I have been contemplating Nature recently and our relationship with her. When I work with clients I work on the basis of a model I adapted from Tim Galwey’s work and Chrissy Philp. This model has four concentric circles with the individual in the middle, the immediate environment around them and the background cultural conversation around that. This is then all encompassed by Nature. What I am interested in doing is helping the individual understand their own nature, the nature of the people they interact with, the nature of the organization and society in which they operate and the nature of life itself. I explain that the reason for this is that we are much more effective when we work with the nature of things rather than against it. Yet this seems oddly against the grain of modern thinking. In the modern Cartesian world of “I think therefore I am.”, nature and reality are there to be defined, created and controlled by man.
Looked at another way, it is possible to see these concentric circles as being about personalities; our own personality, the personalities of others we interact with, the personality of the organisations or societies we are part of and the personality of life or nature itself. This came home to me strongly recently in coaching two people at one of my largest clients – an international law firm. The first was a new partner in his first year. He was in a somewhat vulnerable position in that his path to partnership had been forged by working very closely as the right-hand man to a very successful partner but he was now tasked with building his own practice. His approach to this had initially been to treat it as a task and set objectives for it. On this basis, he needed to go and target clients and decide on the practice areas he wanted to focus on. Instead we took an approach based on the idea that he was discovering the nature of his practice and the people he was going to work with and that instead of worrying about all the things that he should be doing to achieve his goal, he focused instead on dealing with the day to day challenges that Life brought him and reflecting on the emerging insights in terms of the relationships he attracted, the work that came his way and most importantly, managing his fears that got in the way of this and caused him to push. For most of my clients this is initially counter-intuitive since it is so much against the prevailing model of seeking to impose our picture on the world and control it.
I have recently been reading Philip Pulman’s reworking of Grimm’s fairytales. In this nature is a key component. This can be in the form of animals, trees, plants etc. The key is always in the patience and character of the protagonists; it is a kind hearted act or morally upright one which causes animals, trees, birds to help them. Those not in harmony with nature or who treat small apparently insignificant aspects of nature cruelly or indifferently are always repaid for their actions. These days we would see such stories as naïve or rationalise them as having direct causal impacts – ie. if you treat someone well they will be kindly disposed towards you and might tell others etc. We distrust the notion of anything beyond causality. Recently, I was coaching an aspiring partner at a client who had been told that he needed to develop his ability to win work to stand a chance of becoming a partner. Indeed, the pressure from senior partners above him was intense in terms of being more “aggressive” in building relationships. He was very nervous about his ability to do this and the need to compete with others. Like most before him, his fear was of ending up lacking integrity in his relationships with others and finding himself making friends with others simply for the purposes of winning work. He also could not imagine how to fit this in around the huge volume of work he was already doing or where these people would come from. I realised that the main work I could do was to reduce the pressure this mad approach was causing and to help him examine the truth of this view of the world. When we examined how many client relationships people actually had in the firm, it became clear that most, even the most successful, only had a couple or even one main relationship. When I asked him to look at where this had come from the answer was that it never seemed to be one that they had consciously cultivated initially. To relieve the pressure he was under, I suggested instead that he drop any focus on relationships and instead just focus on the work he was doing and see what relationships naturally developed without his conscious effort. Within a couple of months, a friend of a friend in a social context asked him about some of the work he was doing. This person turned out to be working in a company that my client had been targeting for many years without success and as result of his conversation they were asked to pitch to go on to the panel of advisors for the firm.
At our subsequent coaching session we involved the senior partner who was sponsoring this individual. He adamantly put forward the view about having to work hard on building relationships and being more aggressive in the marketplace but when I began to carefully challenge him about this view and the way relationships actually developed, he agreed that he was very uncomfortable with it and it didn’t reflect his experience. Yet, when it came to talking about the opportunity that the individual had just created, he went back to trying to describe it in terms of a conscious and systematic effort which demonstrated the need to work hard at cultivating relationships and turning one’s network into potential work opportunities, even though it was clear that he did not really believe what he was saying either.
Both these people were highly intelligent, so how could they and most of the rest of the people I encounter subscribe to such a distorted view? Do we really want to create a world where we see each other only as objects to be manipulated to achieve our own ends? Yet, this is endemic in much of our current way of thinking. The natural sciences were originally studied from the perspective of understanding nature and the nature of reality.
In a recent article entitled Dragon Kings in the New Scientist the author was describing the work being done on extreme events in systems, like the stock exchange or weather systems. They had called these sudden and extreme events Dragon Kings to distinguish them from “Black Swans” (events which happened infrequently but could not be predicted). These Dragon Kings were more frequent but equally disruptive. Being able to model them, meant that it might be possible to predict them and control and prevent them. The article concluded with the thought that controlling and preventing them was the point of science.
In the past, our attitude towards Nature has been that our role is to cultivate it, ie. to understand and work with it in order to bring out the best of it. Instead our focus is on subduing and controlling nature to harness it to achieving our own ends. In the past, in fairy tales and stories, morality and nature were closely linked – unnatural was a term for describing someone immoral and most evil characters in fairytales were undermined or found out through the auspices of nature. Part of the issue seems to be that we no longer have any awe for nature or her laws. The world is seen in terms of inanimate matter. Once we see nature as inanimate, it is only a resource. Our conversation reflects this, talking as we do about the Laws of Physics or Biology or Science rather than the Laws of Nature or the Anima Mundi. I think our religions have failed us in this regard. Growing up as a Christian, I was always troubled by the way that people around me would turn up at church on a Sunday, be holy and “good” and then carry on in quite appalling ways during the week having done their moral bit on Sundays. They seemed to divorce spirituality and morality from their day to day lives. Yet in many ways this was understandable in that it was something we had collectively done.
