attitude towards care for our beautiful planet.  It’s interesting to me that this distinction is so often used in the language of those who seem to care most about the preservation of our planet.  I would suggest that this language, this distinction, is the language of separation and it is this separation which is the enabler or even creator of the tragic human mind-set which leads to relating to the planet as a resource to be used, a thing to be objectified, and an environment to be conquered and dominated.  As long as we see man as separate from nature we support a view of nature as other, and as long as nature is other we can be better than it, above it, instead of recognising our total interdependence with this beautiful entity that is planet Earth. Mankind is not separate from nature, it is a small part of nature, perhaps a growing part but the oceans, mountains, forests, the great mass of animal kind in all its beautiful diversity are still pretty substantial members of this grand collective entity too.

Returning to where I began this article, within the language of separation cities are often seen as the embodiment of the man-made.  As long as this attitude continues even those of us most concerned with the preservation of nature unconsciously continue this language of separation and in doing so sustain the very attitude of arrogance which has led to mankind’s use and misuse of our beautiful natural home. While most people who are aware of our global ecological situation would agree that the march of urbanisation cannot continue with its current trajectory if the human race is going to find a way not to wipe itself out, a total rejection of urban environments seems unlikely to be a viable option short of catastrophic, mass destruction.  My hope, and to some degree my faith is that the transformation of these environments is what is necessary, and possible.  Like I say, I’m a city boy, and I think if we are to see this necessary transformation then we need to reclaim our cities as part of nature. Other animals than us build things. I have yet to meet the ecologists that look at the giant termite mounds with the distaste they might look at cities saying “what a shame they chose to build there, it’s ruined the landscape!”  Of course, I know what we create is not the same as what termites create.  What I am wanting to illustrate is how distain for the city, no matter how well intentioned in terms of environmental impact and ecological concern, is just as much an expression of the mind-set of separation that has led us to this mess, as the executive who looks on our countryside and sees only its potential to provide fossil fuels.  The intention is different, but the underlying assumption of separation is the same.

John Perkins in one of his beautiful books relates the story of a first visit of an elder shaman, who has lived all his life in the Amazon basin, to New York City. This elder who would speak of great trees, mountains, and rivers as having genders, characters, and names; on first seeing the Empire State building made the comment “very beautiful, very feminine.” The irony of such a statement regarding so phallic a construction is quite a thing in itself, but something else stood out for me when I read this story.  What was transformational in terms of my view of the world, was the fact that this elder shaman, this man who would have every right to come to a great Western city such as New York and see its industrialised opulence and be critical, instead saw this great building in the same light as he would look upon a mountain, a great tree, or a river. What this says to me is that so deeply rooted in his psyche is a total identification of himself and all mankind as just another part of nature.  It is my conviction that if we are to successfully shift our trajectory in relation to our ecological crisis, then we must change the deep assumptions in our psyche’s which set mankind and our creations as separate from nature instead of merely a part of that great entity. Yes, we need change, I think we must change the way our urban environments operate and coexist with the wild and natural environments that surround them, but if we do this out of distain for those urban environments we continue the story of separation and domination, we continue to conquer instead of collaborating. To change your cities I think we must love our cities. I don’t think it’s going to be enough to take people out into wild nature and help them to love that. That work is wonderful, and beautiful, and necessary, and close to my heart but we must take the work of nature awareness, we must take the work of mindful interaction with our environment, and apply that to our cities just as much as we apply that to our parks, Forests, or places of natural beauty.  It is said that part of why, when Europeans arrived in America, it was so easy for them to rob the indigenous tribes of their land is because the idea of land ownership was a nonsense to those indigenous tribes.  The land did not belong to them, they belonged to the land.

Even if we managed to completely transform our way of relating to natural resources, unless we change the story of separation, at best we will become beneficent dictators and I suspect that all we will do is delay the inevitable.  If we see ourselves as rescuers “saving the planet,” I believe we will fail to save the planet.  I passionately believe that we need to tell a new story, the story of community, belonging, and collaboration.  And maybe if we can learn to become loving, trustworthy, contributing members of the communal entity that is this beautiful blue green planet, then maybe that community, this planet will see fit to save us.

The 7 Days to Spiritual Enlightenment Game!

