Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Most Important Thing in the World

What's the most important thing in the world? Is it equality, justice, freedom from want, health, wealth, survival, reproduction, pleasure...what? I have a simple answer. The most important thing in the world is...drum roll...how we feel. How I feel is important. If I'm poor, but I feel happy, then wealth is unimportant. If I'm treated unfairly, but it's water off a duck's back to me, then equality is of little importance, particularly if the person who is dishing out the bad treatment feels bad. However, if I feel good, but a person I care about feels bad then I won't feel really good and will focus on helping them feel better, so we can feel good together which will boost my mood even further. 
     You may say that health is more fundamental, but why does health matter? It matters because it makes the sufferer feel bad. You might say that it's also about the burden - financial, time or energy - that it imposes on others, but what is at the root of this? The burden makes the burdened feel bad! 
    How many people is we? There's me and the people I care about. If I and all my friends and family feel good, then all is well with the world as far as I'm concerned. But having said that I feel bad because you may be someone I don't yet know reading this post and I've effectively just said that how you feel is of no importance. But of course it is, not only to you and the people who know and care about you, but also to me because I could feel better than I do if I could expand my concept of the we who feel good. I'm not even sure if that's logical, but I believe it. We is everyone and everything that has the capacity to feel.
    Should some people feel bad because they have done bad things? If someone hurts or wrongs one of us, do I want them to feel bad? I think bad feelings exist for a reason. Perhaps one day we will evolve beyond them, but for now, in this less than the best of all possible worlds, they serve a valuable function. However, that doesn't invalidate the point. How we feel is still the most important thing in the world because if doing something that makes others feel bad didn't make the perpetrator feel bad there would be no motivation to increase the sum of good feeling in the world. Whichever way you slice it, the most important thing in the world is how we feel. Am I wrong?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An Englishman in the New World

What dream of myself do I push away, thinking it’s too good to be true? This was the question posed by Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist and philosopher at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and keynote speaker at the co-active coaching summit in Napa this April. In co-active coaching this is known as a powerful question. Training in co-active coaching is summarised by it’s developer Henry Kimsey House as ‘context based, experientially driven transformational learning’. “What I have to offer is perspective”, Brian Swimme began. In effect 13.8 billon years of context. How did he bring the known universe into the ballroom of the Meritage Resort and connect it to a coaching question? Read on. 
My non-scientifically trained English mind remembers Swimme’s words thus. When Einstein developed his ideas about matter and energy he didn’t simply download them from his forebrain. He brought them forth from his viscera. It is no accident that what came out was a reflection of the structure of the universe; because we are all woven into the fabric of the cosmos. Einstein’s cerebral cortex did, however, come into play when he modified his equations so that they made sense to him. Which part of these equations didn’t make sense to one of the greatest and most courageous minds of the twentieth century? Well, when Edwin Hubble started looking really hard through his mighty telescope and proved that the universe is expanding he got on the phone to Einstein and said, ‘get your big old brain over here, there’s something you should know.’ And Einstein was forced to confront the fact that the changes he had made were actually chisel slips on Michael Angelo’s David. Or, as he put it, the biggest mistake of his career as a scientist. Thus, what dream of myself do I push away, thinking it’s too good to be true? Give it some thought, and then some more. It is a truly transformational question.
            Apparently such ideas are commonplace in California, but to this cold, small island resident they took the concept of mind-blowing out of the realm of cliché. Here’s another one, again as I remember it. The sun makes life possible. It sends out light which is transformed by chlorphyll and the process of photosynthesis into energy. We are all light, pretty much. The part of us that is not, that is matter, would take up less space than a grain of sand.  
The sun has matter to burn, lots of it. It burns the equivalent of 4,000 elephants every second to produce the light that makes life on earth possible, sacrifices 4,000 elephants worth of matter to make elephants, and rabbits, horses, daisies, cherry blossoms etc. And the amount of the sun’s light that actually reaches earth is one billionth of what is actually produced. And it doesn’t ask for payment. The sun is infinitely generous. Coaching point: think about that next time you find yourself fighting over scraps or playing at office politics.
As well as the summit, I went to California to learn some new coaching techiques at the Coaches Training Institute. Serendipitously it was training in perspective coaching. In between the workshop and the summit I drove down the central coast as far as San Simeon. I’ve seen Hearst Castle before, so instead I drove around the Paso Robles wine growing region and added to my stock of Pinot Noir. Apparently there was a late frost in 2011 and the quantity of the harvest was much diminished, but this had a positive effect on the quality. I learned this by chatting to the friendly round guy at Windward who was posted out front, but it was self-evident in the tasting. He also gave me an opportunity to challenge an assumption that some people make and which, me being a Pinot fan, has impacted me negatively; namely that Pinot Noir is a girl’s drink. I asked and of course he said it wasn’t, and how could it be if  I am a man and I love it this much? Coaching point: never waste an opportunity to challenge negative assumptions and once you make a gain to the positive, lock it in and don’t surrender the ground again without a fight.
Later that evening I drove 50 miles through the fog to the hot springs at Esalen, winding along the coast on route 1 with sheer drops on the seaward side. I was headed for the night baths, unclothed (if you like which many people did), communal, mixed, dark and set atop the rocks with the Pacific waves crashing below. Before I went I did some reading. The Esselen Indians used it as a place to heal from 6,000 years ago until comparatively recently. In the 1880s Thomas Slate ’homesteaded’ Easalen. My suspicious English mind immediately said “that’s American English for the British word ‘colonised’”, though I do know I’m in no position to take the moral high ground. Since the 1960’s Esalen has been home to practices such as meditation, humanistic psychology etc. which, for me, made knowledge of the ‘homesteading’ even harder to stomach. To cut a long story short it was gloriously relaxing, but the history stopped my thoughts from wandering where they may have gone to the pulse of the universe and ancient wisdom. Later, at the summit, I was complaining about this to a lady who was planning to go there soon for a retreat. I apologised for spoiling her anticipation and she said, “no problem I’ll just imagine I was an Indian in a past life and am coming home”. Powerful question: In what ways do you rain on your own parade?

