What really, really, really matters? Final day

 

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Here’s my final reflection from my retreat in Hawaii. In writing these reflections I’m not wanting to suggest I have the answers. I think of these insights more as questions to ask myself daily. As someone who has lived a lot of my time in my head I’m reminded of the helpful advice from Richard Rohr of the dangers of writing too much, hence my pausing on further blogs for the moment:

We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Richard Rohr

That said, here’s a few final reflections!

Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, be curious about them but don’t get hooked by them. One of my favourite practices introduced by Joel & Michelle Levey is one where you consider in turn the different dimensions of your experience, with an attitude of compassionate awareness. You start with the realm of the five senses, then vibrations and pulsations in the body, including the movement of the breath, then the dimension of thoughts and feelings, and finally resting in the field of pure awareness out of which the experience of our senses, bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings arise.  In this practice, we fully acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that arise, noticing them and what I find helpful, naming them. For a few seconds I give the thought or feeling my full compassionate attention, welcoming it as a visitor to my Guest House, as Rumi said in his well-known poem. This is different from going into a story about the thought or feeling, or feeding it or giving it a bed in your Guest House. I am neither judging the feeling bad or good, just being present with its arising and passing. If you know the poem, you will remember Rumi invites us to welcome and entertain ALL the visitors to our Guest House. What I found illuminating on the retreat is seeing which visitors I want to ignore (irascibility) , usher through quickly (sadness), or feel awkward around and want them to move them along quickly (joy & bliss).  Acknowledging the presence of all the visitors allows us, over time, to embrace the whole of our human experience.

Why go on an extended retreat? My reason – to wake up to the fullness of my life, at a key transition point, turning 50. As a young man in my mid-twenties I remember reading Walden by Henri David Thoreau who went to live alone in the woods in Concord for two years. Thoreau’s words then (1854) speak to my own motivation now: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” As a student of the human condition all my life, and as someone who earns my living by helping leaders creating the conditions to release human potential, it made sense to me to take this deep dive through an extended retreat.

The importance of wise guides: some people are fussy eaters. I’ve always been fussy about finding good teachers and wise guides. I’ve been blessed to have found many good teachers and mentors over the years. On the long flight back from Hawaii, I had a long layover at Los Angeles airport. I met a young man from the U.S., who was just returning from a year in Asia, whilst he had had an interesting year he had also been chastened by joining workshops and living in communities which were dominated by groupthink, manipulation and egotistical people.

Creating the conditions for exploring the territory of the soul. People argue about what is at the core of our humanity and many books have been written naming, and arguing about what this core essence is, and how we name this territory. I like the word soul but as I noted in an earlier blog this mysterious territory is known by many names: integrity, inner light, true self, pure awareness, divine spark. There needs to be safe and healthy spaces for us to explore this core of our being, however we might name it. Safe spaces that invite the soul to show up are rare in our current world. Parker Palmer is the person who has written most cogently and wisely about the conditions needed for the soul to show up in his book A Hidden Wholeness, The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. I was blessed in Hawaii to find two wise guides in the persons of Joel and Michelle Levey and the fellow retreatants who showed up from across the world and were prepared and able to create those conditions.

Where does spirituality meet leadership? There’s a crisis in modern organisations:  Who are they serving? What is their essence? How should they operate? Just look at the chapter headings from some bestselling business texts, for example Gary Hamel’s What Matters Now includes the chapter heading: Values Matter Now – Reclaiming the Noble. Spirituality is ultimately the search for meaning and purpose and leadership is the practical exercise of the fruits of that search and inquiry. Let me finish with a quote from Parker Palmer as a final lesson learnt and one which describes my journey over these three weeks on retreat and my return to family, work and community in the UK:

Spirituality, like leadership, is a hard thing to define. But Annie Dillard has given us a vivid image of what authentic spirituality is about: “In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”

Here Dillard names two crucial features of any spiritual journey. One that will take us inward and downward, towards the hardest realities of our lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealisation and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.