 

OK, so the likelihood that your crown chakra will spontaneously combust with spiritual go-go juice and you’ll become an overnight guru and world-saviour as a result of playing this game is slim, but this game could help you breathe more deeply, love more fully, see your everyday world in a new light, explore life more freely and live more vividly.  If that’s not worth investing a little attention in then I don’t know what is.  Just take it one day at a time and know that as long as you put in a bit of effort, there is cake at the end of the rainbow… mmmmmm … cake…..You will need a notebook and pencil, or phone (etc) to keep note of your score on each day and the following instructions for the 7 days:

 

  1. Dolphin Breathing:  Did you know dolphin’s have to consciously breathe so they don’t drown? Crazy huh?!  So on day 1 your mission is to pause and consciously breathe as often as you can during the day (without it becoming debilitating!).  Score a point for every time you pay attention to your breath.
  2. Hello:  Day 2’s mission is to say hello to each new experience, space, moment that you can.  So, for e.g. when you enter a room, go outside (having been inside), see someone, sit down at your computer…  Just internally say a really present and aware “hello” to as many things and people as you can.  Score a point for every time you do it.
  3. Gratitude:  This one is simple, but not easy… Notice and be grateful for all the gifts in your life.  Big things like home, friends, job, etc… And the little things like lunch, the traffic or crossing light being green, a spring in your step.  Score a point for every moment of gratitude.
  4. Counter-Blessing:  People think certain words with asterisks where letters should be are curses (like F**k) but they’re not really.  The real curses are the million ways we trash-talk the world in our thoughts.  All that negativity builds up!  Today is for counter-acting that: every time you have a negative thought (even if it is a justifiable one like “Man, I hate that political policy”), counter it with a positive one (it doesn’t have to be the same thing, it’s about the balance.  So you could counter the politics comment with “look at that beautiful flower!”).  Score a point for every curse you notice and counter.
  5. Blanket Blessing:  Next step is to just bless the bejeesus out of the whole world!  Choose things as you make your way through the day and get really specific about what it is you appreciate about that thing.  What qualities make it fantastic?  It’s great practice to choose things you either don’t like or that you find mundane or boring.  Ask yourself what makes even these things wonder-full.  Score a point for each thing you bless today.  Everything has value, if can’t see it yet, keep digging until you find the gold!  Score a point for each blessing.
  6. Breaking Enchantments:  You may by this point have noticed in your mind a negative story you carry about yourself (usually some version of “I’m not good enough”).  Today is for turning these around.  Choose one of your personal enchantments and invent a phrase that’s the opposite (like “I am wonderful”).  Whenever you hear that curse in your head, break it wide open by asserting your opposite statement – your self-blessing.  Score a point every time you do it.
  7. Goodbye:  The end is here so it’s time to practice endings.  Just like the day saying hello only this time you are saying “goodbye.”  Whenever you are leaving something behind (even if it is just leaving a room) pause inside yourself and say goodbye.  Score a point for every time you do it.

 

If you score 70 points or more then you rock – go buy yourself a piece of cake to celebrate your own awesomeness!  If you score 140 points or more then you rock da house, go and buy yourself cake and ice-cream!  If you score 280 points or more then buy a whole cake, invite some friends round and share your wisdom – you are clearly a spiritual legend!  If you score more than 350 points then you are about to transcend this life, turn into a beam of light and join the enlightened masters in the heavenly realm of cake-y wonder.  Hang tight where you are, cake, and eternal life as a bodhisattva is coming to you.

For more games and resources to make life more awesome visit www.fudoshin.org.uk and check out www.ask-the-rev.net for spiritual responses to life’s questions.

A Happy Ending

Endings are important.  I find it an easy thing to forget, after all, the real stuff is done isn’t it?  Ending is just the name for… well the end, when you’ve finished what you’re doing…. No?

Well if you’re anything like me, I’d suggest it’s worth bringing some attention to how you do your endings.  My wife is a psychotherapist and I’ve learned from her and my own training and experience in Spiritual Counselling about how important it is to find a conscious way to finish working with a client.  That therapeutic space is a delicate, significant, and intimate part of people’s lives and we would be doing them a disservice, and failing to honour what I consider to be the sacredness of the work we do together if we don’t find a conscious way to bring our work to an end.  Equally, when working in ritual, whether that is in my personal life in the way I mark the turning of the year with friends, or in my formal work as a minister it is vital to bring things to a close rather than just letting it all go.  We must honour that which we call forth within ceremony and ritual whether you consider that to purely be a part of our psyche, or a spiritual or divine presence, and the place for that honouring is at the end.  That is how we finish. 

Serge Kahili King writes about the most basic structure for any ritual as being a beginning to get the attention of your whole being and say “this is something special”, a middle where the body of the ritual happens (whatever that may be), and an end which closes the ritual and releases the energies you have collected back into the world and your psyche to do their work (healing, changing, manifesting etc.).  This reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s (the famous mythologist) simplest map of the Hero’s journey as an archetypal Rite of Passage: Separation, Initiation, Return.  In simple terms this means that you leave or are taken away from your community or normal environment, you go through a challenging or transitionary experience, and then you return to your community and normal environment transformed and armed with gifts from your adventures to share with others.  How amazing would it be to feel like every ceremony or ritual you attended had that quality?  How wonderful to have that ‘time-out-of-time’ and then return feeling better equipped to be present, to help, and to love than when you left.  That is what I aim to do when I hold ceremonies for people, not necessarily in a grand and explosive way (it’s not a seminar after all!) but in a gentle and subtle way to help us all step out of the everyday, to share a connecting experience that helps us to access more beauty, connection, and love (to transform perspective), and then to create a conscious gateway to return to our day-to-day lives whereby we return refreshed and awakened.  I don’t know for sure my success rate but it feels to me that I witness people leaving a little brighter than when they arrive, and I have had some wonderful feedback from weddings, and other ceremonies I have designed and held for people.

