“You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this:
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks.”
I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” ― Wendell Berry
Life (I’m 48…).
It’s been one hell of a journey.
How’s it working out?
Has it turned out the way you hoped for?
No bullshit, please.
In any event, isn’t everything a compromise — living, love and the damn money?
Always the damn money.
Don’t ask me why — perhaps it’s the time of the year — but I thought it high time I reflected on the last few years.
I’m not doing this for any other reason than to benchmark my journey, since leaving legal practice in 2010. Oh sure, that sounds a long time ago, but I’ve made more progress in the last six years than at any other time in my life.
Let me be absolutely clear though:
- My life is my life;
- Your life is your life;
- My thesis for life is my thesis;
- Your thesis is your thesis;
- You know more than you think;
- You know less than you think;
- Time is not on your side;
- Time is, in fact, an illusion;
- You need to unlearn more than you’ve learned; and
- You need to let go…of everything.
(I’d like to think you’ll do more than skim over these points, again, not because I say so but, in all probability, because at least once in awhile you might invite the question: What’s missing?, and I’ll guarantee that the answer is to be found in one or all of these plus asking yourself a better set of questions than hitherto has been the case.)
Forgive me if you already know the story, but up until March 2010, having done 14 years in legal practice, everything was going according to my oh-so-predictable plan. And then it went seriously wrong: I was hospitalised for six days, suffering from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. As things go, it was low grade, but it reminded me, even at age 43, the fragility of life.
It wasn’t so much my injury that weighed heavily on my mind but witnessing the lady in the bed next to me (who I think was aged 28) go from a normalish state — she was able to converse with her mother — to falling off the edge of a cliff and losing significant brain function. I suppose I realised, even though I wasn’t feeling great, things could be a whole lot worse.
But, it was the period after I left hospital that had the biggest effect on me. During the time off from work (six weeks) not only did I reflect on the distance travelled in my career, family and life but I also opened my mind to the possibility that there was something else profoundly more meaningful at play.
I should say, at this point, that for most of my life I’d shunned all religion and the closest I’d got to anything remotely spiritual was the Church of Positive Affirmation, i.e. I had this avowed belief that we could control our minds, emotions and feelings in a given situation. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I knew, through several bouts of confronting Black Dog, that no matter my positive zeal, sometimes I couldn’t lift my head to the stars, notwithstanding the proclivity of metaphorical slaps on the back: “Pull yourself together Julian”.
Actually, if I’m being completely frank, I knew there was something much, much bigger play. There was a higher order. There was God.
“form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form;
emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form,
the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.”
At the time, even for a left-brained, hard-headed lawyer, I couldn’t get my head around these words. Of course, I might have ignored things and moved on to the next business bestseller — that would have been my normal personal development drug of choice — but, somehow, I knew I had no choice but to go deeper. In addition, meeting with two of my work colleagues during my convalescence convinced me that whether it was the extant law firm or any other firm, nothing was going to change — for me or for them. In short, I would be seen as no more than a money-producing cog in a profit-sucking wheel. It wasn’t just a sense of beginning to feel like a fish out of water, but realising that said fish was slowly losing interest in the pond of dissatisfaction that he and many others had been swimming around in without demur for so very long.
And so, in August 2010 I jumped.
No significant capital base.
But I felt I had no choice.
Do you hear that?
Do you feel that?
I’m sure many people thought I’d lost my mind. (Actually, up to that point, if I’d lost anything it was my soul.) It didn’t feel like that at all. On making the decision, I felt liberated in a way that I’d last experienced when I set up my first business in 1989.
Was I afraid? Not really. If I was, it wasn’t the possibility of losing anything because, up to that time, apart from a few hair-brained ideas (and they were mine and mine alone), I’d nothing to lose, but, instead, it was the possibility of having to swallow my pride and scurry back to the profession I’d so hastily left behind.
I was lucky though: I managed to wheedle my way into a law firm and blag myself a role in business development. Although I didn’t have all the Bells, Knobs and Whistles to go with the role, I knew a lot more than your normal HR functionary would have given me credit for by dint of my not quite 30 years of cut and thrust at the sharp end of salesmanship. I also got another lucky break when I was tapped up by one of the top London law firms to undertake a substantial amount of social media training. It might not sound much, but, at the time, it was a real confidence boost to know: (a) that someone that mattered was reading my blog; and (b) they were suitably inspired to instruct me.
Moving on a bit. For the next few years, I ducked and dived but not without an enormous amount of effort in winning work in a sector — mostly legal with a few other professional service entities thrown in for good measure — that needed as many meetings as there are days of the month to buy an infinitesimally small amount of my time. In hindsight, I should have broadened my very small church of clients or realised, as I’ve articulated before, that I wasn’t building a business but simply replacing one employed job (law) for another self-employed job (social media). Not the brightest move that’s for sure.
Knowing what I know now would I still have made the leap? Hell yes. 100%. But I would have spent more time working on the business and putting in place a systems-led solution to a very ordinary problem so that I could scale the business.
I’m back working at the coalface of another legal business, albeit that I carry around the title Chief Executive Officer and not solicitor.
Space doesn’t permit me to explain how I’ve ended up where I’ve ended up, but all I’ll say is that I’ve never been one for titles but I feel privileged to have the opportunity, and whatever happens in the future, I know it will stand me in good stead, particularly as regards the coaching part of my out-of-hours practice.
