the immigré

30 what you ask for

‘Emotionally and socially, when you ask for help you are putting yourself “one down.”  It is a temporary loss of status and self-esteem not to know what to do next or to be unable to do it.  It is a loss of independence to have someone advise you, heal you, minister too you, help you up, support you, even serve you.’*

“Wholeness is built into the universe – there is no hierarchy.”**

In the present climate, labelling someone an immigrant feels like “down-grading” their life; it’s something beyond temporary – it might well be the status they must live with and be know by for the rest of their life.

If in the normal course of life so full of helping, we hardly notice the one-upness and one-downiness Edgar Schein is referring to in the quote, above.  The greater the down-ness, the greater the up-ness.  The person being asked to help is being invited to play a noble role, the “helpee” bestowing their potential helper with power and value.

Whether this relationship of help is temporary or more permanent, it is a relationship of imbalance marked by vulnerability on one side and power on the other, but as quantum physicist Basil Hiley proffers, the universe doesn’t encourage hierarchy.

We know we cannot say yes to everything – even Carl Allen understands this now.  In between Yes and No, though, there is a third response.  It is what Michael Bungay Stanier calls a “slow Yes”:

‘Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing.’^

This slow Yes allows us to open our minds, open our hearts, and open our wills in an imaginative and creative way; it makes it possible for us to see people with hopes and dreams, and pain and dis-ease.

We provide the person who is not like us – the stranger, the alien, the immigrant – with respect and dignity.  Emmigrés are those who have left us to settle in another country.  Why not think of those who join us as immigrés?

(*From Edgar Schein’s Helping.)
(**Basil Hiley, quoted in Joseph Jaworski’s Source.)
(^From Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit.)


29 it is in our delicious stories

Umami is the Japanese word for delicious flavour.

Until French chef Auguste Escoffier and Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda proved otherwise, it was thought that the human tongue could only detect four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

Ikeda was able to identify the amino acid L-glutamate behind the delicious seaweed soup his wife would make him; this led to the creation of monosodium glutamate – the connecting of the acid with a salt being necessary for stability.

Another interesting dimension is that the amino acid is only released from life-forms by proteolysis: ‘a shy scientific term for death, rot, and the cooking process’*

All of this set me to wondering about our experiences of life.  There are sweet and sour experiences, salty and bitter ones, but what about the ones we can only describe as delicious.  What if delicious adds something more to the other flavours?

‘Helping is, therefore, both a routine process of exchange that is the basis of all social behaviour and a special process that sometimes interrupts the normal flow and must be handled with particular sensitivity.’**

What if helping is the basic component of the delicious life in a similar way to how L-glutamate is essential to delicious taste?  As it were, our different experiences of life make it possible for us to be better helpers of others?

With the knowledge that something has to die or decline for this amino acid to be released, I found myself wondering about the five elemental truths, identified in ancient cultures as children moved into adulthood, towards a contributing life.  They each require something to die in order for a larger life to be lived:

Life is hard
You are not as special as you think
You life is not about you
You are not in control
You are going to die.^

What if each of these truths is meant to be completed in a delicious way?

Maybe the salty and bitter and sweet and sour and delicious things in life help us to know we are alive?


(*From Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist.  Apparently humans produce 40 grams of L-glutamate a day and need to replenish it.)
(**From Edgar Schein’s Helping.)
(^See Richard Rohr’s Adam’s Return.  In a meeting with two others at lunchtime today, we decided to share a cheese and maple syrup muffin, to see what a savoury-sweet muffin tasted like.  I was telling them about these thoughts and one mentioned how restaurants can order the course of a meal so they flow through each flavour.)


28 scary is

‘Chaos is everywhere.  As Karl Popper once said, life is not a clock, it is a cloud.  Like a cloud, life is “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.”  Clouds, crafted and carried by an infinity of currents, have  inscrutable wills … the idée fixe of deterministic order proved to be a mirage.  We remain as mysteriously free as ever.’*

Why can’t you be more like me?

We now appear to have an answer for anyone who frustratingly, thinks, or feels life would be simpler if we were all the same.

It’s because off retrotransposons, junk genes that exist in random ways within the human genome, resulting in dissimilarities such as fingerprints and brains.  As Jonah Lehrer concludes: ‘chaos creates individuality.’*

Perhaps, though, we still have much exploring in front of us as a species into how our differences can create something astonishing for all life on earth, and beyond because there’s a galaxy waiting to be journeyed into.  Maybe humans will be the first species to make such a journey – it’s getting closer.

‘Each of us is free, for the most part, to live as we choose to, blessed and burdened by our own elastic nature.’*

We tend to focus on our constraints, but if we turn around from our finite games, we’ll also be able to see the boundaryless possibilities.