What I have recently turned my attention to is how I bring this ceremonial or ritual awareness to my every day life.  I have been doing this in various ways for years and it is part of why the core practices for my Somatic Presence work are Breathing, Standing, Walking and Talking.  However, I have been bringing some attention to my endings… 

How often have you got to the end of the day and then just rushed out of the office?  How often have you been having a meeting and run short of time, crammed as much as you can in, and then rushed to finish so people get away on time.  It is a well-known phenomenon in therapeutic work to get a “door-handle comment.”  This is where the client seems not to settle into the work for much of the session and then just as they are leaving (hand on the door-handle…) they say something that is so profoundly what they needed to be talking about for the whole session that it is both a deep frustration, and a deep joy.  The frustration comes because they’ve only just said it as you're finishing, the joy is there because you know you can start with that thing next time and maybe, just maybe you’re starting to get somewhere…  I have both heard and made plenty of door-handle comments over the years, not just in therapeutic environments but in coaching calls, meeting a friend for a coffee, and in business meetings – especially team meetings.  The good news is that the person who says it, trusts the environment enough to say it at all.  I think in many ways we are all terrified of endings because they are the little deaths that happen all the time.  Most of us have some fear of death – the ultimate end in most people’s minds – and these little endings are constant reminders of how easily and frequently things end…or die.  But just as we may fear death, a nearness to death also tends to bring out in people a willingness to reflect on our lives, our choices, and our deeper needs than we might normally have.  Many people when a loved one dies make big changes in their lives as the death has brought a certain sense of perspective.  Death can give birth to courage.  I think this may also be why we get door-handle comments – the nearness of one of life’s little deaths helps us to be brave enough to face-up to what is really going on.

Endings then can be wonderful gifts, but we need to face them consciously.  An unconsidered death will tend to indicate an unconsidered life.  I remember a conversation with a friend about an exercise they’d done in a workshop where they had designed their own funerals.  She described her own which was very simple (barely there really!) and her friend’s which had been huge, grand, even epic!  I identified with her, in my imagination at that time my funeral would have been as quiet as possible, after all, why make a fuss?  I can see the same pattern in my day-to-day habits.  I would tend to leave the office without saying goodbye to people, I would leave parties when I was done and similarly probably only say good bye to the people I was directly speaking to, I would work right up to the end of a day, chuck things in my bag and go.  Part of what my friend shared with me in that original conversation and I have come to appreciate since is that all this is representative of my not appreciating the impact I have on the world and those around me.  I fail to realise that I matter to people or that my actions – or lack of action – has a knock-on effect.  Funerals are in so many ways not about the person that has died but the people left behind.  Saying “Goodbye” is not just about my need, it is about honouring the needs of others.  I have an impact.  I matter.  If either this, or indeed the opposite is true for you, then considering endings may be a worthwhile thing for you to do.  Do you make a grand exit because you need constant affirmation from others that you are important?  Either ends of this spectrum could indicate a lack of self-esteem.  That is certainly part of the picture for me.

All these little endings give you a chance to refine and practice making a graceful finish.  All of us will one day face an ending which we can’t do again so it’s worth getting good at endings now!

So… what have I done about it?  Well to start with I have started making use of a little ritual from the martial arts – bowing when you leave a place.  Usually upon entering and exiting the Dojo (training hall or ‘Place of the Way’ to give it the poetic translation) you bow.  This is to show respect to those more senior to you in the room, but in my mind, more importantly to the spirit of the place.  Obviously doing this everywhere you go may get embarrassing or even be inappropriate but I have started bringing my attention to it more and one way I do it is to take the moment as I leave to look back into the place I’m leaving and offer up some gratitude for it’s sanctuary - an internal bow if you will.  In my own office, I can bow as I leave and I take pleasure in that quiet moment.  That’s one thing I’ve re-focused on and I’m enjoying that.  The big thing though is that whenever I’m in my office working (rather than off facilitating a group or delivering training or something), I finish my main work a little early and take the last half-hour to work on my book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable.’  Because this is a translation of contemplative wisdom into modern language, I read a bit, ponder a bit, and then write a bit in a notebook (strictly non-computer time).  I love this time.  I am finding I leave the office feeling refreshed, inspired, and energised.  Instead of arriving home preoccupied and weary, I get back ready to have fun with my son and to help my wife.  It really is better for everyone.  This is my ending ritual for my days and it is helping me to feel lighter and more consistently connected to my purpose in life (which can get lost amongst the email mountain sometimes).

So, I’ll leave you with a question:  How do you do endings (big and small), and how could you engage with them more consciously?