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…



What really, really, really matters? Day Two


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’)


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


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’)


Remembering the basics – leading skilfully in a confusing world












In recent weeks I’ve been reminded of the complexity, contradiction and paradox at the heart of organisational life. I’ve also noticed my fear and ambivalence of engaging with what seems like a mess and my impulse to withdraw (leave them to it), blame (another good defence mechanism) or criticise (myself and/or them). Barry Oshry says the first law of organisational life is Stuff Happens. It’s how we engage with Stuff, our own and others, that makes the difference.

I’m working with a global firm at the moment that has ‘leading self, leading teams and lead organisations’ in a series of expanding circles as their leadership framework. Nothing particularly unusual in that combination. I notice it’s easy to be inured to what this signifies; the cynical part of me says yet more words on a power point slide – blah, blah, blah… The corporate wheel turns yet again and I’m part of the whole ritual. I’m sure this cynicism is mirrored within the organisation, as in many other organisations whether private, public or not for profit. It’s important to notice the cynicism, both our inner voice and when it’s voiced by others, most often in the informal space of organisations. This cynicism is triggered and reinforced by public narratives about change and leadership that are often incomplete and one-sided, and at some basic level don’t describe the lived reality of the organisation, its history or its possibilities.

As human beings we are paradoxical and contradictory; organisations too are a mixture of light and shadow. As leaders and facilitators of change we need to acknowledge our capacity for light and dark; that way we are less likely to project it unawarely onto others.

So back to the leadership framework: ‘leading self’ is the starting place for being or doing anything useful.

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA said: “the first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self – one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts. It is a never-ending, difficult, oft-shunned task…It is ignored precisely because it is incredibly more difficult than prescribing and controlling the behaviour of others”.

This is true in all settings: if you want to have a vibrant, healthy family life; or if you want to create a productive, innovative, high performing organisation. As human beings we are permeable boundaries – continually impacting others and being effected by others and the wider world – and leading self is the basic leadership practice from which all others flow. 

I recommend a simple, mindfulness breathing practice as a way to strengthen awareness: our capacity to see ourselves, others and the wider system more clearly. My own practice is intermittent but I know the simple act of taking some quiet time each day, breathing consciously and stilling the mind with its repetitive, chattering stories creates the space for new possibilities. If we want to be effective leaders and facilitators an awareness practice is basic and foundational.


Demons and Tyrants: Facing our Fears and Liberating Leadership

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I encourage you to find better living quarters.” Hafiz

My work is helping leaders at all levels see more clearly the reality they and others are in, building their self-awareness and system awareness to then take more effective action.  Yet this week I have been faced, again, with the uncomfortable reminder that a part of me doesn’t want to see reality and prefers to live in an illusory, dreamlike, Manichean world of good and bad. Of course I’m on the side of good! Our compulsive busyiness also serves as a protective device, our reason for not slowing down, for not pausing to acknowledge or name our fears or to see our part in the situations we find so perplexing.  I’m reminded of the oft quoted phrase: “human beings can only deal with so much reality”.

Perhaps this has been one of the attractions of the Royal wedding in the UK last week, with 2 billion people watching it across the globe on TV, that for a day (or longer) we become entranced in a fairy tale.

In our organisational work we need to have accurate maps of the human condition if we are to be effective.  I remember years ago whilst working for one of the big four consultancies being highly distrustful of the standard change management methodologies mainly because they had an over-simplistic view of how human beings operate. It wasn’t particular to that firm. It’s one of the reasons why 70% of change projects still fail to deliver expected benefits.

So what’s fear got to do with it and how should we work with our and other people’s fears?

There are five key points to remember:

1.    Befriend your fear and learn as you go. Most significant challenges facing organisations are complex. This means what we, or others, have done before may not be useful to create the way forward. We have to befriend ‘not knowing’, which is different from ignorance, if we are to create something new; this is what many of us fear. We also have to be more willing to embrace uncertainty: engaging with stakeholders over whom we may have no formal power, whose worlds we don’t understand and whom, at least at the start, we may even fear. This is why courage is essential to leadership; courage like fear is infectious. Small, everyday courageous acts encourage and engender other acts of courage. As leaders, or as coaches and consultants to senior leaders, we need to create cultures that are conducive to learning, accepting of human fallibility and supportive of creative experimentation.

2.    It’s not just you – fear is epidemic but innoculations are available.  If Descartes said “I think therefore I am” the modern equivalent seems to be “I worry therefore I am.”  As the Iranian poet Hafiz reminds us the house of fear is a place where many people choose to make their home. The first step is to change our living circumstances and see how fear operates in our lives and how it controls us. Honesty is required and courage (again) to acknowledge and name our fears. Many fears dissipate in their potency when exposed to the light of day and when explored and tested with trusted colleagues and friends.  This is where liberation comes in as we re-connect with the power of our choice and intentionality.

3.    You are not alone and you are not solely responsible. One of the most pernicious aspects of our thinking around leadership is the continuing dominance of the idea of the Hero Leader and the associated tyranny of perfection and self-sufficiency; fears and concerns are not shared, responsibility remains located with a few or only one person, and we unwittingly place others in a position of passivity. There is a much greater collective capacity waiting to be released and connected if we can revision leadership as universally available.

4.    Self awareness and system awareness are key. There are strong forces at play within ourselves and within the systems of which we are a part:  power, fear, hate, compassion, love, gratitude, ingratitude, forgiveness, resentment…  We need to be able to distinguish whether our feelings are clues about our own stuff or the condition of the wider system. There is no one practice to rely on to do this but journaling, reflection groups with colleagues/peers, external supervision/coaching and some personal discipline like mindfulness or meditation are also possibilities. We must build this discernment of what is personal and needs attention within us and what is an aspect of the dynamics of the wider system and therefore needs a more systemic approach.

5.    Change the Conversation.  In Brighton where I live, I went down to witness (not support) a ‘March For England’ demonstration (a network associated with far Right groups) and the counter-march by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) in the weekend following St George’s Day. As I left I heard the UAF group start the chant: “Racist Scum! Off our Streets.”  What seemed to unite both groups is the language of fear and hate. The dominant conversation in our communities and wider society is one of fear and control.  If we are to take seriously our role as co-creators of our world we need to change the conversations in our heads and with others to one of possibility, ownership, commitment, gifts and generosity and away from fear and retribution. This applies equally to our organisational lives as well as wider society.

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