Friday, March 26, 2004

A step along the path 

Seven years ago, I lost my job as part of major corporate downsizing exercise. How I dealt with that may be the subject of another blog post sometime, but overall it was a surprisingly positive experience. The timing however was particularly unfortunate. After years of feeling like a square peg in a round hole (engineering and management positions), I'd finally found something I really wanted to do - coaching people in a business context - and the opportunity to follow that path seemed to be taken away the moment after it appeared.

I knew I didn't want to carry on my old career but wanted to branch out into something new - maybe management training - so at the recommendation of the Head of Management Training in the company where I worked, I enrolled in a foundation course in counselling at evening classes. I also went through much self analysis; some of it formally structured exercises, some of it more loosely structured introspection. And in planning what to do next I found a strong desire to help others through this process of self-discovery, learning and growth - perhaps even being a companion on that road to finding their life's purpose.

I knew that this was something I couldn't just walk into. Not straight from unemployment into a role for which I had no training or experience - so I'd have to become employed again, and work myself sideways into that role.

It's taken seven years, but today after much groundwork I finally began to move forward on that path. Today I started on a training programme to become a part-time careers consultant within the organisation for which I now work. This isn't a new job, but an additional role within an existing job, spending perhaps a day every couple of weeks working one-to-one with internal clients helping them find their own answers to their career questions.

How did I get to be picked for this pilot programme? Fundamentally, one simple reason. I knew all along I wanted to do something like this, and that knowledge drove me to take every possible step to make it happen. I networked; I talked to people, made contacts, explored every avenue, and didn't stop exploring even when so many seemed to lead nowhere.

Those conversations didn't just help me move forward; they also kept the dream alive. Hearing myself speak about what I wanted helped build a clearer picture, and that in turn exerted a stronger pull on me; a circular reinforcement process almost creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I started today, to begin with I thought I might feel like a fish out of water - here I was, an engineer, the only delegate not from an HR related background, the other ten being from areas such as recruitment, training, HR operations. But by the end of the day, in the company of so many like-minded people, I felt like a fish who has finally made it back into the river after being stranded, gasping, on dry land for so long.

And there's another reason behind how I came to be there - that counselling course I took seven years ago may well be the factor tipped the balance in my favour and allowed a non-HR professional into the room.

As the song says, if you don't have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?

Thursday, March 25, 2004


The counselling process is truly extraordinary. On the face of it, it is just a simple dialogue, yet it releases an internal process whereby, without conscious effort or intent on my part, there is a growing awareness, understanding and acceptance of self. All manner of thoughts and feelings that have remained trapped under the surface for so long are moving upwards into consciousness, where they become free to be accepted and integrated, or understood and let go, as I choose.

One such insight occurred a couple of days ago. I was travelling in a London Underground train to a meeting, thinking of nothing in particular, just standing idly leaning against the carriage door when this thought appeared out of nowhere: there has been a thread running through my life of trying to please others. It’s a motivation that has become more complex over the years, overlain by desires to help and nurture others and to see them happy, but underneath those more developed, altruistic motives there is still a primitive, child-like desire – and need - to please, even at cost to self. A cost the full extent of which I'm only just beginning to appreciate.

I can trace this in time back to childhood, although I can’t identify any particular reasons why it was so strong and why I never fully grew out of it. But I think it has to do with the way in which pleasing and pleasure are linked.

There’s something elemental about smiles. Mother and baby respond to each others’ smiles with more smiles; it’s a self-sustaining process, but it also works in reverse – if one withholds smiles, then so does the other. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about how the simple acts of smiling and laughing release chemicals in the brain corresponding to pleasure, so for a baby, experiencing pleasure can become a simple stimulus-response affair – do those things that cause Mummy to smile. But somewhere in a child’s development there comes a concept of love, and so pleasing, pleasure and love become associated in ways that may not always be helpful.

Thus the seeds are sown for a perception of the conditionality of love. Love that is only expressed by you in response to certain actions or ways of being in me, and is withheld in response to other ways of being. Whether the conditionality is real or not is irrelevant; it is the perception in the child that matters. It may well be that a parent’s love for a child is unconditional, yet if expression and denial of love are used in a carrot-and-stick way to reward or punish behaviour, it will appear to the child exactly the same as if that love were conditional; they wont have any evidence on which to tell the difference.