‘Bring forward a new idea or technology that disrupts business as usual and demands a response. … Or you could just wait for someone to tell you what they want you to do.**

Austin Kleon advises us to notice what others aren’t doing and to fill the void:

‘You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it.’^

Getting together with others is a really good place to begin.  Noticing what they aren’t doing means we’re not going to be competing for what’s available in a world of scarcity, but we’re inspiring each other in a universe of abundance.  And, as John O’Donohue encourages:

‘Friendship is the sweet grace which liberates us to approach, recognise and inhabit the adventure.’^^

Here are three starting questions:

What is your song?  I don’t recommend trying to find a line to rhyme with retrotransposons, but what is your highest joy and who do you sing for?

What is your question?  What is the issue that captures your attention and you are curious about?

What is your itch?  What must you do something about before it drives you mad?

(*From Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist.  It’s important to note that retrotransposons cause some very nasty things too.)
(**From Seth Godin’s Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?)
(^From Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work.)
(^^From John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara.)

biological noise meets story

27 life is dramatic

‘Just as physics discovered the indeterminate quantum world – a discovery that erased classifications about the fixed reality of time and space – so biology is uncovering the unknowable mess at its core.’*

‘It is strange to be here.  The mystery never leaves you alone.  Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits.  A world lives within you.’**

Biological noise is the term biology uses for chaos.  Motoo Kimura claimed it is chaos that drives the evolution of our genes, the average genome changing a hundred times the rate predicted by evolutionary theory.

Chaos is not only something playing upon us from beyond, but is also something at work within us.  And while chaos helps to explain the chaos emerging from human life, it doesn’t excuse it.  We tend to play with chaos through the stories we tell.

We might even claim that our stories increase the speed of chaos because they add the unpredictable to the unpredictable.

And maybe this chaos playing upon chaos is what we call life.

(*From Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist.)
(**From John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara.)

your choice

26 hey, how come

“It takes the form of an ancient quest: the hero journeys to a far-off place, gains something valuable, and returns.”*

‘What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human is not simply the genes that we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialogue with our environment, feed back to our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves.  Life is a dialectic. … Our human DNA is defined by its multiplicity of possible meanings; it is a code that requires context.’**

‘As you make progress toward a small goal, the bigger vision expands.’^

I can’t help it, it’s just the way I am.

I can’t do that, it’ll never work.

These are stories we tell ourselves.  They are not the way things are.  What we have discovered about our lives is that they’re like books that we read and interpret in the way we choose to.

We find our own meaning: ‘Every day each on of us is given the gift of new neurons and cortical cells; only we can decide what our brains will become.’**

Of course this provides us with a problem.

Life often proves to be more complex than we want, leaving us with complicated decisions – we really want comfortable uncomplications.  This is made worse by the fact that we don’t have to take a running leap into the unknown, we only have to take a small step in the direction of something that we’re curious about, something that begins to open before us that we feel able to accomplish.

‘In the end, all the clichés hold true.  If you can’t change the world, at least you can change yourself.’^

(*Philip Pullmann in the forward to Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights.)
(**From Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist.)
(^From Chris Guillebeau’s The Happiness of Pursuit.)


25 there is no set route

It’s 7am and someone is blowing a car horn.

A moment or two later they blow, for longer.

Another moment passes and the horn is blown a third time – even longer still.

It sounds like the driver is picking someone up and can’t be bothered to go knock on their passenger’s front door and wait.

The thing is, waiting isn’t about doing nothing.  If we want it to be, waiting is about making a space for something to happen.

Another moment passes and I hear a car coming around the corner, so I’m wondering if this is the born blower.  As the VW Passat makes it’s way past my home, I can see that the passenger is holding a white mug of something hot.

This isn’t just about impatience on the part of the driver, it’s also about relationships: the relationship between a demanding driver and their passenger, and the relationship of the driver with all the residents who were probably trying to sleep in on a Saturday morning.

I know I need to learn how to wait better.  Not to rush and push, and not to hold back for too long, either.  Whichever way I get it wrong, I have to wonder what I miss as a result – remembering, waiting is a space made for things to happen.

