WORLD WORK & INNER WORK. How are we doing?

Not Engaging with the Wider World is No Longer an Option

Whatever your current age, one thing is clear: everything is not well with our world.

We may not see the wave of species extinction, but climate change we are experiencing physically. The massive global increase in arms sales goes largely unnoticed, but the daily news offers a steady stream of violence, corruption, repression, political unrest and outright war. Rest assured that, already for these two big reasons, economic migration and forced displacement around the world will increase. Partially in reaction to all that instability and uncertainty, race, religion, gender, sexual preferences, language and nationality are thriving as criteria for inclusion or exclusion. Indeed, in times of uncertainty and anxiety, intra-group bonding and groupthink provide reassurance. Meanwhile, the surveillance state is in rapid expansion with big data on you being combined into a rich profile. Once used to target you as a consumer, now it’ll serve to influence you as a voting citizen, and soon it will be used to classify you as a ‘socially desirable’ or ‘undesirable’ person. China is leading the way with its ‘Social Credit System’. We would have more energy to resist this, if we weren’t bogged down by increasing bureaucracy and forced to compete ever harder, be more productive with less, respond to ever more messages…. No wonder many of us, in so-called ‘developed’ societies experience high stress levels, with burn out reaching epidemic proportions among hard-pressed managers.

Clearly, the unbridled obsession with economic growth, material wealth and individualism has taken humankind on a path that is not sustainable. The time we could say “it’s not my problem” is over. We may try to ignore the wider world – but the wider world does not ignore us. If not today, tomorrow for sure, technological, economic, political, security and social changes will impact on our life.

Different futures are still possible. There are many positive developments:  Young people are stepping into the real-world school to tell the adults they are messing up and there is no ‘Planet B’. Appetite for bio-products is growing and we start to pay attention to our plastic consumption and use of pesticides. Tremendous creativity is going into ‘circular economy’ products and a growing number of local economies around the world are stimulated by complementary currencies. Some cities are advancing to being carbon-free by 2030; some educational systems put more emphasis on group work and develop not also knowledge but also social skills. Still, powerful economic, military and ideological interest-groups exercise huge influence on our political elites. Their interest is in shareholder profit and dominance, not thriving communities, healthy environments and non-violent conflict-resolution.

Our personal choices now truly have wider impact.  So let’s ask ourselves:

How is my work connected to or influences the wellbeing of others?

How do my work, my lifestyle, my daily behaviours, contribute to a society that is inclusive, fairly equitable, and where people act with civic responsibility and basic respect to each other?

How do my work and my lifestyle contribute to the sustainable use of our planetary resources and protection of its eco-systems?

If I realise what I do or how I live causes harm, directly or indirectly, am I prepared to change? What can I already change, easily?

What do I tell the next generation about the state of the world we leave them? And the role I played in its good stewardship?

 ‘World work’ needs to go together with ‘inner work’. Inner work means resourcing yourself and personal development.

All is Well!

Work and life conditions for many of us can be stressful.  It shows in different ways: physical ailments, tensions within the family, disturbed sleep, substance abuse, compulsive shopping, you name it. Saying ‘stop’ to these wider negative trends and doing our bit for a more desirable future requires additional courage, energy and significant supplies of ‘hope’. After all, we are small individuals or groups, up against vast forces.  

We each need to find our ways to re-centre and re-energise ourselves and maintain a healthy mind in a healthy body. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!

For some its physical exercise, cycling or swimming, dancing or gardening perhaps. For others artistic creation: sketching, painting, woodwork, music, storytelling. Or repair jobs around the house. Being together with friends, sharing a meal together, having a really good conversation, can be relaxing and reinvigorating.

K. Van Brabant August 2019

Nature is a great healer: research shows that people who spend several hours a week in nature are generally happier and healthier. Take a ‘forest bath’ regularly (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12CCjoixpkA – observe how patient you are listening to someone who is not a strong English-speaker), kayak or sail on river or lake, sleep and cook and eat outdoors for a change. Observe the diversity and beauty of plant life, pay attention to the seasonal changes of trees, the playfulness of wind throughout the day, the kaleidoscope of cloud formations passing overhead. So much life energy when we step away from the bricks, tarmac and concrete.

When we are worried and our heart starts beating faster, put your hand on it, speak to it and say: “My dear heart, all is well.” This was the practice of an unconventional student, played by Aamir Khan in ‘Three Idiots’, a Bollywood satirical comedy on the pressures in the Indian educational system. Trust that things will work out, even if you cannot, now, see very well how. Relax, calm down, all is well…

What helps you to re-source and re-centre yourself?

Are you doing it regularly enough to maintain positive energy, a positive outlook?

What can you do more of, a few minutes each day?

Are you in a situation that drains more energy than it provides? What can you stop, what reduce?

