meaning?

“Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness […].”*

In his book The Artisan Soul Erwin McManus argues that we are all artists, our challenge being ‘to be an interpreter of human possibility.’**

At the heart each person’s art there is the thing they notice more than anything else.

What do I notice?  What do you give your attention to?

To speak of human possibility is to be open to more but we find this hard to be open to more.  Dan Ariely points out how open to more is hard because ‘we fall in love with what we already have;’ ‘we focus on what we may lose;’ and, we think others see the world as we do’ – that is, we think our stuff is the most wonderful stuff in the world, only to be shocked to discover no one wants what we’ve created.^

Iris Murdoch suggests something else is happening when we give our attention to something more:

‘I have used the word ‘attention’, which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.  I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.

[…]

There is no point in talking about ‘moral seeing’ since there is nothing morally to see.  There is no moral vision.’**

Our attention, or noticing more, leads to the development of morality in what is an amoral universe.  I find this notion picked up in Maria Popova’s blog: Existential Therapy From the Universe, quoting writer and film-maker Susan Sontag‘s words:

“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.”^^

This causes me to bring to mind the question Brené Brown finds herself researching with more than a small amount of personal interest:

‘Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best they can?’^*

Opening Brown’s book Rising Strong at the next page I’m die to read, I find this:

‘We don’t compare when we’re feeling good about ourselves; we look for what’s good in others.  When we practice self-compassion, we are compassionate towards others.  Self-righteoousness is just the armour of self-loathing.’^*

I wonder, Is there a correlation to our doing our best and the degree to which we are noticing? 

Noticing Brown’s mention of compassion takes me to Karen Armstrong’s book on compassion and to these words about the Buddha:

‘He had understood that while spite, hatred, envy ingratitude shrink our horizons and limit our creativity, the benevolent emotions had a quite different effect: gratitude, compassion and altruism broaden our perspectives and break down the barricades we erect between ourselves and others in a vain attempt to protect the frightened, greedy, insecure ego.’⁺

Each of us pays attention to something different.  My work is like coaching and mentoring but is different.  Around what we notice, we create our art, the contribution of our lives, not for our own bliss, we discover, but for the bliss of others.

Popova writes:

‘Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isn’t imbued with meaning, it is in  this self-conscious act of paying attention  that meaning arises.’º

As our opening words from Fredrick Buechner remind us, this may demand nothing more from us then paying attention in the everyday, something captured well by Alan Lightman‘s character Nephew (the creator) in his fable about creation.  Nephew notices a chance meeting in a city of eight million people on the smallest planet of twelve orbiting an ordinary star:

‘I spotted two men passing each other on a crowded walkway.  Complete strangers.  In the eight million beings living in the city, these two had never met before, never chanced to find themselves in the same place at the same time.  A common enough occurrence in a city of millions.  And as these two strangers moved past, they greeted each other, just a simple greeting.  A remark about the sun in the sky.  One of them said something else to the other, they exchanged smiles, and the the moment was gone.  What an extraordinary event!  Two men who had never seen each other before and would not likely see each other again.  But their sincerity and sweetness, their sharing an instant in a fleeting life.  It was almost as if a secret had passed between them.  Was this some kind of love?  I wanted to follow them, to touch them, to tell them of my happiness.  I wanted to whisper to them: “This is it this is it.”‘ºº

What have we noticed today?

Was this some kind of love?

(*Frederick Buechner, quoted in the Northumbria Community‘s Morning Prayer.)
(**From Erwin McManus’ The Artisan Soul.)
(^From Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.)
(^^From Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good.)
(*^Susan Sontag, quoted in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Existential Therapy from the Universe.)
(^*From Brené Brown’s Rising Strong.)
(From Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.)
(ºFrom Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Existential Therapy from the Universe.)
(ººFrom Alan Lightman’s Mr g.)

beyond teams

On the one hand, Edgar Schein provides us with the possibility of meaningful places of work in which we help bring the very best out of one another:

‘We do not typically think of an effective team as being a group of people who really know how to help each other in the performance of a task, yet that is what good teamwork is – successful reciprocal help.’*

On the other hand, Dan Ariely notices how, at a very early age, we value what we do above what others do.  Then we struggle to understand why others don’t value what we value in the same way:

‘[B]y a very young age, we already care about our ideas and are attached to them.’**

We experience these things as vying with each other but they needn’t.

We can only develop our work so far by ourselves.  Without others, it can become boxed or reduced too soon, whilst with the help and influence and inspiration of others – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – greater possibilities open up because ideas and practices are migrating across domains and fields.

What if our places of work could be the best spaces of all for bringing the art we want to bring whilst helping others to bring the best they can bring?

I believe it’s possible to love what others love and value what others do as well as what we do.  What’s happening here is what we value most of all is taking a journey towards another, and what another values is making a journey across borders towards us.

Even more, we not only grow our skills and talents but also our characters; we’re exploring something of what it is to be human.