Why must we go down? Because as we do, we will meet the darkness that we carry within ourselves – the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

But says Annie Dillard, if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious – to “the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other”, to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives. Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.”

 

I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.

 

What really, really, really matters? Day Three

P1040212Consciousness – being aware that you are aware – is an amazing phenomena. Ponder for a moment the fact that atoms and molecules have coalesced in such a form that enables you to be conscious:  to think, feel and act for a few brief decades. As Bill Bryson tells us in his Short History of Everything, it’s an extraordinary thing that the universe is so fine-tuned for us to exist in the first place: “if the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently, if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion (of the universe) had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly – then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on.”  One of the gifts of my 3 week retreat in Hawaii was to reconnect with the everyday wonder and miracle we call life. This doesn’t mean we shut ourselves off from the suffering and pain in the world; rather we open our heart, mind and spirit to the full catastrophe of living, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it: the joy and pain, the challenge and the triumph.

Speaking of Jon Kabat-Zinn, some of you may have done an eight week Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course; many people are finding this course is an accessible introduction to mindfulness.  If you’ve done the course you will be familiar with the body scan meditation. On my Hawaiian retreat, Joel Levey led a body scan meditation with a difference. I found the meditation evoked feelings of deep appreciation for each part of the body and how it gratuitously makes its amazing contribution to our existence. I noticed how ordinarily I take for granted the complex and wonderful work each organ silently does on my behalf; how each organ harmoniously works and syncs with the others; and how consciousness emerges, like a miracle, as a phenomenon at the level of our whole system. Adopting a regular practice of gratitude (in your first waking moments of the day, at mealtimes, at the close of the day) is a great way to acknowledge the gift of life itself, ith its innumerable blessings, and the contributions that others make to our life and work. 

Re-reading this point, I wonder if some of you may consider this woo-woo, too pollyannaish? Ponder this, most of us have very well-established BMW practices: Blaming, Moaning, Whining practices which we do individually in our heads, and as collective rituals. People regularly tell me that between 25-50% of available time and energy in their organisations gets caught up in BMW behaviour or what Barry Oshry calls the ‘Side-Show’.  How about starting an intentional gratitude practice as a healthy counter-balance? Joanna Macy, in her book, Active Hope, reminds us that recognising the gifts in our life is profoundly strengthening and “by savouring these gifts, you add to your psychological buoyancy, which helps you maintain your balance and poise when you enter rougher waters.” A moment of gratitude strengthens our ability to look at and respond to, rather than turn away, from the pain and suffering in the world.

Practice – start a gratitude practice. In the evening, just before you go to sleep review your day and identify things that have happened during the day that you’re pleased about or thankful for? It doesn’t have to be major things. Close your eyes, reconnect that with that experience and recognise why you are thankful: bring the experience vividly to mind, engage your senses (sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste) and recall how you felt. Who or what contributed to that experience? Send a wave of blessing and appreciation to anyone involved who made it happen. Move on to another moment in the day that you valued and repeat the process…

I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.

Further reflections from my Hawaii retreat tomorrow. Please feel free to share any reactions or observations using the comments function below…

Aloha,

John

What really, really, really matters? Day Two

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Have you seen the postcard that says:Having a great time. Wish I were here.”

I found that early on in my retreat in Hawaii I had the strange feeling, like the writer of the postcard, that I was looking in on my experience and yet not really present. It was almost like looking through a glass window onto the world, somehow separated from it, out of contact, not connected with my senses, the people or the place. Do you ever have that experience? Noticing our absence at the time is progress of a kind; we more often notice our absence when the moment has passed. The quote below from Nadine Satir, 85 years old, of Louisville, Kentucky, captures the yearning I have to be present in my life.

“Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after the other, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.” 

So what’s my coaching to myself and you?