Will the world still keep turning when you are less intensively engaged with it?

Will your world keep turning if you become a bit more selective, slow down, let go of what is not that important?

 I have reduced my monthly expenditures, and now I feel much freer”, a friend told me recently.  There is much to enjoy that doesn’t cost a lot of money, and we can enjoy more what we already have.

 At 50 You Shouldn’t Be Doing What You Were Doing at 35- or Not in The Same Way

Another friend surprised me with the above statement. He did not mean this as a confirmation of the career-chase, the competitive struggle to climb up the corporate ladder. He was referring to the different level of awareness that comes from intentional personal development, that inspires more mature, wiser behaviours.  Personal development increases our awareness in different ways:

·       We become more aware of the nature and force of our emotions, how they shape our attitudes and behaviours, and impact on our bodily wellbeing and reasoning. And those of other people. We get better at sensing the emotional state of another person, and the quality of relationship between other people. We learn to respond constructively rather than react impulsively.

·       We see more clearly how we have been conditioned, in our childhood and formative years, by family and societal influences. Some of that conditioning is useful and positive, some of it may fill us with prejudice and bias.

·       It also means an ability to see a bigger picture of our social circle, our workgroup, our organisation, our sector, our country, in a wider world. All are made up of groups of people, shaped by present needs and interests but also by narratives of history and expectations of the future. Seeing a bigger picture makes us realise -again- that we are only a modest actor on a very large stage with a vast historical, geological, and astronomical time. Like when we were children and looked up at the infinity of the night sky with its uncountable number of stars – before we started to live looking down at a screen rather than up at the sky. Within the context of the galaxy, our egos, however inflated, are not even a speck of dust. That realisation is liberating. Seeing the bigger picture also makes us more conscious of larger connections and interdependencies, and -surprisingly- gives us an ability to act and influence greater than when we try to fill the whole screen with our latest selfie.

So much becomes possible, when we don’t need to be centre stage all the time. Call it ‘mindfulness-in-action’.

Most work environments do not enable you to develop personally. The focus is on technical, thematic knowledge and skills, preferably very specialised. There aren’t many job adverts that list a’ holistic perspective’ (‘systems-thinking’) and ‘wisdom’ as core competencies. You may have to look outside, to alternative spaces, to find trusted people who can mentor and coach you in life skills, emotional intelligence and relationship competencies, and help you to explore the question: What is the life I want to lead?, not just What is the career I want to pursue?

Sometimes we need to disconnect to be able to connect, with our deeper selves, with another person. Sometimes it takes a dramatic event, a serious disease, accident, reversal of fortunes, to snap us out of our routine and makes us ask: what is really important in life, what gives it deep meaning? Sometimes it happens as we grow older, and realise that we don’t have an unlimited future ahead of us anymore: what are we going to do with the rest of our life?

How many truly meaningful conversations did you have in the past two weeks?

When was the last time you felt truly listened to by someone else, with a totally open mind, patiently?

When was the last time you truly listened to someone else, fully present to the other?

What is the voice going in your mind as you are reading this, saying?

Have you tried making every short, functional, transactional, conversation you have each day, a brief but pleasant exchange?

When was the last time you were surrounded by total silence, for a significant period? How did it feel?

What is something important you have learned about happiness and how do you radiate some of that happiness to others?

What would you regret, when you are dying, not having done though you could? Why is it important?

What is your special gift, to give to other people (not to sell!)?

What is a question you would ask if you really wanted to get to know another person deeply?

FIRE EXIT AT THE CREMATORIUM

A bird. It’s the thought that forcefully comes to mind when I look at her face from aside. The small head, the sharp features, the fine nose like a beak. The skin is tight but has a glow on it that belies the ravaged condition of her body. I put my hand out, she put hers on mine - the tiny, fragile feet of her winged sister, the heart beating faintly, tired, holding out – only just.

Three weeks later, the face in the coffin is undeniably that of an embalmed mummy. The sharp bone structure even more jutting out, the skin darkened by age, now stretched tightly over the bones no longer with a glow, the eyes closed in sockets almost disproportionately large.

We say our final goodbyes, to the body through which we have known this person for so long, forever, for as long as we, and she, lived and our lives intertwined.

There are prayers and rhythmic chants. Ritual helps to make the transition, I see that now.

Whom do we mourn, what pushes tears out of our eyes?

This was a life well lived, almost 79 years, a family, three children, three grandchildren. This body had been ravaged by cancer, and its ending is a relief.

For the living it is that we grief. For her husband of 62 years who now has to carry on without that lifelong presence. For the two sons and the daughter, whose standing in life has taken a half shift forward: one parent closer to becoming the eldest generation, in the front now of the gradual pilgrimage to death.