Friday, May 2, 2014

No Eternal Reward will Forgive You for Wasting the Sunset

I first wrote this as a contribution to a friend's book idea which she titled 'Dear Daughter'. The idea was to compile a collection of advice people would give to their daughter, real or, in my case, imagined. What I wrote was:  "If you find yourself arguing with a religiously-minded person about creationism/intelligent design and evolution, stop and change tack. Here are some ideas about how to avoid getting dragged into a futile debate with someone who has already made up their mind on the issue:

1. Ask them why they assume that only one entity was responsible for the design of the earth and all the living things in it. Take a single thing that we know for sure has been intelligently designed e.g. a Ferrari. How many people down the centuries have been involved in the perfection of a modern day Ferrari? Don’t forget to include the invention of the wheel and its development into an alloy construction with tubeless low-profile tyres.

2. Ask them where the evidence is of God practising, since no intelligent person I’ve ever met got good at anything without practice.

3. Ask them to explain how assuming an almighty creator can help to evolve human society in a moral rather than merely material direction. If you get a sensible answer, please pass it on.

4. Ask them to explain how the creator might have been created.

5. Ask them why pronouns for God always have capital letters and why He created people, like me, who find it intensely annoying.

6. Ask them whether God is responsible for the development, by seemingly intelligent people, of carbon dating techniques.

7. Ask them if they accept that the idea of an intelligent designer is based on observations of intelligent design by humans. Then ask them if they think human society may one day evolve a new almighty designer who will this time leave written records and allow future humans to avoid wasting time on futile discussion of imponderables."

Since then I have had an experience that has changed my advice somewhat. I was sat on Cottesloe beach in Western Australia enjoying a beer and watching the sunset, as is my wont while on holiday. A man of God came up to me and demanded my opinion on this topic. I asked him most of the above questions and he just brushed them off, his technique when faced with something he couldn't possibly give a reasonable answer to being to chuck a non sequitur at me. His favourite brickbat was "the first thousand years in hell with soften you up". I realised later that such a conversation feels like being stoned (in the biblical sense). So here's the thing dear daughter: people who do not share basic assumptions can never really get beyond mudslinging when debating. Therefore there really is only one question to ask, Do you agree that scientific inquiry is a legitimate way to go about knowing who we are and how we and the world we live in came to be here and that, because of it, we know far more about the nature of things now than was known by (western) humans when all the major (western) religions were invented? If you are not satisfied with the answer you get, bid your evangeliser a polite good night and get back to watching the sunset. After all, however it came to be, it would be a crime against the creator to waste it. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Have Your Cake and Eat it

