How to tell the difference: unbearable or unfamiliar?

My wife and I have been trying to make decisions about what it’s wise to do right now. Visit a friend who has cancer? Go to the store again? Go to the job at the retail store? What we’re struggling with is information, emotion, inference, and uncertainty. You are, too.

The feeling how-can-I-tell-what’s-best is acute now. What is the same as other days, though, is that we select information, we think about it, feel things, believe we’re making sense of it and we act. Most of the time, that’s reaction. Autopilot. Familiar patterns. When the risks are low, we feel comfortable and we do what we usually do. Now, we are anxious because we are feeling the uncertainty that we usually look past.

This is a good time to practice recognizing the difference between reaction and the settled-down feeling of knowing what fits this situation.

How to tell the difference?

  • Do I feel that I have to decide or act right now? You may be trying to get this over with. Rushing resolves uncertainty by sweeping it away or denying it. Do not rush to answer questions because the ambiguity is unbearable. It only seems unbearable to you right now.
  • Do I have the sense that I’m the lynch pin, the bottleneck, the decider? Maybe those things are objectively so, but you can involve others. What do they see, care about, want to see on the other side of this ambiguity? You can’t satisfy everyone, but you could see more of the terrain.
  • Does this box I’m in feel familiar? If you’ve been here before, reflect on how you ended up there last time, what the consequences were, where you felt stuck and where you felt free. Mine the latter for insights and small ways to proceed.

Discernment is knowing the difference between familiar reactions, no matter how effective at the time, and the I-don’t-(really)-know-yet that can feel unbearable


What do I want to be ready for a year from now?


Whatever we are capable of handling today is what we have been preparing for, not last week, but months or years before that. If we want to be ready for whatever comes late in the coronavirus pandemic, or afterward, we could start developing those abilities and capabilities now.

I’m moved by the generosity of folks offering free classes, meetings, services, and more. It’s sure to ease our isolation and discomfort. It may do much more than that. Make the most of it.

And then consider asking yourself…

What was I not ready for that I want to be ready for a year from now?

What do I want to be able to face
or bounce back from a year from now?

Our current vacation in hell

If “social distancing” and isolating yourself sound like a vacation in a very boring hell, consider this.

You’re in hell because you’re not in control.

You’re in hell because you can’t choose who you spend time with.

You’re in hell because someone else is setting limits on you.

You’re in hell because you want…something else.

You’re in hell because some of the things that feel meaningful have been taken away. I’m not thinking of toilet paper. I’m thinking of all the things you do that make up your routine, that feel “like you,” that assure you that you know who you are.

You’re in hell because you do not seem to be who you thought you were.

When we take a close look, none of these experiences throws us into a personal vacation in hell.

But our reactions to the experience do that. We could pay attention. “Whoa. Here I am crashing into my own hell again. There must be something I really want to master, control, break free from, not have to face, not have to feel.”

Remember where you are

Some of us are freaking out. Some of us are propelled into action. And some of us, like me, are just feeling a current of anxiety running through us.

If what we’re experiencing right in this moment is a “problem,” then we’ll look for a solution.

That reinforces the so-called problem.

I thought I was getting sick yesterday. Turns out, I was just holding onto all the worry I felt when I read the news and talked to family. (Everyone is fine.)

We experience a lot of things at once, though we don’t notice. . I felt secure. And I felt anxious. And I thought my risks were low. And my dad is 87. I could go on. I didn’t appreciate how much experiencing these things together contributes to a pent up confusion and wish for some relief.

There’s a time to step away from the sources that spin us up. I’m thinking here of the news. It has been difficult to listen to my wife report things that colleagues said at work. I wanted to check out. There are times when our attention is fragile and narrow. I’m apt to go right to some emotional reaction – restlessness, impatience, the “get me out of here” feeling.

As a starting point, I’m trying to watch out for when I have fallen into some consuming, imagined world, thanks to my reactions. Say, a world of not-enough for all of us, a world in which it’s me versus them, or one in which “they” don’t matter as much as me and mine. Do I really believe in that? Does that isolate me, or does it help connect me to others? Something has taken me over. It usually comes up out of the cellar of emotions.

A better way is to practice bringing attention to this experience right now. It’s not easy to sit with this kind of anxiety and sense of potential threat. It can feel impossible. We’re really quite unprepared. But could you begin by asking this?

What kind of world am I imagining, believing in, and reacting to?

That world is created by our thinking about events, both out there and within us. And not just thinking, but what it brings up from the cellar of emotions.

This approach isn’t a solution. What we’re experiencing right in this moment is painful and confusing. But a problem? Take a closer look.

Ahem. Click the image to learn more.

Balance: Learn to fall

What does presence look like under pressure? Mastery, confidence, assurance, a commanding presence, steady as a rock. These are words we use to describe what we believe we see in people who are getting it right. 