I can’t directly identify a direct cause-and-effect relationship between perceived conditionality of parental love and this need to please that I have had, although I suspect there is a link, and I do know that this need runs very deep and has coloured many aspects of life at micro and macro scales; day to day interactions and major life decisions.

So although I try not to preach here, I want to make a plea to all parents: if you love your child unconditionally, make sure that they know that your love for them is not dependent on what they do or who they are. Love should never be a reward, or it’s withholding a punishment. Love them simply for being. Always.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


My bookshelf contains an uncomfortably large number of unread books, testament to an entirely irrational desire to own the works in question, even when I know I have no immediate time to read them. Maybe I thought I’d absorb the words by some osmotic process, without actually having to open them and go through the laborious process of reading the words. Amongst them is Erich Fromm’s “The Fear of Freedom”. Even though I haven’t read it, I’m guessing that it must be a very powerful book indeed, since even just reading the title on the spine has already had a profound impact.

Most people’s lives are bound by chains of some sort, maybe heavy and immobilising; maybe lighter, only noticed when all the slack has been taken up and suddenly they become taught, preventing further movement. My life is no different to anyone else’s in that respect – a mix of heavy and light chains that constrain but without apparently over-restricting.

Chains bring predictability; their weight lends a sense of certainty – whatever this place might be, I wont be moving far from it, and that knowledge of one less thing to worry about brings a kind of comfort. A corner of my mind can slumber, safe in the security of those chains.

Remove them though, those chains that so channel thought and feeling into safe, predictable, familiar ways, and the whole territory of ideas and possibilities and emotions that had been safely out of reach, becomes accessible; an entire landscape of new ways of being to inhabit and explore, with no bounds other than those I choose. A territory whose paths cross unnoticed the invisible boundary between reality and possibility, into a land of both dreams and nightmares, where anything can, and probably will, happen.

Such wide open spaces of the mind can be scary; standing at the edge of a vertiginous drop in this world of no limits, were I to jump, would I soar like a bird or crash bloody and broken onto the rocks below?

The counselling process in which I’m currently engaged is having the unexpected effect of breaking the links in some of these chains, many of which weren’t actually attached to anything, but were simply dead weights to carry around. Released suddenly from their bonds, I bounce around this new landscape like a manic rubber ball, from dream to nightmare and back again, with no firm footing in any place. Or perhaps even that too is part of the dream.

In the face of such freedom, the security of a cage can seem quite attractive. But it remains a cage nonetheless.

[Later edit:
I ought to add that this post is retrospective - I'm trying here to capture something of the freeing-up of states of being that has been engendered by the counselling process. Whilst caught up in the process it is difficult to step back and view what's going on, so it's only now having moved on a step or two that is becomes possible to look back and see something of what was happening at the time].

Saturday, March 20, 2004

An unexpected message 

So… it is possible to pick someone else’s book up off the kitchen table, open it at random, and find a significant message, that just happens to answer a question I didn’t even know I was asking:

“There’s a difference between being and doing, and most people have placed their emphasis on the latter.”

“Shouldn’t they?”

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ involved. There’s only what you choose, and how you can have it. If you choose peace and joy and love, you won’t get much of it through what you’re doing. If you choose happiness and contentment, you’ll find little of that on the path of doingness. If you choose reunion with God, supreme knowing, deep understanding, endless compassion, total awareness, absolute fulfilment, you wont achieve much of that out of what you’re doing.

“In other words, if you choose evolution – the evolution of your soul – you wont produce that by the worldly activities of your body.

Doing is a function of the body. Being is a function of the soul. The body is always doing something. Every minute of every day it’s up to something. It never stops, it never rests, it’s constantly doing something.

“It’s either doing what it’s doing at the behest of the soul – or in spite of the soul. The quality of your life hangs in the balance.

“The soul is forever being. It is being what it is being, regardless of what the body is doing, not because of what it’s doing.

“If you think your life is about doingness, you do not understand what you are about.

“Your soul doesn’t care what you do for a living – and when your life is over, neither will you. Your soul cares only about what you’re being while you’re doing whatever you’re doing.

“It is a state of beingness the soul is after, not a state of doingness”.

From “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsch

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Sounds of the Sixties... 

No words of my own; these say it better anyway:

"Through the corridors of sleep
Past the shadows dark and deep
My mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don’t know what is real,
I can’t touch what I feel
And I hide behind the shield of my illusion.

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.