You can't have your cake and eat it. That's what we are told, but why? In Japan, people love to take pictures of food. There is a saying in Japan that you taste food first with your eyes. This is what underlies the tremendous care and skill that goes into the presentation of Japanese food. When a cake arrives on the table it gets photographed, then eaten. In a sense this is having your cake and eating it. Obviously the phrase have your cake and eat it is not meant so literally. It usually implies the necessity of making a choice and giving up one thing in preference for another. If you want to go out with your friends tonight, you can't watch whatever on television. If you want a bicycle for your birthday, you can't have a train set. This apparently simple truth is complicated these days by recording technology and parents increasingly yielding to pressure from the consumer society to give children everything they want. It's actually hard to think of an example of some situation where it isn't possible, for some people at least, to have their cake and eat it. My pet peeve in this area is people who want to take something from you, time, money, attention etc in a way that is not really fair, but also want you to aid them in not feeling bad about doing it. Some people are highly skilled at this. And this links into the area of relationships. If you make a commitment, you are making a choice to either have the cake or eat it. You can't gain without sacrificing something. If you take the hedonist and enjoy the all night parties together, you have also to take the bags under the eyes and the tired moodiness in the daytime. If you take the interesting character you have also to take the troubled past that forged it. If you take the beauty, you have also to take the vanity and/or the constant competition. To try to have your cake and eat it in the sphere of romantic relationships means staying constantly on the move, enjoying some attractive feature and getting out before its less obviously attractive corollary becomes apparent. Again some people are very skilled at this, while others marry and have affairs. We are all subject to the temptation to have our cake and eat it, or at least to try. Let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone. My question is this: what do we lose when we have our cake and eat it? My own answer is that we lose our connection to reality: the nuanced pleasure of enjoying and being satisfied by something that is then gone forever except in memory; or the aesthetic delight tinged with frustration of having our visual sense stimulated by something we cannot enjoy the consumption of. These days we talk about reading books and watching films as consumption and advertisers would try to convince you that you can indeed have your cake and eat it. Something important is lost when we view the world that way. Give some thought to what we might mean in this day and age when we say you can't have your cake and eat it and you might just realize that it's as true today as it ever was.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Weight of Books

Nothing is heavier than books. Not granite, not lead, not McDonald's regulars, not even the 4 liters of water that my Japanese friend's parents-in-law insisted on taking to Germany because they didn't trust the local supply. The only time I've ever paid extra for luggage on a plane was due to books. Psychology books, which it seems have to be heavy due to some bizarre perceived correlation between weight and worth. My maternal grandfather was a collector of books. In particular fully illustrated books on birds and leather bound 'complete works of....'. I grew up surrounded by books because my mother had inherited her father's love of them; and after he died she also inherited his books, which my father built numerous capacious shelves for (without a spirit level he liked to boast). The shelves groaned audibly and I swear the house sunk an inch or two for each year we lived there.
     E-book readers have helped keep my luggage within the ever more strictly enforced airline weight limits, but in one important way they haven't made books lighter. I had a dream last night that prompted this post. I was back at university and I went to see a lecturer for a consultation about a piece of coursework I had submitted. He was an amalgamation of the nightmare head of department that Tony bests in the second season of Skins and Matt the killer from Top of the Lake. I got short shrift in the consultation and was gathering my books afterwards, but there seemed to be an increasing number of them, which I couldn't lift. An element of the dream was the recurring dread that I am unprepared for an exam and it is getting too late to catch up. I woke up feeling bad from the dream, but with a growing relief as I awoke to the reality that such fears are behind me. But what does the books being heavy signify?
     For me it's the weight of reverence that books engender. I grew up thinking it was a crime to mark a page by turning down the corner, and that not finishing a book I had started was a potentially cataclysmic failure of self-discipline with the added sin of disrespect to the author (to whose stature I could only dimly aspire). A year ago I finished my third degree (in Psychology you may have guessed). I spent too large a part of the following months getting a place on the Phd program and was absolutely convinced that's how I wanted to spend the next five years....until I wasn't. I confronted my misgivings and changed my mind. I'm going to coach, and teach (as far as possible unencumbered by textbooks) and I'm only going to read what I want to read, which doesn't mean not tackling the tough stuff if it seems like it will reward the effort. I've got my Kindle, and a variety of novels and tomes weighing down my Ikea shelves, but the weight of books is lifting month by month and I feel like our old house, rising again from the earth, lighter, more playful, less reverent.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What WILL they put on your gravestone?