Take another perspective on presence under pressure. Runners are confident, right? What are they doing? Most of the time they’re falling. They’re off the ground, propelling themselves in a direction and headed for the ground. But they know this motion and what to do when falling. 

If you watch a toddler learn to walk, you’ll see that they know that walking is also falling. It’s frightening and confusing and sometimes it causes pain. Here comes the floor again! They look for support, encouragement, and comfort. 

If we want to be centered, present, steady, instead of being like a rock we can think about being like a runner. We could learn to fall in ways that no longer frighten us. But to do that, we need to practice falling, feeling frightened, and not panicking.

Ahem. Click the image to learn more.

Balance: Wanting more

Balance is a fine thing to aspire to, but you may notice that when you have enough of one thing, you find you want more of something else.

This is how it is for me. When I have enough work, I want more leisure. And leisure might mean, going for a strenuous hike, but it might also mean sitting still, reading, and nodding off when I’ve had enough. When I feel that I’m keeping connected to friends and community, I want more time alone. When I’m loved, I also want mental stimulation.

Balance isn’t a matter of trying to have more of something. What if trying to find balance is a matter of really paying attention to the things we’re over committed to, doing too much, too often, and doing them less.

It’s not easy to pay attention to over-doing. That’s because it’s useful, effective (for a while), responsible, even admired and expected.

You could try to notice when you wish for something different – more of something else – what might you be overdoing. Just start paying attention to that. See what happens when you do.

Ahem. Click the image to learn more.

Why I am changing the focus of BIG IDEA

The map is not the territory

In the past, I wanted to offer people big ideas that would give them a map out of the wilderness. People usually call it “dysfunction.” In professional language that means, “I / we are suffering here.” Of course, some times I work with people who are standing on a plateau of accomplishment. They can see even higher peaks in the distance. They would like a map, too.

But a map is not the territory. Big ideas are no more than conceptual ways of orienting ourselves. When we step off the trail, or are forced there by forces around us, how do we find our way?

My mission is to support, accompany, and guide leaders and other good-hearted people who want to explore the territory without a map

I have changed the focus of my work from map salesman and tour guide to orienteering teacher and field guide. I did this because I needed to find my own way. I wasn’t exactly lost, but I felt that I was walking in circles. Here are three ways I knew I needed to find another way of knowing how to make a positive impact.

  • I noticed that following other people’s examples proved to be a dead end for me.
  • I put a lot of effort into re-making myself into the image of my role models. That included attempting to banish facets of myself that didn’t match those models.
  • I believed that someone else had an explanation, description, or model that would show me how to be the sort of person and professional that I wanted to be.

You could look at my list and say that I was naive. But we all look to each other for clues about what’s valued, who gets ahead and who’s admired around here, what fits in this organization or culture, and what connects me to this group of people I work with. Your list may look very different than my reasons for looking elsewhere. But you may find that you could write your own list.

Finding a different way to know

The big ideas that I used to try to change my own circumstances did give me a thrill of hopefulness. But they didn’t change my patterns of thinking and behavior. I needed a different way to know. You read that right: “a different way to know.” I knew plenty, but I didn’t know how to understand my situation. “What am I not seeing in myself that’s having so many effects I don’t want to have?” I needed help with that.

I’m sure I’m not alone. We tend to think that that should be resourceful and competent. It’s hard to admit that we’re not sure about the right direction for ourselves or those we’re responsible for. We live in complex times. To pretend that we’re certain might be riskier than admitting our doubts and the discomfort that goes with them.

We underestimate the power of attention

and we overestimate the power of action

At the heart of the shift in focus here at BIG IDEA is my confidence in that statement. It’s not an idea. It’s an observation borne out again and again in experience. Not just my own, but those who are practicing attention themselves through programs and coaching with me.

Here’s what I know we get out of developing attention, which produces the different way to know that I talked about earlier. We:

  • Enable skills and talents that we already have and broaden their range
  • Develop new way-finding abilities in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Develop abilities to connect with others genuinely and honestly
  • Become less reactive, which helps defuse unseen, persistent patterns
  • Foster a sense of clarity that isn’t based on what someone else would do or what someone else has said

If some of what you’ve read resonates, I hope you’ll pay attention to the inkling you have that something is up. It’s just one clue. You’ve probably noticed others. They often add up to something important, like pointers about what’s growing, what’s neglected, where to go, and maybe even what to leave.

I hope you’ll stay in touch, too. My mission is to support, accompany, and guide people who want to explore the territory without a map.

To hear about programs, coaching, and other resources you could sign up below.

Take a look at The Equipoise Project and the events coming out of that work. Let me know what you think.

How not to be drawn into that. Again.

This is a season of happy obligations. Some of us feel the happiness more, some the obligation.