The mirror on my wall
Casts an image dark and small
But I’m not sure at all it’s my reflection.
I am blinded by the light
Of God and truth and right
And I wander in the night without direction.

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.

It’s no matter if you’re born
To play the king or pawn
For the line is thinly drawn ’tween joy and sorrow,
So my fantasy
Becomes reality,
And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow.

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall".

"Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall" by Paul Simon

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


How can it be possible to know something one day, and not to know it the next? To have seen the direction ahead with crystal clarity only to return to a muddy haze of chasing ghosts through the mist? To have the curtain drawn aside, revealing a Great Truth, only to turn again and find the curtain pulled tight shut and the Truth hidden?

I saw a Great Truth. I know I did. I felt its greatness rippling right through me; shock at the simplicity of it, calmness at the certainty of it. Now it’s fallen away from me, or I from it – yet I have just one tiny thread of connection still, a fading imprint on my retina of what I saw behind that curtain; a felt sense of the direction ahead before the mists closed in once more.

I may daub a few words around the edge of this Truth, but they’ve lost that Ah-ha! quality. Empty words whose real meaning is once more hidden. It had to do with self-knowledge and with authentic choice, this revelation; with authentic being. Answering the question “What do I really want?” Or deeper even than that – being truly free and knowing how to ask such a question. There’s no harder question to ask; I hadn’t found an answer, but for a while I was able to ask that question with complete honesty and freedom; freedom, for perhaps the first time since early childhood, to allow for the possibility of putting self first. Making a distinction between ought to and want to. For a choice that derives from ought to is no choice at all.

For truly to make a choice, one has to be willing to choose each of the options. So for example, going back a few months to a time when I claimed to be considering deleting this blog, I wasn’t really at a point of choice – only if my finger had been poised on the mouse button, muscles and tendons tensed and primed, ready for the final signal to come down the nerves; only then would authentic choice have been made.

It’s the same with life decisions. Unless I’m willing and ready to take any path, choosing between them will never be a truly free and committing choice. Commitment to a choice requires first that I be ready to give up that choice. To take just one step in the mind that actually goes past the point of decision; to experience each choice almost as having been made. Otherwise how can it be a choice? This feels to me to be true even – or perhaps especially – at the most sublime levels. To choose God, one has to be willing to choose the devil. To choose life, willing to choose death. Perhaps that is why those who have faced an acceptance of death often seem to be the most alive.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Rightness, Goodness, Helpfulness and Frames of Reference 

Is there such a thing, do you suppose, as absolute right or wrong? Something that stands independent of any societal or cultural frame of reference? A universal set of morals you might say, on which all civilised cultures could agree; except of course that the question phrased in those terms is circular, since we can also define being civilised as upholding a certain moral code.

There have been many attempts to define right and wrong. Religious definitions such as the Ten Commandments nail their colours to the mast and claim unambiguously to be absolute. Legal definitions, enshrined in the laws of the land, wouldn’t go quite that far – they carry force only in the state that defines them, although they would claim at least to be guided by absolute ideas of right and wrong, without going so far as to lay down exactly what those ideas are. Perhaps the closest thing to an absolute definition in the human context is the UN declaration of human rights, which doesn’t attempt to define specific right or wrong acts, but rather to identify how to relate to one another, be that at individual or state level, in ways which are not harmful. Underlying that of course is the idea that for one human being to harm another, whether physically, emotionally, or by withholding an entitlement, is in an absolute sense wrong, and wrong across all societies, all cultures, all nations – applying to every living being on this planet. And that is about as absolute as we can usefully get.

As well as absolute right, there’s also another kind of right where the word is simply a shorthand for “conforming with what I call goodness in my current frame of reference”. That definition only exchanges the idea of ‘goodness’ for the idea of ‘right’, but goodness is perhaps an easier yardstick to measure against, being a quality of something more tangible, rather than an entirely abstract idea. The catch though in this idea of ‘right’ is the frame of reference. It is no longer something fixed and absolute, it can change. And change the frame of reference and the yardstick by which to judge right-ness also changes. And that can cause problems.

People have got into a lot of trouble by muddling absolute right with frame-of-reference, or relative right. For one thing, most people tend in the first instance only to recognise absolute right; my relative right is to me absolute truth; yours is misguided. Religious (and secular) wars have been fought and all manner of atrocities committed in the name of absolute right, justified because people mistook their frame of reference for absolute truth.

