Exocets

I texted the person I’m slowly turning into late last night:

“Phew wee – a really stretching week… grievances, gross misconduct, controversial and risky things to land before Xmas and much change being imposed.”

“I suspect like you at a similar stage – I am strangely both deeply affected and also somewhat distant in my reaction to all this – it matters and it affects me; but much of it is not my doing and not in my gift to change.”

“A dawning of a more realistic sense of personal responsibility and the limits thereof?”

Maybe so.

I also have fought off the desire to compete, undermine and fight back in the face of many provocations these last weeks. And this is a lesson well learned…

As I also admitted to my pal:

“One of the bigger lessons of recent years was that firing two Exocets into an adversary’s hull damaged me below the waterline more surely than it did them.”

It has been hard; but I’ve largely managed to let go of a week of days packed without pause with relentless interpersonal aggro.

As I sit here listening to happy tunes in the school carpark (having chosen to save my eldest from a cold walk home from dancing) I have refound my equilibrium, equanimity – and the all important inner peace.

It gets the blood up; but Exocets just aren’t worth firing.

Confrontation and Compassion

Compassion came up a number of times this week – on Tuesday in the context of confrontation; and yesterday as a way to run an entire organisation. Of course the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would argue (in the book I’m reading below) that compassion is what we should use to run the entire world.

Back to confrontation through – a colleague of mine was arguing for a ‘public hanging’ to show that the behaviour of some people will no longer be tolerated. I said I felt not; I was accused of appeasement. 

That stung a bit, but my considered counter was: when I’ve ‘gone to war’ with people at work all manner of ills have followed – for me, them and everyone around us. 

So I offered what The Book of Joy suggests instead:

“There is an important distinction between forgiveness and simply allowing others’ wrongdoing. Sometimes people misunderstand and think forgiveness means you accept or approve of wrongdoing. No, this is not the case. We must make an important distinction.” The Dalai Lama was speaking emphatically, striking on hand against the other. “The actor and the action, or the person and what he has done. Where the wrong action is concerned, it may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop it. Towards the actor, or the person, however you can choose not to develop anger and hatred. This is where the power of forgiveness lies – not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness. 

This is easier to say than do – both ways. I sometimes find it hard to respond quickly to a ‘wrong’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ without drawing on anger; and once the incident has passed, it feels like I’ve missed the moment and the best thing is probably to move on. But the Dalai Lama invites me to do better: 

“We stand firm against the wrong not only to protect those who are being harmed but also to protect the person who is harming others, because eventually they, too, will suffer. So it’s out of a sense of concern for their own long term well-being that we stop their wrongdoing… We do not let anger and negative feelings develop, but we strongly oppose their actions.”

Desmond Tutu sets out the personal benefit of forgiveness, which I buy completely and have experienced fully in recent years: 

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and feelings. We become our own liberator.”

The Dalai Lama picks up: 

“So it is totally wrong,” he said emphatically, cutting his hand sharply through the air, “to say that practice of tolerance and practice of forgiveness are signs of weakness. Totally wrong. Hundred percent wrong. Thousand percent wrong. Forgiveness is a sign of strength.”

The Archbishop adds with a laugh: 

“Those who say forgiveness is a sign of weakness haven’t tried it.”

Forgiveness I have largely cracked. Responding to ‘wrongs’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ but without hot or cold anger… that is a work in progress.

Knots, Seeds and Red Lights


I’ve just finished Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is Every Step’. 

It’s never a bad idea to have a Buddhist book on the go in the pile by the bedside. The basic precepts of living in the moment, breathing and mindfulness are always a good antidote to the hurry and rush of modern life.

This one is a little twee in places, but the Vietnamese Monk is as deep as he is light, and there are some memorable ideas in here.

Three that have stuck with me: 

1) Breathe when you see Red Lights – Thich Nhat Hahn points out that ‘while we are driving we only think of arriving’. So every time we see a red light (and in suburban London that’s every 10 seconds) as he gently puts it ‘we are not very happy’. Not half. His tip is to take a red light as a cue to focus on your breathing – and it really works… And not just in the car. I’ve found a couple of times on a bus this week that just as I’m starting to get het up at the queue of red brake light in front of us, a turn inwards and a consciously deep breath – and peace miraculously breaks out in my previously troubled soul.