For ourselves too we grieve. For our coming pain when our own elderly parents will pass on. Today’s farewell is a preview of others, soon to come, that we dread more.

For ourselves too we grieve: We too are husbands and wives, together for a long and meaningful period of our lives, we too are parents who will depart from our children.

With departures, spaces are being rearranged: physical spaces, social spaces, emotional and existential ones.

The crematorium is a Victorian building with the feel of a Christian church. In Memoriams on the wall and outside suggest however that its purpose has not been converted, that it has served this function since very long, possibly from the beginning. There are some two hundred names of the fallen in the first and second world war, cremated, surprisingly, here. Why the choice for cremation, in that era?

Beyond is a lovely green lawn, surrounded by old trees in natural display, untrimmed, not pruned. Closer by rose beds, with the flowers blooming in the autumn sun. The doors leading to this back garden are marked ‘fire exit’.

It is a beautiful day, in all respects.

 

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LIVING TIME IN A LIFE TIME

The Clock, the Washing Machine and the Internet.

The train leaves at this time. School finishes at that time, please pick up your kids no later than. The meeting will start at, the theatre then, the shop closes when? Meet me at that hour, it’s tea time, lunch time, time to go to bed.

The internet is said to have revolutionised our world. It is true, it has. A similar claim, more modestly made, is made for the washing machine. It’s true, certainly for women around the world. But surely nothing in human history has had a bigger impact than our measurement of time, our division of that fleeting and invisible factor in our life, starting from the solar year, into smaller and smaller units of equal length. Which, with the invention of the 'time piece', has come to determine our whole existence, to shape our whole life.

Nothing is more central to the functional organisation of society today, at any scale, than measured time.

Scarcity in Infinity.

Time has stopped. No, it never stops. If we can live like time, we will experience infinity. Well, at least until the end of the universe. Can you 'make' more time?

Don’t be late, it’s a race against time, we are running out of time, I’ve done overtime, we can save time, it’s time, time is up, you have no more time. No time – the disease of our time. Are you anxious about losing time? Is time money ? Le temps n’a pas de prix.

Time flies. This lasted forever. You’ve been whiling away time. I’ve been in such deep concentration I lost all sense of time. I have all the time in the world. Take your time. This was a good use of my time.

Pace.

Monastery Kandersteg 2018

I’ll just grab a sandwich and carry on working. I drink my tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world resolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing towards the future. Let’s train to deliver the elevator speech. Let’s enter into deep conversation and allow it to take us wherever it goes. Be quick witted, fast-tongued, ready for rapid riposte. Listen deeply, reflect before you react, sometimes the best answer is silence. Sometimes the best action is doing nothing.

The hand-woven basket took two days to make – the manufactured one eighteen minutes. The hand knotted carpet six months, the machine-woven one six hours. The hand carved table seven days, the factory-produced one four hours. What do I value, why? Have you ever created something with your hands?

Geological time, community time, political time, stock market time, family time, individual time, all coexist. Which time will you be living? It’s happening in real time.

Constantly connected, constantly distracted.

Life is elsewhere. Is it?

Please summarise in two minutes, in two pages: I have no time for more.

You showed decisiveness. You took a hasty decision.

Years of cumulative stress impacted on the heart – now he needs a pace maker. Is he still young at heart?

Pick up the pace man! Does speed generate meaning? Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pace yourself.

Fast thinking, slow thinking. Fast food, slow food. Fast production, slow production. Fast living, slow living. Which is appropriate when? Is the urgent the important? Where does quality lie?

Past, Present & Future.

We can’t change the past. We can’t control the future. In the presence is where our power lies.

Time is the present. But the present can be burdened, heavy, hard to move, like lead, like a stubborn donkey, a slowly dying star, overloaded with the past. Our personal past, unconscious lessons from experiences, a few scars on our bodies, perhaps some more on our souls, archives of memories, only a few accessible, hardly catalogued. The past also of our generation, which found its personal identity in a similar world, the same moment in history.

Time now is the present. A moment of suspension, of in-between. Nothing happens, we are waiting for a new reality to present itself. Does it bother me, drain me? Does it nurture me, revitalise me?

Time now is the present. A present that always escapes. In the time needed to say ‘present’, the present is gone, swifter than quicksilver, a bat, a quantum particle. How can we value time if it is instantly obsolete? Turn of that screen now, look up, be present!

Time now is the present. But the future plays tricks. Its anticipation colours the present. When we have a sense of assurance, of stability, the future is an extension of the present, it doesn’t merit much attention, it will come by itself, the stream will run its established course, within its banks. The future is a time I am planning for, a reality to shape according to my desire. What I do today is to protect what I have now for later, perhaps do more, have more, be better. But the future is unpredictable, the unexpected happens, the world is changing ever faster, butterflies flapping their wings at the other end of the earth cause thunderstorms in my house. The present acquires the orange colour of a uncertainty, of sun set, of foreboding.