And perhaps just as damaging on an individual scale, people have lived with all manner of pain because they believed that the thing that was stopping them from dealing with it was a matter absolute right and wrong when it was only a matter of societal or cultural values (marriage traditions in certain cultures, for example). All they had to do was change their frame of reference, to cease judging themselves against a set of standards that was unnecessary and had no absolute standing, and the reason for their pain dissolves.

Even at the seemingly trivial level of arbitrary rules there can be problems. Take school rules. Talking out of turn in class may be “wrong” – so if I’m a child who talks in class does that make me a bad person? It’s all too easy to send misleading, unexpected, and potentially damaging messages with rules.

Some things seem reasonably obvious. Murder is wrong. Isn’t it? Yet there is also (I think) in many countries something that the law recognises as legitimate killing, even outside of war. So when does one become the other? Where is the line between right and wrong? That may be an extreme example, but if something as apparently clear-cut as killing another can lie on either side of the right/wrong divide, then the chances are that just about anything else can, given appropriate circumstances.

But it’s in the less extreme day-to-day examples where some of the most invidious problems lie. And for these, I sometimes stop thinking in terms of right and wrong, and ask instead “Is it helpful?” For that question has no meaning unless you also know the frame of reference within which you are working – is it helpful to whom? In what way is it helpful? Is it also unhelpful to someone else? Asking “Is it right” is often asking for a judgement against an abstract and ill-defined frame of reference, perhaps causing pain to be inflicted in the name of right, yet for no benefit to anyone. Asking “Is it helpful?” tends to bring the frame of reference into awareness, and to do so in a way that highlights the effects on real people. And ultimately, isn’t the reason we have a concept of right and wrong in the first place to regulate the effects of our actions on others?

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Turning Point 

“Your roses need pruning, Chris.”
“Your roses. It’s what you should be doing instead of standing there scratching yourself.”
“Fuck off.”
“I’m doing mine; yours ’ll suffer if you don’t.”
“I don’t care.”
“So what are you doing then?”
“I’m going to write a novel.”

And he did. He went down to Woolworth’s, bought a notebook, and wrote. First one novel, then another, and another, and there’s still more to come in the series.


I’m sitting in the train, depressing thoughts materialising out of the fog in my head and finding substance in the hard form of words in my journal. Thoughts about stuckness - moving forwards impossible, moving backwards unthinkable, staying still unbearable. Maybe detachment is the answer; live in a glass cage…

There’s a guy sitting opposite me. He has a black expensive-looking folder with several dozen pages bound in it, and he’s going through marking it up with a red pen. A business-like appearance; I assume he’s an executive of some kind (albeit one with a rather world-weary look about him) working on a company report or some such. He looks across at me scribbling in my journal.

“What are you writing then?” – the emphasis is on the “you”, a reference to both of our heads buried in words. That’s unexpected; in my surprise I nearly dismiss the question with an answer that would close the conversation there and then – polite, but indicating that I’m not in the mood for chat.

But I don’t. I’m still non-committal to begin with, but I allow the conversation to grow, and mutter something about my personal journal and my blog. It turns out he’s a novelist, and the paperwork is part of the manuscript of his latest novel. He’d been a journalist for many years, making a living in wordcraft’s front line, doing daily battles with deadlines, word-counts, hard messages. But the ideas for his novels had been taking form, and that seemingly trivial over-the-garden-fence conversation about roses with his neighbour was a turning point that led him to take that step that turned a possibility into a reality.

I shouldn’t have met him; I shouldn’t have been on that train at all. But somewhere this morning five minutes went missing between checking the clock before leaving the house and arriving at the station, resulting in a missed train, at just the one point in the day where there’s a half-hour gap in the timetable rather than the usual ten or fifteen minutes, so I also missed my connecting train too. And so it was that, into my stuckness came words of interest, of practical advice, of encouragement, of hard possibility – at just the time I needed most to hear them.

It’s so tempting to read some special significance into that encounter. To look for angel’s wings folded beneath his jacket (and believe me, for all the light that shone from his out-of-the-blue message, he looked exactly like the journalist he had been; certainly no angel – which some might say is the surest sign of being one). Yet I know it’s just a coincidence; nothing more. All the same, it’s a coincidence from which I take heart.

I’m glad something caused me to miss that train. And the final twist is that the meeting I was going to was delayed by an hour so I wasn’t even late. It was as though that whole encounter had been dropped into time without taking any.