2) Avoid Knots – any time something bad happens that we don’t understand Thich Nhat Hahn suggests a ‘knot’ is tied in us. If we deal with it – through reflection and understanding – the knot is easily untied. If we leave them though, the knots get stronger and tighter. And this is particularly the case with those we spend most time with. The best thing we can do for those closest to us is to help them untie their knots, but if you’re all tied up yourself the odds are you’ll be making them more not less knotty.

3) Think about the seeds you’re planting – like a pot of peaty soil we all readily grow the ’emotional seeds’ which are planted in us. Plant a healthy, ‘happy’ seed and more will spring from it – let a hostile, angry seed sprout and Thich Nhat Hahn assures us the seeds of hostility and anger will spread. 

A deep breath on the bus, a few of my own knots untied; but the most important things I did this week were to stop seeds of hostility sprouting in a few places at work. 

My top New Year’s Time Management resolution from Chris Croft has been to have a daily diary reminder titled ‘biggest problem’ as my first job of the day. 

Thanks to Thich Naht Hahn I changed it this week to ‘Biggest Problem/Most Difficult Thing’. And one of them was to email, while walking into work, to explain and apologise to someone I’d talked at and talked over in a large forum. 

Knot untied, seeds of future trouble nipped in the bud and onto a bus; red light – relax and breathe. Life is good.

On Anger

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Sometimes you can’t beat going back to the original source. The great philosophers can be a tricky read, but equally, they can be very direct, simple and clear. Aristotle was.

Generally speaking there are many different kinds of afflictive or negative emotions, such as conceit, arrogance, jealousy, desire, lust, closed-mindedness and so on. But out of all these hatred and anger are considered to be the greatest evil, because they are the greatest obstacle to developing compassion and altruism, and they destroy one’s virtue and calmness of mind.

In thinking about anger there can be two types. One type of anger can be positive. This would be mainly due to one’s motivation. There can be some anger that is motivated by compassion or a sense of responsibility. Where anger is motivated by compassion it can be used as an impetus or a catalyst for a positive action.

Under these circumstances, a human emotion like anger can act as a force to bring about swift action. It creates a kind of energy that enables an individual to act quickly and decisively. It can be a powerful motivating factor. So sometimes that kind of anger can be positive.

All too often, however even though that kind of anger can act as a kind of protector and bring one extra energy, it is also blind, so it is uncertain whether it will become constructive or destructive in the end.

So, even though under rare circumstances some kinds of anger can be positive, generally speaking anger leads to ill feeling and hatred. And as far as hatred is concerned, it is never positive. It has no benefit at all. It is always totally negative.

The destructive effects of hatred are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a very strong or forceful thought of hatred arises within you, at that very instant it totally overwhelms you and destroys your peace of mind, your presence of mind disappears completely.

When such intense anger and hatred arises, it obliterates the best part of our brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong, and the long term and short term consequences of our actions. Our power of judgement becomes totally inoperable. It can no longer function. It is almost like you have become insane.

So this anger and hatred tends to throw you into a state of confusion, which just serves to make your problems and difficulties much worse.

Even at the physical level, hatred brings about a very ugly, unpleasant physical transformation of the individual. At the very instant where strong feelings of anger or hatred arise, no matter how hard the person tried to pretend or adopt a dignified pose, it is very obvious that the person’s face looks contorted and ugly. There is a very unpleasant expression and the person gives out a very hostile vibration.

Other people can sense it. It is almost as if they can feel steam coming out of that person’s body. So much so that not only are human brings capable of sensing it, but even animals, pets, would try to avoid that person at that instant. Also when a person harbours hateful thoughts, they tend to collect inside the person.

For reasons such as these, hatred is compared to an enemy. This internal enemy has no other function than causing us harm. It is our true enemy, our ultimate enemy. It has no other function than simply destroying us both in the immediate term and the long term.