What do I mean by this? What I mean is that we had made religion and nature abstract concepts, connected to good and bad and also with consequences that only applied outside the realm of nature. So, the enticement to good behaviour arose out of the concept that you would go to Heaven if you behaved well and to Hell if you behaved badly. These moral inducements were entirely abstract and had no real basis in the day to day reality of people’s lives. God himself became divorced from nature and lived in some abstract world separate from direct human experience. I think this is pertinent to the debate over the climate. I am wondering whether the more violent natural episodes we are experiencing in terms of extreme weather reflect our repression of nature, that we are attempting to pave over the world, light the nighttime, control and bend nature to our will and she is responding by rebelling. This came home to me in a small way with my father when he came to visit us for Christmas and with my next door neighbour. My father had brought wellingtons with him to wear when we went for walks so that he could keep his other shoes and clothes clean. Yet, when we arrived back from our walk my father was in a big condundrum because now his wellingtons had mud on them. He found it difficult to resolve his dilemma or be able to let go of the fact they were now muddy, even though he had brought them specifically for this eventuality. I will return to this after my neighbour as there is more to this anecdote. My neighbour has spent all the time we have known him fighting a constant battle with nature. His personality is very fastidious and his house and garden, like my father’s, is kept to an extremely high standard. Yet, this is the source of difficulty for him, because nature is forever intruding on his perfect environment no matter how hard he tries to control it. He has even gone to the length of buying coyote urine as a deterrent for the deer that come over the garden wall and eat his roses. The very day after he told us that he had started to use this in his garden, my wife and I opened our bathroom window, which overlooks his garden, to see a deer only yards away contentedly chewing his flowers! We also installed a cattle grid on our shared driveway to prevent the cows that roam freely from our common damaging his garden, only for the cows in the field behind to push down his garden wall and run riot on his garden. Even with the cattle grid, we are the only house in the neighbourhood where the cows walk over our cattlegrid and still invade the garden. It sounds like a tale from Grimm about the man who wanted to keep his perfect garden and for me, it is exactly that.
So, back to my father. My father has been suffering from a severe depression for the last eighteen months. This has involved psychosis, delusions, being committed to a psychiatric unit and almost dying. He has been given ECT, anti-depressants, anti-convulsive drugs etc., etc. I was discussing this with friends over lunch one day, who described that their parents were similar and talked about the fight to keep them on their drugs in order to control the problem. “Why wouldn’t you take your medicine if you knew it was making you better, I just don’t understand it?” the other one asked. The first friend said it was because they didn’t like the drugs, they said they made them feel disconnected and drowsy as though they weren’t really alive. The discussion got me thinking about depression and how we define depression and mental illness generally. Most of our definitions of mental illness and certainly of depression are that you do not conform to the current norms within society. The doctors who treated my father did so from the point of view of seeing someone ill. According to the current definition, he was unnatural, there was something wrong with him. Yet, for me, I struggled with this. The reality for my father was that he felt he could no longer cope with running a large house, the day to day demands of the world overwhelmed him and he wanted out. Yet at the same time he was frightened of his desire to leave; death terrified him, he did not see the point of old age. His personality was well and truly split apart. The effect of the ECT and the anti-depressants was not to solve these issues – they persist to this day – but simply to dampen down the level of agitation he displayed about them. With other friends who are depressed I notice the same phenomenon, the anti-depressants and diagnosis of illness render them unable to move forward in their situation, they feel there must be something unnatural happening to them. How does this connect to nature? I think it is part of the difficulty we face in having relegated nature to a material source. It is like a teenager who sees Mum, not as a human being to be respected but just as a provider of material resources!
Where does this all leave us in terms of Nature? I think the difficulty in our current approach to the climate is that the rationalist viewpoint achieves very little. We all know rationally that smoking is “bad” for us, similarly we all know we should be polite, respectful, kind etc. Yet knowing these things rationally does not translate into a change in our attitude. It is like a toothless religious inducement to be good or not be bad. They remain abstract concepts requiring conscious effort. On the other hand, a respect and awe for something monumentally powerful and intimately part of our lives, produces a different response. When we reconnect with the beauty, wonder and sheer aliveness of nature; the integral relationship between matter and spirit, that life and consciousness could not exist without matter and vice-versa then there is balance in our approach. When we separate them or relegate one aspect we are lost. I am an advocate of Science, an advocate of curiosity, wonder and awe. I am not an advocate of imposing our notions of nature and reality on nature and reality in a fixed way.
Finally, I recognise that it is in the nature of things for us to be dealing with the world this way currently, so in that sense there is nothing to be done about it. We are learning just what we need to learn and who I am to think it should be different? What would I have to write and think and learn about and what clients would I have to coach? As the Tao Te Ching says, “Do you want to change the world? I do not think it can be done, the world is already perfect.” Perhaps we are going to have to suffer for our hubris; as the saying goes, “Pride comes before a fall” and if my individual experience is anything to go by, leads to a fair bit of valuable learning and a greater level of humility! My own rational plan was that I was going to be spending my time this week skiing; the forces of matter decreed that the nature of my experience would actually be haemorrhoids which took skiing off the agenda. A literal pain in the backside but then I would not have written this blog otherwise.
I think this way of looking at the world is causing a huge amount of disease, but not the disease that most of us think.