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

Potions and Pills – The Modern Consultant at Work?

snake-oil-salesman

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…

Madness and Magical Thinking – Everyday Life in Organisations

8850-munch-the-scream-e1336013995741I’ve given myself 90 minutes to write something worth saying. Why so little time? I’m caught up in the doing of organisational life… and life generally. I feel the pressure to keep moving, no time to pause. I have to get an enormous amount of stuff DONE… and yet also feel compelled to speak up and name some of what I am experiencing, even though this will be incomplete.

I am re-experiencing something that I felt strongly 15 years ago when working with one of the world’s largest consultancies: the dominant way of talking about and making sense of what is going on in organisations is woefully inadequate.

I feel caught by the same dilemma that I see my clients experience. How do you talk about the complexity, contradiction, doubts and dreams, hopes and hopelessness we privately experience when the public conversation in organisations seems so restricted? The bandwidth of our public conversations, what gets talked about on conference calls, in town hall meetings, in teams and formal meetings,  leaves out whole realms of experience. The public conversations seem magical – in the sense of magical as unreal – as we conveniently but disastrously leave out the untidy, difficult aspects of what is going on; the bits we have no idea how to influence or control. This is where madness creeps in, as a gap opens up between what we experience and know (cognitively, emotionally, intuitively, somatically) and what feels possible to say. We can feel like we are mad in the sense of something is wrong with us; we are left privately with the messy reality whilst publicly it all seems so straightforward.

As individuals we spend lots of mental and emotional energy making sense of, worrying about, or pretending this gap doesn’t exist. This is mostly a private activity, late night/early morning reflections or in our dreams, or over a drink with a friend/close colleague. The trouble is that whilst it remains in the informal, private space the magical, unreal conversations carry on in organisations.  And nothing changes. This path of collective ‘madness’ and magical thinking has unintended, unnecessary costs: to the individuals in terms of their well-being and motivation; to organisations as valuable data, about where they are and where they could be, is lost to the system.

So where do we start in breaking through the madness to sanity, and from magical thinking to a more grounded experience of reality? Here’s a list of some things I’m doing.  A starter to which I hope you will add:

  • Practise mindfulness – our capacity to pay attention in the present moment without judgement. I have an individual daily practice of ten minutes of pausing, breathing and becoming more present. This is supported by two longer practice sessions of an hour each week where I join a group of people in Brighton who practice mindfulness together and periodic longer retreats. I’m curious about how we create shared or collective mindfulness in organisations. There is an opportunity on 5 & 12 June in London to explore this further with three master teachers in this emerging field of collective mindfulness.
  • Take our freedom seriously. I have the possibility of being an Independent Middle. I am using ‘Middle’ in the way Barry Oshry describes the relational space where we are caught between the pulls of different realities, people and groups, each with their own needs, perspectives and priorities.  How do I retain my independence of thought, judgement and action in service of the larger whole?  We don’t just have to react and be subject to the pulls and tearing around us. I have a choice in how I respond. I have to recognise that the feelings of powerlessness, confusion and aloneness are mainly systemic and come from my disconnection from others and my own experience: the gap I spoke about earlier.  When I integrate with others, whilst honouring the difference between us, then both my feelings and my sense of power transform and grow. The feeling of madness dissipates as I realise that others have been suffering the same private dissonance. 
  • Speak up – how do I get a sense of what is needed and connect with others to explore concerns, dilemmas and possibilities? How do I find my voice and skilfully speak up about what matters? The skillful part is important; my favourite leadership book by Ron Heifetz is subtitled, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. I also need to remember that powerful speaking up (advocacy) is always connected and grounded in deep listening to myself and others (inquiry).

In making this shift of awareness and action Pablo Neruda, the poet, invites us to start with a moment of quiet.

“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”

 

Kindness

“He was uncommonly kind to me” Bill Clinton on Nelson Mandela

Kindness was one one of the many qualities  Nelson Mandela embodied.  Mandela’s kindness was offered freely and indiscriminately to people of great positional rank (President Clinton) and no rank. Where did this kindness come from?

In a revealing interview on BBC Newsnight last week, Clinton threw some light on this, relaying a conversation he had had with Nelson Mandela. Clinton asked: “How did you do this? You had to hate those people. Look what they did to you.” Mandela replied: “I was young and strong when I went into prison. For 11 years I lived on my hatred. Then one day I was breaking rocks and I thought of all they done to me and all they had taken from me. They had abused me physically and emotionally. They had taken away my right to see my children grow up and eventually destroyed my marriage. I realised they could take everything  except my mind and my heart. These things I decided not to give away.”

Mandela’s life attests to the truth that kindness is often cultivated in the midst of suffering as the poem Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye, reveals.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go as you know

how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sesne anymore,
and kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is you I have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Three questions to ask ourselves:

What kindness have we received from others in recent days that touched us?

What kindness might suddenly break through our barren lives if we paused and, for once, gave up on advancing our own agenda?

What simple gift of kindness might we offer today?

See More – Adopt the Beginner’s Mind

zen of seeing

Thinking creates the world. I discovered more than a decade ago that my thinking, and I would argue many people’s, stays within a very limited set of tracks. This was quite a shock at the time;  I believed I was a creative thinker and doer.