This is very different from an ordinary enemy. Although an ordinary enemy, a person whom we may regard as an enemy, may engage in activities that are harmful to us, at least he or she has other functions; that person has got to eat, and that person has got to sleep. So he or she has many other functions and therefore cannot devote twenty-four hours a day of his or her existence to this project of destroying us.

On the other hand hatred has no other function, no other purpose, than destroying us. So by realising this fact, we should resolve that we will never give an opportunity for this enemy, hatred, to arise within us.

Words Aristotle himself could have written. But in fact come from a modern philosopher – the Dalai Lama.

Forget the stereotype of ‘bells and smells’, the condensed wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s lifetime of analysis and thought bears remarkable similarity to Aristotle – develop virtue, moderation and a supple mind. A good recipe for a good life.

Incandescence

This week, I advanced my new theory – to a gently sceptical friend – that the brain works (at least partly) like the electronic ink screen of an Amazon Kindle. Blending in the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, my sweeping conclusion was he should get angry more. Here’s why.

Since buying a Kindle, I’ve been impressed that the screen, when you switch it off, maintains a complex picture – a person, a constellation, a painting etc – using no energy at all. It’s simple but impressive. Like a screensaver, but without power. Information and knowledge are thus available to be viewed, at any time, at no energy or processing cost. My theory is the brain has the same capacity.

A few years ago I read that neurones aren’t permanently ‘charged’ like little lightbulbs or LCD pixels but store information passively – more like a physical switch or dial. Energy is used to ‘charge’ them with information, but once they have been ‘set’ with information they store it passively until changed. Good job too, or, given the number of neurones we have, we’d need a nuclear generator to power our heads.

So my emerging thesis is we can ‘poll’ in computer lingo, or rapidly access a snapshot our entire accumulated summary of knowledge and experience in an instant. And in that instant we can act or react subconsciously informed by that summary.

My guess is that none of this requires much in the way of conscious cognitive processes. Like a finger recoiling from a nail or a smile drawing a return smile, we can immediately and effectively respond to people and situations against this dataset. I’m not saying it is innate or preloaded. We are constantly checking, updating and rearranging our vast neuronal data-set. But at any instant, my thesis is, it lies latently ‘there’ encrypted in neurones like the patterns which make a rich picture, or a page of words, out of electronic ink.

Of course we can intervene, ignore, debate or challenge our accumulated data. Any instant ‘gut’ reaction, or action, it may recommend can be overruled. In complex or nuanced circumstances the higher cognitive functions kick in – at least most of the time.

And this connects to my ongoing conversation with my friend on Aquinas’ support for ‘ira’, and the set of passions which include anger. Like Aristotle – in fact far more than him – Aquinas was pro anger in the right circumstances. Surprising for a theologian.

He thought the passions were intrinsic parts of who we are. He thought they were forms of reason, not lower ‘animal’ or ‘bodily’ sensations to be suppressed by our purer ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Thus, our passions come from our instincts, blended with our default ‘Kindle screen’ summary of experiences, beliefs and our lifetime of accumulated and refined knowledge. They all inform each other.

I’m with Aristotle that we are what we repeatedly do. So we are constantly refining and tuning our passions, our experience dataset and our virtues through action – only some of that helped by conscious reflection. I’m increasingly with Aquinas too, that it all comes together in complex single holistic system – an ‘anima’, aka a person, not a dumb body and a smart, reasonable mind.

As Herbert McCabe points out: for Aquinas the good life is a passionate life; not achieved by the repression of passions, but by passions guided by virtues. Perhaps there’s more to be said for trusting our ‘gut’, allowing moments of ‘ira’ and the occasional incandescence of righteous anger. Once you’ve lived a few decades and developed a bit of virtue, it’s pretty well informed.

Inner Disposition

Twice this week I made myself feel a lot better by acting to adjust my ‘inner disposition’. Before Christmas I read the Stoic Epictetus’s ‘Handbook’. The translator and expert guide Keith Seddon has produced a simple summary of Stoicism in a flow diagram (above). In the centre is ‘adjusting one’s inner disposition’ which reduces ‘wrong judgements’, ‘debilitating emotions’ and overreaction to ‘external events’ – notably people. The products of an adjusted ‘inner disposition’ are ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’. 