(*From Edgar Schein’s Helping.)
(**From Dan Ariely’s Payoff.)

tiny triumphs

Seth Godin writes about one year old Leo’s attempts to walk and, pondering his stumbling, concludes:

‘In fact, it’s the way I learned how to do just about everything important.  By doing it.’*

I then came upon these words from Albert Einstein about important things:

“The ideals that we have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth.”**

These are the kinds of thing we can never say, Done itGot the hang of it..  There’s no finite or exhaustive list for these, but each of us can stumble into greater kindness, beauty, and truth.

(*From Seth Godin’s A professional stumbler.)
(**From Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Albert Einstein on the Interconnectedness of Our Fates and Our mightiest Counterforce Against Injustice.

now what do you see?

I don’t see it.

Thank you for sharing what you have noticed with me.

(Thank you, Dan, sharing the things you’ve been seeing.)

To notice what others do not see is to stand in a new land.

Bernadette Jiwa dedicates her latest book Hunch to Seth Godin, ‘who taught me the importance of noticing.’*

Seth Godin has helped a lot of people to see differently, check out his blog from the last day or so.  It’s not about looking for new things but noticing what others don’t see even though they’re looking at the same things.  There is a direct link between seeing differently and dong what others cannot; to be:

‘The only person on earth who could do what you just did.’**

What we notice becomes fuel for the imagination, as Maria Popova writes here:

‘But alongside this necessary fidelity to reality is also the supreme function of the artist’s imagination — the ability to transcend what is and to envision a different, better version of what could be.’**

This is one degree of many thin silences: to stand in a place of seeing and noticing towards contributing some richness, some joy, some wonder.

Popova has been exploring the place in which the pressure of reality meets the power of imagination, this through the writings of Wallace Stevens.  When we notice more and bring our imagination to bear upon it then something more phenomenal happens.  Wallace Stevens describes it so:

“The imagination gives to everything that is touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. […] I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth … But there it is.’^^

None of this is about having some grand idea of ourselves or that we deserve more than others when it comes to being heard or believed or followed.  We enter into the silence of a new perspective through humility (true sense of Self) and gratitude (having more than enough) and faithfulness (finding the habits and means of putting things into practice).

Reality isn’t as invulnerable as it appears to be.  Noticing and imagination provide us with a possibility for telling a better story.

(*From Bernadette Jiwa’s Hunch.)
(**From Seth Godin’s Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?)
(^From Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News.)
(^^Wallac Stevens, quoted in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News.)

 

one thing leads to another

For now, this is the thing.

“If people would but do what they have to do, they would always find themselves ready for what came next.”*

In his book The Little Book of Hygge Meik Wiking says of his work, ‘I study happiness.  Each day I try to answer one question: why are some people happier than others?’**  Wiking has been connecting gratitude and meaning, noticing how these produce happiness.

‘More than anything, savouring is about gratitude. […] It is about keeping in mind that you live right now, allowing yourself to focus on the moment and appreciate the life you lead, to focus on all that you do have, and not what you don’t.  Clichés?  Totally.’**

Gratitude is about noticing what is, getting close up and immersing ourselves in the moment.  Hugh Macleod writes about being like water, taking the shape of whatever changes come:

‘Making yourself the flexible aspect doesn’t mean you’re giving up – it means you’re leaning in.’^

I’ve been contemplating Wallace Stevens’ thoughts on how the artist brings their imagination to the face the “pressure of reality.”  He says this of adaptation:

[The artist] must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination… It imperative for him to make a choice, to come to a decision regarding the imagination and reality; and he will find that it is not a choice of one over the other and not a decision that divides them, but something subtler, a recognition that here, too, as between these poles, the universal interdependence exists, and hence his choice and his decision must be that they are equal and inseparable.^^

This artist – and we are all artists in some way or other – doesn’t hide from the pressure of reality but seeks to be present to it in such a way as to imagine a new possibility.  There is gratefulness here, too.  Erwin McManus proffers:

‘No truth, no matter how profound, will find its way into a heart that is absent of gratitude.’*^

Gratitude provides us with a sound, leak-free container in which to receive and hold on to more of this moment, making it possible to move into the new moment in a more complete way.

Erich Fromm reminds us, though,  none of us are completely “leak-free,” we’re all broken:

‘There is nothing in the patient that is not in me.’^*

We heal a little more as become present to the moment through all we are and have, making it possible to be present to the next moment as more and with more.

(*George MacDonald, quoted in the Northumbria Community’s Morning Prayer.)
(**From Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge.)
(^From gapingvoid’s blog: Fluid is the New Flexible.)
(^^From Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News.)
(*^From Erwin McManus’ Uprising.)
(^*From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Listening.)

this i can do

‘If you need a good idea, and you need it now, sit down with a pen and paper and make it happen.’*

This isn’t the way imagination and creativity is popularly thought of.  Surely, we say, it’s impossible to conjure up inspiration whenever we want to.  Hugh Macleod, whose words these are, continues:

‘Creativity is the practice of keeping an open mind – and the thing about maintaining a practice is, well, you need to keep practising.’*

Imagination is an ability we can develop with practice but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