Patience involves relationships and relationships involve trust:

‘[I]t is through cycles of … testing and response that we build what we eventually call a more intimate relationship.’*

We’ve learned to send out test signals all the time to see how someone will pick them up and respond.  If they’re refused or missed or ignored, our next signal will be different – perhaps more formal, less revealing, superficial.  If it’s received openly or elicits some favourable response or there is understanding then we’ll share something a little more personal:

(‘This mutual process of testing continued until a level is reached where either or both parties realise that if they reveal more it might not be understood or accepted.’*

Neurogenesis is the ability of the brain to produce new neurons.  It’s staggering to think that this scientific insight is less than twenty years old.  When I began my working life, it was thought that the brain couldn’t produce new neurons, but could only add to the old ones.  Now we know the brain never ceases in its evolving:

‘The brain, far from being fixed, is actually in a constant state of cellular upheaval … the brain is constantly giving birth to itself.’**

For more than thirty years, the scientific community was unwilling to accept the findings of several scientists, including the importance of the environment for producing new neurons: ‘A drab cage produces the drab looking cage,’ reflects Jonah Lehrer, on the discovery that the more stimulating an environment the greater the production of neurons. **

The person to connect all of this work is Elizabeth Gould – who’s now become one of my heroes because I see the world she opened up is the one I work in with others.

If impatience is about relationships, and relationships are about trust, and trust is a great environment for people to evolve, for neurogenesis to take place – constant evolving is probably the closest thing we have to freedom.

What are you waiting for?  Perhaps it’s to make a space in which someone can evolve even more.

(*From Edgar Schein’s Helping.)
(**From Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist.  Elizabeth Gould connected something she had come across but thought was a mistake, with the work of Joseph Altman, Michael Kaplan, and Fernando Nottebohm.  Lehrer is connected the life and writings of George Eliot with this very recent neuroscience: ‘Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning.’)


24 our real purpose

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die at that roar that lies on the other side of silence.  As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded in stupidity.”*

ORJI: Observation, Reaction, Judgement, Intervention.

Edgar Schein’s acronym for how to test things.*

It holds the importance of our need to observe, observe, observe, opening our minds and our world to more.

In turn, this observation invites us to connect more deeply with what we’re discovering, opening our hearts and becoming less cynical and more compassionate.

Such an opening heart leads to action, firstly our imaginations birth a possibility, and then an action.

This is a deep thing, a slow journey in the same direction.  A significant element for which is to become an infinite listener.^

The infinite listener is interested in all people, not only those who are like themselves, making it possible, through a silence of wonder, for anyone to find and express their voice – everything is still to be said.

‘Please stop waiting for a map.  We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.’^^

On the way, we find amazing people to imagine and create with – a scenius (group genius): “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.’*^

Last night I was sitting at a table with a group of people dreaming of how to make the world just a little better place with a project we’re planning together.  We were a mini-world: one person from Romania, two from Italy, another from Lebanon, someone from France, and one more, from the United States.^*  (The future is connected.)

(*From George Eliot’s Middlemarch, quoted in Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist.)
(**See Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry.)
(^Infinite because no matter how many questions we ask, we never reach the limits of what we are exploring.)
(^^From Seth Godin’s Poke the Box.)
Eno, quoted in Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work.)
(^*The event will be VOXedinburgh‘s exploration of the power of storytelling and how people’s voices change through translation and interpretation.  The event will take place at the end of November or early December,)

a slow journey in the same direction

23 what amazing

“I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.”*

‘If your “winging it,” you’re doing improv … Platform theatre allows for little variation’**’

‘[George Eliot] believed that the most essential element of human nature was it malleability, the way each of us can will ourselves to change.’^

A slow journey in the same direction is the other life we live.

Often unobserved, it’s who we are becoming over the long journey of our lifetime.  On the surface we’re getting educated, eating, looking for work, eating, meeting a significant other and loving and hurting, eating, failing and starting over, eating, doing sport and holidays … .

“Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”^^

All the time, beneath the surface, or in the background, there is the life of who we are becoming, learning from everything in our past and being open to new futures.  When we observe this life, we feel we’re hardly the person we were ten, fifteen, thirty years ago – we have changed and changed more times than Madonna has reinvented herself.  And we can change again.

It’s the slow, long journey that provides hope that we can continue to learn and grow and become.  On the surface we plan – like platform theatre – and are blind to what our plans do not include.  Beneath the surface, our lives unfold – like improv; knowing our plans are too small, we’re learning to be open and present to serendipitous possibilities in a random universe.

This is about observing, being present to, and realising our other life.

(*Thomas Merton, quoted in the Northumbria Community‘s Morning Prayer.)
(**From Joseph Pine and James Gilmore’s The Experience Economy.)
(^From Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist.)
(^^Tim Ferriss, quoted in Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit.)

me and my body …

22 i and this mystery

… we are one.

‘[W]e expect reciprocity in all relationships.’

Edgar Schein writes about ’embedded and ritualised economic processes’ lie within our relationships.*  We’ve learned so many and hardly notice these, even when they go wrong.