Slow down and connect to your centre. P1040144The Quakers talk about ‘the violence of haste’, a phrase I find powerfully descriptive of our world and much of my life.  I’ve walked labyrinths as a meditative practice for the past 25 years. A labyrinth is a single, spiralling path which takes you to a central area and back out again to the beginning on the same path. The path sometimes draws you close to the centre and at other times sweeps you away from it, sometimes there are long, open stretches of path, at other times the path doubles back on itself in an about-turn. In this way the labyrinth provides a mirror for life’s experience. I walked three different labyrinths on my retreat in Hawaii. Recently, I’ve come to think of my life as like walking a labyrinth. Rather than rushing on in haste to my destination, some place in the future, and trying to control my life and then becoming frustrated when it’s not the straight path from A to B that I want, I’m now more curious of how I can accept and embrace life’s circuitous, spiralling nature. Also, I ask myself, how can I maintain a connection to my centre as I circle through the days, weeks, months, seasons and years of my life’s path? To me the centre means that deepest part of ourselves which goes by many names: in secular language we might name it purpose, essence, integrity, Big Self; in spiritual language we might name the centre as our inner light, Spirit, God, in Hawaii they call the centre the Great Mystery (Keakua).

P1040225Take in more of the world around you – start an embodied practice. I’ve been a heady person for most of my life; my intellect and curiosity have been a great gift (at least to me!). But in recent years, and on this retreat, it’s been the embodied practices that have brought the greatest insights. One of the practices we did on the Hawaiian retreat was a walking meditation: you take a short stretch of ground and that becomes your ‘walking alley’.  As I walked up and back this 20m stretch for 45 minutes, whole universes of depth and subtlety emerged that were invisible to me at first glance. Notice how often in our over-quick naming or labelling we miss so much of the world. That’s a bush, this is a flower. On closer investigation the bush is much more diverse and interesting than its’ homogenous-sounding label: bush. The bush is in fact in various stages of opening: some branches are in bud, some are bearing fruit and others flowers. Each flower has different hues of purple (see the header photo for one of the flowers in my ‘walking alley’ in Hawaii). I am reminded of the quote by Alice Walker:  “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” None of this beauty and complexity was evident to me initially when I was preoccupied with thinking: my preoccupations are usually future-oriented (planning, rehearsing, imagining, fretting); for you it may be a preoccupation with the past. Either way this kind of distracted, mindless thinking takes us away from our senses and the present moment, the only moment that is presenting itself to us now.

Practice: Joel & Michelle Levey, the retreat leaders, have an interesting awareness practice. Try it now!  Raise your left hand palms up, let your left hand represent all those moments in your life when you have been fully present and connected with yourself and others. Sense and feel that experience of being fully present. Now raise your right hand palms up, let your right hand represent all those moments when you have been absent or mindless, when you’ve been fantasising about the future or caught up in memories of the past, not here in the present moment. Now let your hands move up and down to show the relative proportion of how you have lived your life to date: what proportion of the moments in your life have you been present for (left hand) and what proportion have you been absent or mindless (right hand)? Take that it in. What feelings and thoughts arise? Now let the position of your hands adjust to how you want to be in your life going forward. How much of your life do you want to be fully present for (left hand) and how much you will be absent for (right hand)?  Notice the position of your hands. Fully sense that possibility.

I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.

Further reflections from my Hawaii retreat tomorrow. Please feel free to share any reactions or observations using the comments function below…

Aloha (meaning ‘In the presence of the breath’)

John

What’s the most important question in life and work? What really, really, really matters?

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I’ve recently returned from a three week meditation retreat in Hawaii, the last ten days of which were in silence. This was a time to be quiet, take stock (I turned 50 during the retreat) and see what remained, that was essential, when the muddy, turbulent waters of my mind settled. And the most important question in life?

Do you want to wake up? Do you really want to wake up? Do you really, really, really want to wake up?