But all this, says nothing about the journey within.
In the early days, I read lots and lots starting with The Power of Now and Who am I? and an assortment of well-known spiritual guides. But it wasn’t until I came across and immersed myself in the writings of Thomas Merton that things really opened up for me.
Don’t ask me why, but his deeply religious take on the split between false self and true Self moved me to question a lot of my assumptions of living a full and complete life. I accepted fully the need to let go of my intense desire for career success almost as the apotheosis of life. I knew that instead of holding on to my deluded, repetitive thoughts, I had to unlearn my conditioned thinking and journey within.
You see, it’s my fundamental belief that the reason we’re all so miserable most of the time is that we look without for happiness rather than within. If that sounds glib or hackneyed, I make no apology simply because it’s true. Not my truth. It’s true on a fundamental level. Instead of always going out there for meaning to our life, the only place we need look is within. If we were capable of doing that we’d quickly realise that we’re already happy. Better still if we could disidentify from our thoughts then again we find that our beingness would be allowed to breathe us back to live.
You might wonder what I’m pointing to — it’s unlikely that you’ll have seen it articulated in your usual success handbook. It really is quite simple. When you’re at one with true Self you connect with a higher order. You can call it God if you like or Universal Mind but deep within and around us lies a resonance that touches our deepest self. Without wishing to appear airey fairey, imagine a time when you felt free of your mind, at one with your surroundings or free from all emotional baggage. For a lot of people they find nature often lifts them out of their state of melancholy. For others, it’s doing something extreme or on the edge. For others it’s in prayer. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that when you find yourself in a place of no mind, you feel one with your surroundings; you feel larger than you; you feel blissful. Or at least that’s how it is for me and those I know who’ve been prepared to let go. (This state is where many people now try to find themselves in meditation, although I’m sceptical that meditation will work in the same way; in the end it becomes no more than a technique and we find often we’re lost in our heads trying to recreate a blissful state, rather than realising that we’re already blissful.)
On a practical level, this means adopting a process of self-inquiry and questioning our endless stream of inane thoughts:
“I want to be happy.
Who wants to be happy?
Who is me?
Who is [insert name]?
Who is me?
It’s the sum total of my experience, thoughts and emotions.
Where do they arise?
Who is it that witness these thoughts?
Who is me?”
(This is just a snippet of the process, but in essence you’re going deep within to understand that behind your thoughts sits a witnessing presence and behind that something even more vast. And please remember that I’m trying to sum up a vastly more complex experience than a few words can to do justice to but you get the message I hope.)
Trust me, this process is never ending. OK for some people they might have been liberated but I think for most of us we fall in and out of presence.
As well as Thomas Merton’s work, I’ve also found myself reading and practising the Three Principles first enunciated by Sydney Banks. In essence, in a not too dissimilar way, what he shone a light on was the intrinsic link between our thinking and feeling and to understand that above all of this sits a Universal (Big) Mind where we’re part of but no more than the primordial soup. The Principles are not there as another faux personal development programme but instead a way of letting go of what you’ve learned and being completely in the moment.
I could go on but the thing I’m asking you to understand is that as well as challenging my career dreams, I’ve spent the last six years questioning my assumed conditioning about happiness, love and peace. In the past, I would have assumed that the more of one thing I had and the less of something else the more likely I would be happy. But that’s profoundly wrong. Wrong in the sense that when we go outside for happiness, we’re lost in a world completely out of our control. We might think it otherwise and even for those ‘control freaks’ they can’t control 100% of what goes on in their lives. It’s only when we journey within and understand the profound link between our thoughts, feelings and (big) mind that the world opens up in a completely new way.
In telling you this I’m not expecting you to change but I’m inviting you to consider how far you’ve really travelled with your existing thought matrix. In addition, I’m inviting a series of different questions to those you’ve posed before; namely to substitute What next? for Who am I?.
I accept that few people will want to do this when they’ve been conditioned to believe that life is made by us in our actions but if you posit What’s my true Purpose?, you’ll quickly understand that most people don’t know save for providing for others. Really! Is that our purpose? Surely, if we’ve any ‘goal’ it’s liberation in the sense of finding peace in our lives from everything, and I mean everything, that so vexes us.
You might think this awakening spiel a load of existential nonsense and that’s fine. As I’ve made clear, my experience is my experience. Your experience is your experience. But one thing that’s clear to me from my many years of investigating the link between thought, actions and results, is that we can no more control our thoughts, i.e. turn them on or off, than we can stop the sun from rising. Indeed, for most people they’re asleep but do not know they’re asleep. They’re unconscious but think they’re conscious. If we’re tasked with anything (by whom?) it’s to awaken to our true self. To come alive to life in its truest sense. As Michael E Gerber says in his stunningly insightful book, The Most Successful Small Business in the World, The Ten Principles:
“Awakening occurs in the moment when we see ourselves for what we are. We see how enslaved we are to our feelings, our reactions, our stream of uncreated, autonomous thoughts. We experience ourselves as Gurdjieff described us, or as the film The Matrix described us so well…as machines.”
You might think me deluded but I fundamentally believe that if we could awaken to a higher, true Self that the world would change in an instant. In essence, the separation that separates us from each other, from nature and something much more profound would be made whole. Does that mean we’d all run around with smiley faces? No. But it would address so many of the issues that afflict us all, i.e. greed, war and intolerance towards everybody and everything.