COP26 Thought for the Day #4

What is the world asking of me?

In September I spent a few glorious days on Lambay Island off the coast of Ireland. Today I’m sharing the walk I took on my second morning.

After breakfast I pick my way along the tide line following a dark dry trail of bladder-wrack.

There is so much plastic.

I’m tempted to turn away, shamed by the mess being made of the world. A mess I help make. A mess I don’t know how to tidy up. Even if I spent the morning litter picking I’m told getting the waste off island is a problem and of course there’ll always be more cast up on the next tide.

I could ignore it, but remember the words of a dear teacher, Joanna Macy who speaks of ‘holding the gaze’ with the world as it is, the better to listen to our fear, grief or anger at the unravelling of life pressing in on us from all sides. By turning towards it, she says, we might learn what our world is asking of us. So, thinking of her courage, vitality and sheer doggedness, I stay as present, and as open to ‘what is’ as I can manage.

At my feet a single feather points skyward. Lying next to it a knot of fishing line and a lime green picnic spoon. Bone white driftwood. Coiled blue rope. A yellow sandal, ‘adidas’ stamped on the side. There are limpet shells and flat skimming stones, glistening jellyfish, folded in on themselves, in death taking the shape of the rocks. Natural objects that ‘belong’ mixed up with opaque leavings. Unnameable shreds alongside familiar everyday containers emptied of use: white plastic table salt and yogurt pots; a lucozade bottle, and equally empty – a crab shell which I lift and turn in my hand, looking into tiny hollow eye holes.

But it’s a blue rubber glove, the left hand, that brings me to a standstill. Fingers curled tenderly around a palmful of gray pebbles and shreds of dried seaweed. There’s a vulnerability in the gesture, both offering and supplication. It breaks through my preoccupation with the stories I tell about myself and about the state of the world. I feel my hollow shell cracking open, a slipping sideways of my sense of ‘me-ness’, as this tide sculpted tangle reveals presences in both the spoiled and unspoiled world.

I turn to leave the cove returning to Joanna’s question: What is the world asking of me? The response flows through and out of me as far as the dark line of the horizon. There’s sorrow and shame, hope and hopelessness. The answer that surges to the surface as I see the beauty and the brokenness is ‘love’.

Love, I realise, has no frontiers. It will be essential as together we learn how best to navigate the ecological and climate challenges already impacting lives across the planet. The opening lines of a Mary Oliver poem run through my mind over and over, as I walk away ‘my work is loving the world.’

These talks are crucial, what happens after even more so. Whether I trust our leaders or not, we urgently need global agreement and action. I wonder, what turns action towards ‘right action’? Technology is essential, but without hearts that include the interconnectedness of human and ecological communities I fear technological fixes will be fatally flawed.

We cannot afford to fail. What is the world asking of me?

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird – 
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Mary Oliver

COP26 Thought for the Day #3

What do I see?

We all use metaphors all the time, often unconsciously. They are universal, an indirect yet powerful channel for reframing experience or introducing unusual or unexpected perspectives.

Much of my work is about making connections, bringing awareness to patterns in multi-layered relationships that may not be immediately apparent, or are easy to overlook. When a deeper exploration of ‘truths’ that lie below the surface of the everyday is called for, I find myself, without thinking, reaching for metaphors.  

Why metaphor? Perhaps it’s because they connect, carry ideas from one place to another, making complex ideas that are difficult to explain more tangible and understandable. Friedrich Kekule’s snake biting its own tail for the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule; Darwin’s branching tree making sense of evolution; James’s powerful image of a stream to convey the fluid, continuous nature of consciousness; or Einstein’s thought experiments with trains and mirrors to develop his theory of relativity. These all link what is known with what is unfamiliar or intangible. Beyond this there is something visceral about metaphor, something deeply felt that includes yet moves beyond mere reason and thought.

On a more prosaic note, paying attention to the metaphors we habitually use sheds light on our thinking.  Years ago, I worked with a man who constantly used war metaphors; relationships were a minefield, work was a war zone, he was under fire, besieged, caught in the crossfire, in no man’s land and unsurprisingly longed for a truce. His images revealed an unsustainable personal and professional situation. Once he noticed he began to play with metaphors, using them to meet obstacles in new ways and access previously overlooked resources. For him, metaphor exposed ingrained ways of thinking, helped shift perspectives, and revealed solutions that might not otherwise have been considered.

Can metaphors have wider political implications? I think so. The ways I describe the nature of our roots as a species, what it means to be human, what is happening now and what lies ahead for future generations – both human and other than human – all this has the power to shape my actions. Whether I realise it or not.

Yesterday the conference proper got underway. From the podium I heard talk of burdens, doomsday clocks, ticking bombs, and grave digging. I found the James Bond analogy particularly disheartening. The vision of the lone (male) hero saving the day is the opposite of collaborative, humble work that values, listens and seeks to understand others. These latter qualities were present in some of the speeches and I believe they will be needed if any meaningful agreement is to be reached.

Today, I want to notice the metaphors I use in relation to climate change and the work going on at COP26. What assumptions, what ‘ruts in the road’ will I find? I wonder, how can I play with, and choose interesting, bold, generative pathways?

COP26 Thought for the Day #2

‘What can I do?’

When we envisage a world in which everything is part of an interactive, connected system everything matters. Our actions, even minute, imperceptible actions, have impact. In this way we can all, in some way, be activists.

But even though I know this, as these crucial talks get underway, I’m aware of the weight of how much needs to be done, and feel small and powerless, ‘what can I do anyway?’ it would be so easy to turn away.

The words ‘attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’ from philosopher Simone Weil, bring me back. Something that was pinning me down loosens, ‘yes’, I think, this is something I know how to do, both as a coach and as a human being.  Paying attention, though often invisible, is important work.  “Attention, taken to its highest degree” says Weil, “is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”  

Will alone, ‘will without grace’ leads to action that creates more problems than it solves. In contrast, this quality of attending is like a love story, moving beyond self-centeredness, sensitising the heart to the needs of others and the world. If we can pay attention we can become more effective change-makers whatever the context we find ourselves in.

Recognising I make myself powerless when I choose not to know, for today my answer to the question ‘What can I do?’ is to attend with love and faith to the beautiful, perplexing, unfathomable, otherness of the world, and to trust that through attentiveness the wisest path may be found.