This sounds like a stupid question, of course we do, we say to ourselves. The challenging news is that in fact we are asleep most of the time and don’t realise it. The Matrix trilogy of films are true: at least in the sense that we don’t see reality as it is and most of us don’t know that we are asleep. Leave aside the conspiracy elements of the Matrix films (i.e. that an elite is running the programme which is your mind), this may be true, but that’s another article. What I want to focus on and what’s most brilliant is the central message of the films: that we are asleep, that it is possible to wake up, that this route takes enormous courage, will, discipline and wise guides.

Each day over the coming week I’ll share a lesson or an insight that I’m left with as I return to everyday life plus a practice that you can try. I find writing is a way of clarifying insights as well as rooting the insights more deeplyI trust the observations and lessons will ring true for you and act as a useful bell of awareness.

  • Meditate regularly – experience how your mind works. My in-depth exploration of meditation dates back to 2002 in Halifax, Novia Scotia, Canada. I was participating in a global week-long gathering of 300 people interested in Authentic Leadership. Each morning and evening, as we began and ended the day we meditated as a large group for 45 minutes. What I discovered to my surprise, horror and only sometime later, amusement, was that what I took for my active, creative mind was in fact a series of repeating thoughts dressed up as new thinking. My mind, like most other people’s in its ill-disciplined habitual state, operates like an old fashioned film on a repeating reel, with the same few thoughts repeating themselves. What is shocking to realise is that of the 60K-90K thoughts a day you have, probably 90-99% are repetitive. Most of us are ignorant of this. In some ways we might ask ourselves, are we truly alive when so much of our feeling, thinking and action is on automatic?
  • Adopt an attitude of curious and compassionate awareness. Through my work with Dr Joel and Michelle Levey, who led the Hawaiian retreat and with whom I’ve worked in recent years, I’ve come to fully appreciate just how crucial our attitude is: attitude is the lens through which we see and filter the world. We awaken slowly; for most of my life I have looked out at the world and looked in on myself with a harsh, critical, judging eye. This uncomfortably came to my notice (again) in the 10 day silent part of the retreat in Hawaii. I found myself becoming very critical, in my head, of a fellow retreatant. I noticed I was triggered by her actions: not following the house ‘rules’ of the place where we were staying. When I reflected on her minor transgressions, I recognised the lens: my judgemental rather than my curious and compassionate eye.

Practice: Here’s a thought/heart experiment you can do. Notice any results as you go through your day. Firstly, remember that the ‘stuff’ of others behaviour is the tip of the iceberg, we often have little or no idea what lies beneath, the context or needs from which their actions arise. Secondly, assume the ‘stuff’ of others’ behaviour is the best they can do at this moment with what they have got. Adopting these two assumptions releases compassion and understanding. It doesn’t mean that you approve or condone of any or all behaviour, but you may find adopting these two assumptions greatly reduces your reactivity and increases your compassion, curiosity and insight.

I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.

Further reflections from my Hawaii retreat tomorrow. Please feel free to share any reactions or observations using the comments function below…

Aloha (meaning ‘In the presence of the breath’)

John

Change your world one conversation at a time

You are in conversations all your life. Conversations – the way we speak and listen to each other – are the DNA of our lives, the basic unit of human interaction from which all else flows. Think back over the last month to some important conversations which mattered to you: this could be at work, in your family or community.

Firstly take a moment to reflect on those conversations that went well using the ten questions below. Then switch to a conversation that didn’t go so well and reflect on that using the same questions.Notice any differences in your responses.What clues does this reflection give you on how you can create more productive conversations?