I associate Stoicism with passivity. Shrugging the shoulders, avoiding situations, retreating to the intellectual ‘cave’ and keeping your head down. I conclude from this week it ain’t necessarily so. Why? Because in both cases I ‘adjusted my inner disposition’ by taking action ‘in the moment’, not reflecting on it too much, and in the process letting go of the ‘debilitating emotions’ almost immediately. 

The first instance was easy. I was fuming about my day at work and the inappropriate behaviour I’d been subject to. I put my iPod on and tapped out a rant (which I kept to myself) on my iPhone. Rant written, fave tunes playing, my ‘inner dispositions’ changed in less than 5 mins. I let go and felt better.

In the second instance, I also wrote a rant, but this time hit Send. Risky. And after an hour with no answer, I started regretting it. But like hitting the reset button, or turning a computer on and off, my head and heart were cleared. So when the time came to deal with the consequences of my rant, I had a better ‘inner disposition’ and we changed the air.

Many of the great thinkers draw on Stoicism. Kierkegaard, who I’m enjoying at the moment, places taking responsibility for your own life as part of his ‘ethical’ stage of life. Aristotle advocates thought and action. Like Achilles though, sometimes I have to act – not think – to achieve ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’.

Anger

Last weekend I had a ‘falling out’ at work on my mind. Someone had confronted me and asked to come to an important board meeting and I’d said No. The following morning the person stormed in and accused me of being irascible and aggressive before storming out and slamming the door. I was surprised, hurt and sad.

It so happened last weekend I had some time to kill on a train. So while brooding I read a bit of Aristotle’s ethics on the topic of anger. In general my temper is slow to rise. I can soak up a lot and am quite stoical but then when it (unusually) snaps I can say hurtful things, sometimes clinically hurtful, which I regret, often for a long time.

One of the things I’ve tried to do – and having kids has helped with this – is to connect a bit more with my emotions. Part of this involves getting cross more readily but less severely and responding better ‘in the moment’ rather than bottling things up, brooding or dishing up verbal vengeance. Aristotle would approve. For him to be too slow to anger was as much a defect as to be too quick. The ‘golden mean’ of ‘appropriate’ and ‘fitting’ behaviour is what he is all about.

When I lived in France in the 1990s, shouting, being rude and saying what you thought was a normal part of French office life. I remember the first time after extreme provocation that I lost it with someone thinking “That’s it, game over, one of us will have to resign”. The next day the guy I’d had a shouting match with greeted me like a long lost brother and shook me warmly by the hand. It was as if at last he felt he could work with and trust me now we’d had a stand up row. In my experience the ‘golden mean’ for anger in France is very different to that in the UK – just look at their street protests…

So why did I feel so bad about my spat the other week? Partly because the person I’d said ‘no’ to sharply had felt hurt by it. I was also, in truth, worried in case it turned into a grievance or an HR problem. But most of all I was worried that maybe I was out of line, and I had been aggressive, although it hadn’t felt like it at the time. Cue Aristotle for a soothing intellectual balm from 2500 years ago:

“At any given time it is possible to praise someone who seems deficient in anger, and at another praise someone who is excessively angry. There is no simple formula to determine how a man should act in a given situation or how far he can err before he is considered at fault. This difficulty of definition is inherent in all cases of perception. Questions of degree are bound up in the circumstances of particular cases. The solution in every case rests on one’s own moral sensibility. But this much is clear: in all areas of human conduct the mean is the most desirable and its attainment is the source of all moral virtue.”

I felt better for reading that. On Monday I went to talk to my accuser. I explained how the incident and subsequent exchanges had made me feel, I shared some context on the situation, my response and the history of previous board meetings. The result was a rapprochement and reconciliation. I achieved conciliation without contrition.

I’m still left with a question though: what is the golden mean for anger in the modern workplace. I remember coming back the the UK after 5 years of working in France and quite missing their candour and frankness. Sometimes people were really rude, but problems got sorted and people said what they thought.

Perhaps a bit more honest emotion in UK workplaces might be a good thing. I’m trying to show more – and feel more – these days, and it seems to work more often than not, but it’s important to be governed by the ‘golden mean’.