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.

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.

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.

 

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?

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.