  1. How would you describe your quality of being as you started the conversation? What attitude of mind (e.g. compassion, curiosity, judgement, fear…), did you have about the conversation, and about yourself and the other person?
  2. What was the physical environment like for your conversation? What impact did it have?
  3. What assumptions did you have about how the other person would be in the conversation?
  4. Did you consciously think of the context (e.g. Barry Oshry’s contexts of Top, Middle, Bottom & Customer) that you and other person (s) were in and how this would affect the conversation? Did you mentally and emotionally step into their world, prior to and during the flow of the conversation?
  5. Who framed the purpose of this conversation? Was it defined by one party or agreed by both parties? What impact did that have?
  6. How present were you in the conversation: sensing and responding in the moment to what you and the other person(s) were perceiving, feeling and wanting?
  7. Were there moments in the conversation when difficult or tricky ‘stuff’ emerged? How did you respond? Was that a response you commonly make? What impact did it have?
  8. How much did you speak in a way that illuminated your world, including sharing relevant information, feelings and needs?
  9. How open were you to listening to their situation, perspective, interpretation, feelings and needs of the other person(s) as well as your own?
  10. What was the balance and quality of your speaking (advocacy) and listening (inquiry)?

In my work, which spans global firms, public and voluntary sector organisations, people report that as much as half of their time and energy is caught up in unproductive conversations, what Barry Oshry calls ‘Side Show’ conversations: ones that generate misunderstanding, defensiveness, negative feelings and which fail to generate personal insight or organisational learning. This pattern of unproductive, difficult conversations undermines working relationships and the ability of our organisations to achieve their purpose.

Conversations aren’t technical or trivial matters. The fabric of our lives and organisations is created and recreated one conversation at a time. To borrow words from the poet, Mary Oliver, how do you want to be in your one wild and precious life? The answer shows up in how you are in each and every conversation.

Going Too Fast

I’m on a Zen retreat: more like a Zen workout for the mind and spirit. This poem by WS Merwin was read out on the first day. As someone who is often going too fast, the poem is a call to attention, which is the essence of Zen.

Turning

Going too fast for myself I missed                                                                                                                                                more than I think I can remember

almost everything it seems sometimes                                                                                                                                           and yet there are chances that come back

that I did not notice when they stood                                                                                                                                        where I could have reached out and touched them

this morning the black shepherd dog                                                                                                                                                 still young looking up and saying

Are you ready this time

 

My new puppy, Gracie, might well be asking me the same question.

Are you ready this time?

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Potions and Pills – The Modern Consultant at Work?

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I notice a thread running through my blogs. I’ve become more passionate about interrupting, in myself and others, a superficial kind of patter; I’ve become intolerant of over-simplistic models and explanations of change and leadership which are still being hawked around.

Let me give you an example of unhelpful formulas. I’ve been working this week on issues of personal, team and organisational transitions. I’ve been struck by how many so-called ‘Change Curves’  take Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on grief and transitions, distort the basic insights and create their own magical thinking on how they hope people will handle transitions. ‘Anger’ gets transmuted into the more palatable feeling of ‘Frustration’, and the ups and downs of transition get smoothed away into a single upwards journey towards ‘Acceptance’. This kind of fantasy thinking won’t help our clients.

The theme of last week’s blog – Madness and Magical Thinking, Everyday Life in Organisations – struck a chord with many people. One former colleague wrote to me:  “I agree with your article. Most organizations are toxic because people build some sort of “persona” to survive or strive in there… more and more I avoid working with them, or, at least, with those where I feel it is not possible to get beyond this curtain”. We need to create the conditions for more authentic conversations. Authenticity is easy enough to put on a leadership competencies framework, but not so easy to create in reality in the context of highly politicised organisations.

I am looking in different places for insights. Poetry is helpful; as I prepare for this session on leading organisational transitions, I’m reminded by the poet, Juan Jimenez, that identity is not a simple concept.

I am not I.

                   I am this one

walking beside me whom I do not see,

whom at times I manage to visit,

and whom at other times I forget;

who remains calm and silent while I talk,

and forgives, gently, when I hate,

who walks where I am not,

who will remain standing when I die”.

 

So how do we proceed?

  • With passion and humility,
  • With fierceness and compassion,
  • With clarity, doubt and not knowing,
  • With a smile
  • As we navigate the complexity and contradiction that is organisational life…
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