"Don't spend too long on that, they won't put it on your gravestone," are words, or words to that effect, we have all heard many times. Take a walk through a graveyard and stop for a read from time to time and you'll see that what actually gets put on gravestones are things like: "To Ethel, wife and mother, she will be sorely missed," or "For Fred, husband to Lottie, the world is a richer place because he lived." And that's flattering headstone engravers by picking the most imaginative examples and misquoting them by erring on the side of interesting. So what is really meant to be implied as the opposite of what they won't put on your gravestone?
     In the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman film ‘Being John Malkovich,’ Maxine says: “I think the world is divided into those who go after what they want and then those who don’t. The passionate ones….they may not get what they want, but at least they remain vital, so when they lie on their death beds they have few regrets…and the ones who don’t go after what they want, well who gives a shit about them anyway.” That’s a  brutal assessment, but after many years of reflection, the truth in it to me is this. We learn to associate getting what we want with the bratty child who wants a new toy or to get their own way; or with the unscrupulous businessperson or politician who will stop at nothing to achieve wealth or power.  But if you look deeper, what you want is at the core of who you are and is the source of your most intense motivations and reserves of energy. When you are going after what you want you will have more vigour and staying power and although it won’t necessarily be the easy way it will feel good on balance because you will be being true to yourself and, in the deepest sense of the phrase, you will be doing your best. If you act from the core of who you are, you are going after what you want; and people will care because they will see that who you are and what you do matters. And that's the mark you will leave on the world and thus what will be left of you after you're gone: an epitaph worth carving in stone.
     A better question is therefore: what do you want them to put on your gravestone? What I want on mine is something like: Rob Russell was a true friend who lived courageously and brought insight and stimulation wherever he went. I've still got some work to do to live up to that, but why leave writing your epitaph until it's too late to be of any use to you?  What do you want on your gravestone?

Saturday, May 18, 2013


I just finished reading a book about the alliance between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin during World War 2. It would be redundant to repeat the big themes, but listing ten of the details that have stuck in my mind might be revealing in some way. Firstly, I did know that Roosevelt was wheelchair-bound, but I'd forgotten that I knew it which is a testament to his skill at managing his image and an indication of how much media technology has moved on since then. Secondly, Churchill had a habit of walking around naked from the waist down and a sketch of him thus exposed is reproduced in the book. Thirdly, Stalin might be the most charming mass murderer in history and his lack of illusions made him the most focused of the three. My favorite word used to describe Churchill is 'bellicose'. Roosevelt was a dreamer, thankfully. Fourthly, it brought home to me the enormity of the folly involved in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Fifthly, there was never a Russian banquet without lashings of vodka and suckling pig nor a British one without oceans of whisky, wine and brandy, and it seems Churchill at least was drunk pretty much throughout the war, which I would have been too in his position. Sixthly, Stalin was not a complete megalomaniac and had some feeling for which nations were and were not well suited to communism. Seventhly, Churchill comes across as the last of the old school champions of Empire, but at least that attitude served a higher purpose. In the light of this book, Thacher's tragic dalliance in the Falklands in the service of the 80s yuppie party that followed looks pathetic and shameful. Eighthly, the pressure that they were all under is impossible to imagine, but, at least some of the time, they were having a high old time while soldiers froze in the trenches, melted in the jungle and were slaughtered in their millions. Ninthly, I didn't know that the Polish government was exiled in London during the war or how important the fate of Poland after the war was to the members of the alliance and I still don't know how to pronounce the exiled leader's name. Tenthly, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's closest adviser is in a tie with Churchill for my favourite character in the book.