Time now is the present. But the present can be restless, a place to move away from, to make or find another one with stability and predictability.

How can we live not knowing what we will be doing two months from now? How can we live knowing exactly what we will be doing two years from now?

Time-less Living.

One day (a planned and determined day?), all clocks and watches will be banned from my environment (which also means no computers or mobile phones who irritatingly insist on displaying time), perhaps for a month (oh no, organised time again), I mean for an indefinite period of time, I mean for as long as it takes, I mean for who knows how long. If I can afford it. It implies stepping out of time-organised society, living with no more than the alternating light and dark of the circling sun, listening to the murmurings of the body, that will tell me when it needs food and water and sleep. It will be a most extraordinary experience, an unlearning of life long habits, complicating interactions with wider society.

The Elder in Us.

I am a biological being. You are a biological being. We have a life time. We were absorbed in the slow time of childhood. We are thrilled by the energetic time of youth. We savour the vigorous time of maturity. We look with surprise at the accelerating time of old age. The different qualities of the phases of life are a personal and a societal experience. At the age of 20, my future lies ahead of me, time is plenty, I can afford to experiment, a bit of trial and even error. When I am 60, the future has shrunk, time has become a more precious commodity. What am I going to do with the remaining years of my life? What would I tell myself at the age of 24 with the benefit of hindsight?

If I am lucky to live in a society that respects ‘elders’, I will enjoy greater status and care, and live and perhaps die with dignity. If I am so unlucky as to live in a society that celebrates the creative energy of ‘youth’, I will gradually, or suddenly, become marginalised, lose social standing and respect, become discarded. My skills will have become outmoded or outsourced, my ideas branded as old fashioned, my way of working too slow. No longer a ‘productive’ member of society. A burden on the social system. An uninteresting person, stuck in the past. Or so will be the perception, the prejudice.

Maybe I end up tired and exhausted of a life time of work and worries. Maybe I have let myself go mentally, entrenched myself into fixed beliefs, nostalgic for the past, my past, closed and blind to a changing world, a multitude of what could have been new encounters, new experiences, new perspectives.

Maybe I keep my mental vigour, my sense of curiosity, my passion for learning, my ability to think critically. Maybe the elder in me is approaching peak performance, drawing on the wisdom of a rich and reflected experience, able to play multiple roles with tact and skill, and judge more compassionately. More patient, more appreciative that quality is best served by ‘giving time’, by being attentive, being present, here, now. Hold your judgment for a moment!

Living across Generations.

No mum, she’s oold! Old-fashioned, ugly, from the past, a relic, boring. Who still listens to that music?

Oh well, that’s the new generation. They’re different. They have no life experience yet, but think they know everything. They will discover, perhaps the hard way. Are that clothes? We would never have behaved that way!

My generation. Then that of our children, our grandchildren. The next ones lined up, in the room already, changing much more rapidly than us now. We have our generational conflicts, then we go separate ways each with our age groups. Then. Then?

Health and peace permitting, we will live a fairly long life. Inevitably though, family, friends, acquaintances will pass away with increasing frequency. Our heroes of music, literature, painting, science, philosophy, politics, or manual skills, those whom we learned from, whom we admired, those that inspired and enthused our generation in our formative years, have long gone. Will I, you, end up increasingly lonely, waiting for our hour to come?

Or will I, you, connect across generations, beyond children and grandchildren, have friends of all ages, one evening in the joyful and meaningful company of three friends whose combined age is 76 life years, another evening in the company of three friends whose combined age is 265? Having meaningful conversations, sharing joy, care, appreciation?

La Longue Durée – the Ancestor in Us.

My history lessons were lists of kings and battles, to be memorised, teaching me nothing, explaining nothing. My history and geography studies showed me how much presence of the past there is in the present. The spread of different natural resources around the world’s geography has shaped economies and trade for centuries. Onto which politics has been grafted. Our current world views, ways of thinking and seeing, have deep roots that the surface flurries of fashions, intellectual and other, have not eradicated.

So what legacy, what footprint, will we leave for posterity? What will be the impact of our decisions six generations from now? Will we contribute, directly or indirectly, to the over-exploitation of our planet, the waste and pollution? Will we contribute, directly or indirectly, to exclusion, discrimination, the violation of other people’s rights? Do we need ‘fame’ to be able to contribute to a positive legacy? What will we nurture, other than our own egos? Will we sign up to the project of the ‘clock of the long now’ – a time piece for 10.000 years, to correct our short-sightedness and help us see again ‘la longue durée’?

Today we are young. Sooner than we think, we too will be ancestors. Will we take on that role, that responsibility, in how we live, also in the small choices of everyday life?