I happened to follow these words with thoughts from Wallace Stevens on the pressure of reality and the power of imagination.  For Stevens reality and imagination are equally important, they are poles of possibility.  Imagination then is not some way of hiding from reality but a way of resisting it, towards bringing something new into being.  Stevens is writing in the critical times following the Second World War but also contemplates the more everyday pressures:

“The pressure of reality may, of course, be less than the general pressure that I have described.  It exists for individuals according to the circumstances of their lives or according to the characteristics of their minds.  To sum it up, the pressure of reality is, I think, the determining factor in the artistic character of an era and, as well, the determining factor in the artistic character of an individual.  The resistance to this pressure or its evasion in the case of individuals of extraordinary imagination cancels the pressure so far as those individuals are concerned.”**

When we’re sitting over the blank piece of paper we’re facing the pressure of reality.  And when we allow our imagination to hover over the paper we are resisting.  Indeed, we need something to resist, the last thing we want is easy, as Ryan Holliday reminds us when he writes about what the obstacle provides us with:

‘The path of least resistance is a poor teacher.’^

Happening then to read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, I find Søren Kierkgaard saying something that connects with this:

“Strangely enough, my imagination works best when I am sitting alone in a large assemblage, when the tumult and noise require a substratum of will if the imagination is to hold on to its object, without this environment it bleeds to death in the exhausting embrace of an indefinite idea.'”^^

Kierkegaard is identifying his need to feel some pressure of reality for his imagination to work towards an idea taking shape.

For a moment there’s a piece of paper and we’re holding the pen.  In the moment of silence we feel the resistance but then something emerges.

Everything we are and have comes into our imagining.  There is the Self we know, the talents we possess, the knowledge we have gathered, the passion we possess.  When these begin to flow then the paper yields to the many things we want to write and draw upon it.  (I’ve intimated how these thoughts followed on from one to another simply in the things I happened to read this morning; funny thing, that.)

We must trust the flow, towards some new thing:

‘”Flow” is the way people describe their state of mind webern consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.’*^

I have hinted that

(*From gapingvoid’s Chase Down Your Dreams.)
(**Wallace Stevens, quoted in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News.)
(^From Ryan Holliday’s The Obstacle is the Way.)
(^^Søren Kierkegaard, quoted in Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust.)
(*^From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.)

a-mortality and too much life

A-mortality is the indefinite extension of human life, a holy grail some believe is not far away.  I don’t think I’ll be around to see it.

Life is made up of science and story.

Science is about the way things are, including those things we’re able to manipulate.

Story is about the tales we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the past, present and future science we find ourselves in.

Theoretical scientist and fabulist Alan Lightman brings the two together in his novel about creation Mr g.  Nephew, the Creator in Lightman’s fable, encounters the sinister Belhor, visitor one of the planets in one of the universes.   Belhor speaks first, then Nephew:

‘”All little lives, such little lives. […] I find it amusing to see how they live – their cities, their habitats and rooms, their squalid little alleyways filled with garbage.  Did you notice the dirty pools of water in the alley in front of the young woman’s house?”

“Yes,” I said.  A thin film of pollen floated down and covered their surfaces.  The puddle of water split the sunlight and glimmered in colours.  Like diamonds sprinkled about.’*

Here is story.  Like diamonds sprinkled about.  This is like that.

Lightman’s fable continues with Nephew reflecting:

‘One thing I have learned: the mind is its own place.   Regardless of natural conditions and circumstances, even of biological imperative, the mind can control its reality.  The mind can make hot out of cold and cold out of hot, beauty from ugliness and ugliness from beauty.  The mind makes it own rules.’*

Nephew goes on to examine a world in which the males demonstrate and maintain their dominance over the females by disabling their hands by severing critical nerves.  The females are as intelligent as the males but accept this as the way things are.  Lightman is, of course, saying this is only a story they tell ourselves and they could tell a better story.

Someone was telling me yesterday, about a business event they’d attended recently with contributions from business person and a folk singer.  The business guy was encouraging the audience to get into the latest technology, no questions.  The folk singer told a story of a woman whose life had been dismantled by technology:

The following words, from poet Wallace Stevens, call us to stop and reflect on what we think is reality – what he calls “the pressure of reality” – but is only a story we are telling ourselves when our imaginations can do better:

“By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.”**

This is a point creative writing instructor Robert McKee makes in his excellent book Story: we appreciate and enjoy stories so much because they offer an experience but also an opportunity to reflect on that experience.  In life we only have the time to experience.

In his book Payoff, Dan Ariely tells the stories of two workplaces.

One involves a company that notices its employee cubicle’s were being decorated with all kinds of personal details so decided they had too much space and reduced the cubicles by 20% to get more “boxes” in.  The other tells the story of Zappos, a company that encourages its employees to be “weird” when it comes to decorating their workspaces.

We think only children like to play but that’s only a story we’re willing to believe.

With alternative realities or stories available right now there’s already too much life for some –  I’m not too worried about missing out on a-mortality; my question to self is, How will I live my life fully today?

(*From Alan Lightman’s Mr g.)
(**Wallace Stevens, quoted in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News.)