“We do a lot of looking… Our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less.” Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

If we want to be a positive force for change and evolution in our organisations, communities and wider world then we have to start with awareness. We need to see more and see deeper, not just the symptoms but the structure that drives our own & other’s behaviour and the behaviour of larger social systems.

Cultivating the quality of attentiveness is key:

  • How can you cultivate a little more attentiveness this coming week?
  • How can you adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’ a little more of the time?

Oftentimes, our knowledge, theories, frameworks lead us to seeing less, the effect of confirmation bias, seeing what we expect to see, and therefore seeing nothing new. Beginner’s mind is not ignorance, it’s the humility to acknowledge that there is much we don’t know about organising, human systems and leading. We have lots of data and knowledge but do we have sufficient insight and wisdom?

A short story may illustrate the issues. Yesterday, I was on a sight-seeing bus in Kuala Lumpur. I’m working here in the early part of next week. Rather than hear the tourist guide commentary I was ‘treated’ to an American business woman sitting next to me on her mobile  planning a meeting with her colleague . It was quite surreal.  I wondered, listening in, if I was part of The Truman Show or a new episode of The Office. Within 5 minutes she had been through every over-used word in the organisational lexicon: key performance indicators, gap analysis,  aligning values, driving behaviour, better links between the culture team and the talent assessment team…

What caught my attention was a realisation that there’s a way we can use these terms to create an abstracted, ordered reality which we then think is real. There’s a way our language and our thinking goes down the same old tracks and we get the same old results. Many of us enter this trance-like way of speaking (and living?) which is why programmes like the Office and the Truman Show are so popular: we see an aspect of ourselves reflected back. This isn’t the whole story or at least the end of the story. There are other possibilities…

How do we wake-up and see something new? say something new? experience something new this week?

How do we adopt a beginner’s mind?

Being Human on a Full-Time Basis: Death

Britian Thatcher

Death isn’t often included as a topic on leadership development programmes. Perhaps it should be.

Yesterday’s short address by the Bishop of London at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral raised a number of important questions for us all. I have included some of his address in quotations.

Who are you? What is the continuity that is you, not just your roles or positions, but the story that is playing out through your life? What are the unique gifts that you bring to those you love, those you work with, and the community in which you live? “The atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking. We are atomically distinct from when we were young. What unites Margaret Roberts of Grantham with Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven?”

“After the storm and the stress have passed and there is a great calm” what in the end will make your life seem valuable? The questions that will be important when we look back concern us all now. “How loving have I been? How faithful in personal relationships? Have I discovered joy in myself, or am I still looking for it in externals outside myself?”

Are you living your life on purpose? If one definition of power is the ability to achieve purpose, then Margaret Thatcher was a powerful person. We can debate her politics but she was committed to achieving “what she believed to be right for the common good”. What purpose are you committed to in how you live your life? If we looked at the pattern of your life, how you spend your time and money, what purpose does it embody?

Are you willing to live your life with knowledge of your death in front of you? “Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.” As Ernest Becker pointed out in his classic book, Denial of Death, we spend much of our life attempting to deny the oncoming reality of death, pushing our fears deep into the unconscious. I notice in my consulting work how we often treat organisations as mirages of certainty and permanence, in the face of the transitoriness of life. In many ways this suppressed fear of death is a flight from life. How about embracing our impermanence, celebrating our brief sojourn on this fragile planet and waking up to the possibility that our life represents?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? asks the poet, Mary Oliver.

What’s your story about leadership?

I’m struck by how narrow the narrative is around organising and leading. A whole raft of experience of what it means to be a human working with others is left out. The focus is on skills and knowledge.

My questioning of the story we tell about leadership was triggered by a poem I read this morning which talked about ‘learning to fall’, in the sense of accepting our fallibility and vulnerability. Does this figure in our teaching about leadership? Not enough. The typical set of leadership competencies relates to some super-human figure I rarely meet: falling or failing is not typically part of what gets talked about. It’s for this reason that I particularly like Adam Kahane’s book, Power and Love, A Theory and Practice of Social Change with its chapters on ‘Falling’, ‘Stumbling’ and ‘Walking’ which speak directly to the struggle of personal and collective change: the setbacks as well as the successes.

How we talk matters. We lead through language as well as through action. Notice what gets talked about in your organisation, or if you are a consultant notice the tenor and content of your conversation with clients, including what is not talked about.

The stories we tell ourselves and others set the parameters for what is possible and what is considered valuable.

Be a radical: expand the conversation. What do you care about that is rarely said?

I was part of a story-telling session the other day with colleagues about what had shaped and was shaping our organisation. One colleague observed a thread in the stories – the qualities of forgiveness and welcome – words I rarely hear used in organisations, and yet central to human relationships of all kinds. What qualities of human relationship need to be named and cultivated in our organisations? In the context of the NHS in England, I wonder what qualities have been absent in the Hospital Trusts and Care Homes that failed patients, residents and their families?

Talking about what’s been lost and forgotten and what needs to be regained is an important and courageous conversation. This is particularly so because it’s personal, and includes us in what we’ve lost, what we’ve forgotten and what we want to regain.

Changing the conversation we are in may be the first step in changing the world, one conversation and one person at a time. This much is in our influence.

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