I believe the shop assistant owes me the courtesy of looking and speaking to me as I’m making a purchase.  When they carry on a conversation with their colleagued, I think them rude.  What lies beneath this is Schein’s reciprocity of relationships.

This reciprocity includes making it possible for someone to share something they feel to be important (the feel is important, but we’ll come back to this).  People don’t tend to say, “I have something important to say and I need you to listen,” but provide signals –  leaning in, beginning to form a word but not saying it, looking more energised … .

When these signals are missed or ignored too many times by too many people the person may simply give up.  Over a lifetime, they learn to fit in.  Obversely, when we notice someone and invite them to contribute by becoming their audience, it can make a big difference.  Desmond Tutu didn’t forget the time a white man stepped off the pavement for him and his mother.**

We each have the opportunity to make it possible for another to voice their life.

There’s another kind of missing signals that caught my eye.  We fail to pick up the signals (whispers) that our body and life is trying to tell us.

‘[T]he mind stalks the flesh; from our muscles we steal our moods.’^

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio noticed how some of his patients s uffering from brain damage were not able to pick up the messages their bodies were feeling.  Damasio followed up his observation with some research – a study involving risky and less risky decks of cards – in which the electrical charges in the “players'” hands were measured.  There was more electrical activity when hands picked up the risky cards – the player losing more money from one of the decks, yet their brain was unaware of what they were feeling.

What we’re discovering today, in regards to the interaction of body and mind, Walt Whitman made his life’s quest to explore through his writing and poetry.  He called this the body electric:

‘We are the poem … that emerges from the unity of the body and the mind.’^

A lifetime of being ignored or invisible may have disconnected what we feel excited about from what we think we can do – there is no rabbit trail, never mind wondering where it will lead.

Here’s something simple to try out.  Carry a notebook with you for a couple of weeks so you can keep a couple of lists.

Every time you feel excited at something you’re about to do or have just completed, write it down immediately: what you were doing, why you were doing it, who you were doing it with or for, when you were doing it?  The other list will include every time you notice you are very de-energised, less than unexcited by something.  Write it down using the same details.

Then look at these lists.  What is your body trying to tell you to do?  What is it telling you not to do?  You are discovering your body electric.

“Come said my soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one).^^

(*From Edgar Schein’s Helping.)
(**Here, Desmond Tutu tells the story to explain why he become an Anglican priest: “My family moved to Johannesburg when I was twelve years old. In Johannesburg, in the days of apartheid, when a black person met a white person on the sidewalk, the black person was expected to step off the pavement into the gutter to allow the white person to pass, giving the white person this gesture of respect. One day, my mother and I were walking down the street when a tall white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward us. Before my mother and I could step off the sidewalk, as was expected of us, this man stepped off the sidewalk and, as my mother and I passed, he tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to my mother!  I was more than surprised at what had happened and I asked my mother, ‘Why did that white man do that?’ My mother explained, ‘He’s an Anglican priest. He is a man of God; that is why he did it.'”)
(^From Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist.)
(^^Walt Whitman, penned shortly before he died; quoted in Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist.)


21 what if life

‘ Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery it is.’*

I notice my breathing, abdomen rising and falling, chest filling with air, and I am aware of something that is the way of it for each of us.  

Nature provides the same means of breathing to all.

After our first breaths, many things happen that are beyond our control, many decisions are made for us.  We finally make it to a point when we can make choices of our own, but now, our lives have been shaped and played upon many times over.

Yet, amazingly perhaps, there is within us, a sense that we’ve the possibility of doing something purposeful with our lives, there’s something we must do before we die.

We use many different terms for this, the traditional ones being calling and vocation.  Terms we use, whether we believe in god or not, that describe something that feels as if it comes from beyond us – this phenomenon is found in the stories told by humans throughout the millennia.

Chosen for what?

What must I do that no one else can, or will?

What is my help?

The thing is, no one is helpless.  We all have some special help we can bring to others.

It’s unfolding, I think.  It doesn’t come all in a flash, in a moment of enlightenment, but in an unfolding way; it’s about the whole journey in which we ‘are not prepared against but for surprise’.**  In this, we are able to celebrate the genius that exists in all of us.^

If there are those who feel helpless in our world, they’ve been made to feel so.

I breathe more deeply; I feel the breath coursing through my body.  I am thinking about the contribution I hope will be helpful.

What I am feeling is not air, of course, but is something which emerges from the relationship between my brain and my body.  I realise the call I feel has come from beyond me has come from within me.

It’s as close as this for each of us.

(*Frederick Blechner, quoted in the Northumbria Community‘s Morning Prayer.)
(**From James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games.)
(^Check out David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us.)