I am uneasy about any advice I might give. Anticipating the holidays, I can already see that I’ve said yes to some things that I might have said no to. And last minute events come up. There are gifts to find and make. Thoughtful gifts. 

Here are two things I’ll be trying out again this holiday season. As I always say, practice builds capacity and practice takes time. The first is about intention. The second is about letting go. These are simple to say. They are not hard to understand. They are not easy to do. 

This word “intention” isn’t magic, though I’ve heard people use it as though it were. If it helps, you could think of it as a commitment. 

I’m making a commitment not to take anything away from others’ joy. When we’re stressed or find ourselves where we don’t want to be, we may unload our emotions on others. Would you steal their wallet, or even that bottle of wine the company gave them? No. My intention is not to steal their joy. If that’s the not-doing, then the doing might be to fan the flame of others’ happiness, even a little. 

Letting go is just as simple and even harder. When we face family, old friends, colleagues at this time of year, we tell a story. There’s an idea of me, of you, embedded in this story. Could I let it go? It’s worth giving some thought to this story of me and what it means. Do I tend to tell the story, “I’m doing well and succeeding.” Or, “I’m distressed by circumstances and I don’t know what to do.” Or “Everything’s fine,” when it’s not fine at all. Or maybe you don’t say much. Not telling a story is a way of communicating something, too. 

A lot of our trouble results from wanting to appear to be something – successful, independent, deep (even “mindful and soulful”), kind and loving. Some stories aim to elicit something in others. They are questions like, Do they really care? Will they do something for me? Do they really see me and hear me? 

These stories can be hard to recognize in ourselves. We live inside them. When others don’t appreciate the way we know ourselves, challenge our story, question the premise, doubt the happy ending, we may get angry, withdraw, and call on past hurts to arm us for counterattack.

Instead, we could let go. I am not what they think, nor am I what I think of myself. If you look closely, you’re not the person that you think you are either. You’re not as important as you think. You are also more important than you think. We are complex and changing all the time. So whatever you’re protecting in there, it’s already moving away. That way you want to be seen? That’s normal. Let it go. You will feel how hard you hold onto it when you try to let it go. But you can’t control others perceptions. And as a rule, people are thinking of us less than we imagine. They’re thinking about their own experience. They’re wondering whether we care about them, see them, love them.

So I’ll try to let go of some of those definitions: successful, good, energetic, kind, generous. And If I’m less of a stick in the mud because of it, then I may have helped everyone be a little happier and come and go in peace.

Attention reveals the “urge to action”

One common experience that comes from practicing attention is that we can notice the urge to action. We are used to living in patterns. Because we’ve been watching where our attention goes, we may become increasingly aware of the urges to action that activate those patterns. When I sit down to write, I usually feel the urge to snack, run errands, make phone calls, and empty the dishwasher. When I’m with clients, I am familiar with an urge to speak up and give them “better” vocabulary for the experience they’re describing. We could ask “why?” But a better question is “what?”

We could get to know this existence by asking, What is this urge that I notice? When we ask “why?” we may understand. We look to familiar sources and past experiences. That can put the question to rest: “Oh, yeah. That’s why.” But we find that we don’t behave differently.  The more I write, the more I find the Goldfish crackers disappearing from the pantry. So, what is this experience? Note that the question is not, What should I do to change this?

We can look into facets of experience using this attention we’re developing. When I feel compelled to tell clients that they should do X or Y, or I feel the urge to teach something, I try to turn attention to body, emotion, and thinking. I do the same thing when I notice my attention is elsewhere in practice. I try to open up to the experience, the what.

Want to learn more about how to practice attention and how to observe the urge to action? I’d love to talk with you.

How are you doing?

As the end of the year approaches, we may ask ourselves how this year went. On balance, did I do what I intended? Am I, are we headed where we want to go? After all, things change. What’s pressing in on this life of mine and what can I do about it?

How would this reflection be different if you set aside – or just plain rejected – the standards that others might apply? 

I thought I was a pretty accepting person, but I have a knee-jerk suspicion that those who don’t work hard and make a living have something wrong with them. Now that I see this, I wonder: When did conventional success become a not just benchmark but a moral value to me?

I was talking with my father-in-law today. We reflected on a recent trip with a somewhat distant relative. He is fascinating, irascible, charming, often disheveled, and always underemployed. From one perspective, he makes little contribution to society. From another, he’s more thoughtful, more knowledgeable, and better company than me. By someone’s measure, he falls short. By others, he’s awesome. 

So, when you stop to ask how you’re doing, stop to wonder whose standards you are applying to this self-evaluation. Or at least, consider that the measures you’ve used so far may be outdated for the present job, family, community situation.

You could even ask, What standard have I held that I can drop, and what could take its place that comes from within?