Monthly Archives: September 2014

Digging for Gold (1)

Digging for Gold (1)

Most of us, at various moments and at different times of our life, are faced with problems or situations that we don’t like and want to change. Or that we don’t understand, and want to know more about. Or we’re just plain curious! In all of these circumstances, enquiry can work wonders.

Change happens

One of the first principles of enquiry is the recognition that it isn’t actually necessary to struggle to change things. In fact, it can even be counterproductive.

Change happens, whether we like it or not. What is needed is the capacity to stay with whatever is there, because when you explore and observe your experience, it unfolds. Life is a flow of experience. And if the same thing seems to keep happening, over and over again, it’s because our perspective is caught in an unchanging pattern. By taking a broader perspective, the flow becomes more apparent. It’s like watching a stream. If you see boulders in the stream only as obstructions, you may not notice the intricate swirls and eddies of the water, the fascinating changes of light and colours, shifting sand and pebbles, plant life and underwater creatures, or even glorious visiting kingfishers and magnificent leaping salmon. Even boulders look different when you see them from a different viewpoint!

If it’s not one thing…

It’s a mother, as a comedian once ruefully ad-libbed – after a long period of therapy, I suspect. It’s true, when you study psychology for any length of time, you start to think that everything (especially the bad bits!) that has ever happened to you is your mother’s fault. What’s important to realize is that in fact, most of us tend to view the whole world as our mother. We expect the outside world to give us what we want. And we get annoyed, frustrated, and outraged when this doesn’t happen. Which is strange, when you think about it, because we’re part and parcel of the world ourselves. It’s like blaming your thumb for hurting, when you hit it with a hammer.

What’s real?

Especially in our day and age, when so much more is explained and developed with the help of continually expanding scientific knowledge about the human mind and body, the process of enquiry is greatly supported by information about the workings of the mind and our physical and emotional states. Personally, I find the study of the human psyche both vastly interesting and extremely useful, however it’s not a prerequisite for the practice of enquiry. Obviously, it is possible to come to very deep understanding of ourselves without training in psychology or neurology or biology or all the other –ologies that have evolved in (relatively) recent time. Enquiry works because it is based on our own experience, in the moment. You start with a question, a problem, a situation, or simply openness to what is there in the moment. By focusing on your inner experience, you can get a felt sense of it. Staying with this felt sense, getting closer to it, reveals more about it. And ultimately, allows it to transform, to unfurl, to flow.

There’s much more to find out through enquiry. Visit The Enquiring Spirit.

Life & Work

Life & Work

When I started my working life, I was sent out into the world with the words “Remember, there’s no sentiment in business.” I suspect a lot of people live according to that motto. Only recently I heard of a manager who replied to complaints from an employee with: ‘Get over it. This is not your family. It’s just business.” Genuine objectivity and adult behaviour is one thing. But surely we don’t want our working life to degenerate into the disregard of our own and others’ vulnerability?

What is it that triggers this attitude? Why is it that warmth, kindness, and tolerance are considered to have no place in the office, or on the shop floor? Are people less vulnerable at work than they are at home? Profit-before-people goals often motivate positive-sounding strategies, such as increased customer satisfaction, cost-saving drives and sustainability programmes, but they can’t be allowed to generate stress and anxiety – which seem to be increasingly frequent side-effects. When ‘higher performance’ is pursued at the cost of people’s health and happiness, whom is it ultimately serving?

Burn-out and beyond

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions[i] states: “The main risk factors for work-related stress include heavy

workloads, long working hours, lack of control and autonomy at work, poor relationships with colleagues, poor support at work and the impact of organisational change.” In a 2005 survey, the Foundation found that 22% of European workers suffered from stress, lower back ache, muscular pain and fatigue, and that about a quarter of those employed in Europe were exposed to job strain (between 13% in Sweden and 43% in Greece). The figures have risen since then, and a much wider range of illnesses is now linked to job stress.

This cannot be termed efficiency, by any stretch of the imagination. Quite apart from the harrowing effect on individuals, it costs companies and countries millions in lost working hours and health care.

What’s happening?

Where does all this leave genuine efforts to achieve personal ambitions and reach company-defined targets? Of course companies have to be profitable, in order to stay afloat. Of course there is nothing wrong with encouraging employees to improve their efficiency, stretch their capacities, and reach for goals. But does this truly necessitate shorter and shorter business plan cycles? Do margins have to be quite so high, to maintain sustainability? Are shareholders in multinational corporations – many of whom are perhaps not aware of – or interested in – how their investments return profits – really the best group to be allowed to drive company policy and business strategies? Is modern business degenerating into a new version of the bad old days of slavery and bribery?

Backward reasoning

Of course ‘big business’ is not always, and not only, the Big Bad Wolf. But it is perhaps wiser to be aware that the outcome of false objectivity – aka ‘just business’ – within companies is disappointment, distrust, and distress. In the long term, ‘no sentiment’ – which is so often translated into no emotion, no feeling, no consideration for others – is not even in the interests of companies’ leaders and shareholders. The problem is, even in the shady world of thieves and robbers, people tend to believe they’re acting in a justifiable, perhaps even reasonable way. In many cases, they don’t stop to consider the morality or justifiability of their actions.They wouldn’t do what they do otherwise. It’s a case of backward reasoning. We all believe that the fruits of our labours should make us happy. And if they don’t, we either have to try harder, or it’s the other person’s fault!

Nowhere to turn

At the heart of every problem there is usually a conflict. A dilemma. On the face of it, the dilemma is easily solved. You simply repress all awareness of it, and keep trying harder to get what you want in the same way as always. Your image is at stake. Your job is at stake. Your happiness is at stake. Or the problem is that someone else is making things difficult, and needs to be punished, or changed. So you run faster (and end up stressed and exhausted), or get others to run faster (so that they end up stressed and exhausted). It doesn’t work.


Understanding how we create stress for ourselves provides the antidote to more stress and anxiety. In the words of the song, we need to take a moment and just be still. [ii]

Mindfulness can become a kind of active meditation, with heightened awareness of our thoughts and emotions fuelling enquiry into how they govern our behaviour. We all accumulate layers of forgotten – though active! – beliefs and assumptions about life and work in general. The first step towards change is finding out exactly what they are and how they’re affecting us now, in the moment.

In spite of my parents’ advice on the work environment, I’ve found that the places where I was most productive and efficient where those where I most enjoyed my work and the contact and cooperation with my colleagues. The myth that work and friends need to be kept separate often only leads to loneliness and isolation; at least half of my longest-lasting friendships were formed at work. I’ve also observed and experienced the results of working where the policy of excluding ‘sentiment’ from business prevailed: considerable difficulty and stress, and very little job satisfaction.

We don’t need to act on harmful maxims. Or continue to believe all we were told as children – it may never have been true! That’s what I like about enquiry. You can find out what’s true for you now, and break free from old habits and beliefs. It’s life changing.


[i]© European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2010