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

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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

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.”

 

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.

 

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