Previous month:
April 2013
Next month:
June 2013

May 2013

How to Grow Roses and People!

The ancients were wise. They understood that there was no separation between mankind and nature, and that one extended the other; and that all things were part of one verse, the universe. Evidence of this comes in their predilection for fables and proverbs where the natural world has important messages for us. ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard, and be wise!’ How wonderful as an antidote to laziness. One has only to look at ants to get the ‘message’ for us.

And today the same is true. I was thinking as I walked to my weekly meditation about all the flowers now blooming in Spring, and especially of roses. What does it take to make a perfect rose? Well, surprise, surprise, the same three things it takes to make a fully-functioning and effective human being. Which are?

First, a rose needs sunshine, and without it, it cannot grow; in fact, it cannot flower. Second, a rose needs water and associated nutrients; and without water it cannot grow at all, but only shrivel and die. Finally, and most interestingly, rose must be pruned, and without the pruning the rose becomes wild and chaotic and, in a sense, its beauty becomes ragged and dissipated - if it has any beauty at all.

How, then, do these three actions make a fully functioning human being? Simple.

Everyone one of us needs the sunshine of unconditional love and approval, initially from parents or carers; but even later we get energy and enthusiasm from the benign sunshine – attention – of others. In fact we talk of people with a ‘sunny disposition’ meaning that to be a good thing: sunshine is energy, and people either give us their energy or they drain it from us. As children, if we do not get that sunshine we are probably going to be irreparably damaged. The question for us now is: do we give people our sunshine or do we withhold it? How can we provide more sunshine for others around us?

Second, if sunshine is the invisible energy so necessary for life, the intangible as it were, water is the opposite: we all need security, a home, food on the table, the physical necessities of life to be met. Without these, we also cannot live a satisfying life, or even any life at all. This is the physical – the tangible – aspect of how we grow. There is a great line in the New Testament which says what father, if his son asks for bread, gives him a stone? We have to meet these tangible needs, or else all else is hopeless.

Finally, roses need pruning, and so do human beings! This may seem like the least important ingredient of growth, but it is fundamental. Another word for human pruning might be discipline, a word whose etymological root comes from the same word as disciple, meaning ‘learning’ or ‘teaching’. If you have ever had children you will know how vital this is: the child has, for whatever reasons, some negative as well as many positive traits, and you as a parent want and need to encourage the positive and curb and restrain the more negative tendencies. The earlier in life that you combat these negative traits the more likely you are to be effective in disabling them . And as a sidebar on this topic, we have all seen those who think that sunshine – unconditional ‘love’ (my child right or wrong) – combined with endless water (whatever it takes buy them it) – is proper parenting; they are blithely unaware of the long term damage they are doing their children by their manifest failure to ‘prune’ them, to provide boundaries, express and insist on limits. The result is always the restless and rootless adult who can never be satisfied by reality and whose expectations of life are consistently self-orientated and unreal.

The need to prune our children is, of course, just one aspect of our lives; equally important is our need to ‘prune’ ourselves – this is how we really grow. And how does this come about? By focusing on developing our self-awareness and by accepting legitimate feedback from those who care for us, and even sometimes from those who don’t. A harsh word or phrase can contain a nugget of truth even is our ego violently wishes to resist it and its source.

It sounds hippy-ish, and I am not a hippy, but we are flowers – and we need to grow into the full beauty of what a flower truly is in its essential nature; for all flowers are beautiful, but alas through lack of love, through the absence of physical security, and through the want of tending, many flowers are withered roots, subsisting, not living. Let’s therefore seek the sun, drink the water, and examine carefully how we can be the best we can be.




Two Plus One Reasons to Write Poetry - #3

People write from their ego and produce not-poetry; people write to heal themselves and this is good and meaningful; and thirdly, and more famously, people write poetry because they write poetry and produce art. And a number key factors come together when this happens.

First, the third desire – for beauty – comes into play (in every sense of the word). The writing is an aesthetic, an art, and a certain skill and knowledge comes into its construction which seeks to render meaning as it truly is: namely, beautiful. It is not a ‘gloss’ on meaning – that would be versification – but it reveals the essential nature of meaning and is often a kind of discovery. We read the poem and we see something, we hear something, we feel something that had not existed before – and this can surprise the poet his or herself. Meaning and truth are not abstractions anymore but are given form, symbolic, metaphoric and mimetic too, and this is beauty.

Beauty, as Thomas Aquinas observed, arrests motion: we encounter, we are bewitched by its magic, and in truly great poetry the beauty goes to an even higher level and reaches sublimity, by which we are astonished and stare in awe, amazed at this suspension of all critical or other faculty that would bid us stir. And if this seems incredible we need only reflect on the origins of the love of words – nursery rhymes, songs, and riddles when we were very young. How often did we demand our parent, ‘Tell me again, mum!’ We were, literally, spellbound.

And this leads on to the second point. Technique, thoroughly absorbed and engrained, is necessary to write poetry that is art, but it is not sufficient to produce it. For all the great and the less great - though still real - poets know: there is a Muse, and this Muse is not under our conscious control, although she can be invoked, and all of us may have rituals which enable her presence. For without her presence, the work may be clever, entertaining, right-on, politically correct, and many other ‘good’ things, but it won’t be the real thing, the real poem.

Thus, it should be obvious that reliance on the Muse is the exact opposite of writing from the ego, for in one important sense the poet abandons conscious control of the poem to this higher force. Later, perhaps, the output benefits from editing, but that is later – real poetry is, literally, inspired – comes from the deep breath, the inspiration, of the universe itself. Whosoever writes such poetry puts themselves in the way – the Tao – of the nature of things, and of course their poems live irrespective of fame or public opinion. Invoking the Muse does not depend on university degrees or professorships, as Shakespeare and Keats all too ably demonstrate.

And there is another important consequence of this: namely, that the Muse always creates beauty by showing the structure of meaning – making it visible, as it were. This is odd in the modern and post-modern world which majors on ugliness, formlessness and despair – and thinks in some morally superior manner that this is ‘reality’, this is how it is, that they are not deluded by effeminate notions such as ‘beauty’.

But of course they totally mistake what ‘beauty’ is in this context. To give one example of what I mean. There are few things worse in human history than the misery, degradation and suffering that the soldiers went through in World War One – the Western Front as it was called. For a prolonged period of time it was an arena that was so terrible that we can scarcely imagine its full horrors. So when Wilfred Owen writes poetry about it, he is not disguising or soft-soaping the nightmare; on the contrary, he confronts it head on. But, through the words and techniques he uses, something of primal beauty is created that simultaneously re-creates that horror in a way nothing else can or does and makes us feel it in a new way. It is quite extraordinary; in his poem Strange Meeting I would argue that he achieves sublimity – he is there with Homer, with Shakespeare, in creating a vision so intense that we are transported from ourselves to perceive conflict with a renewed heart inside us.

This final point – ‘renewed heart’ – also bears a brief comment. Poetry, at root, affects our feelings or it is hardly worth the name. The twentieth century has given rise to the dominance of an image-based poetry which is more head than heart-based, and in that sense is often (but not always) ineffective. Poetry begins with sound, not image, and the reason for this begins in the womb: our first sense is hearing – our mother’s heart beat. It is in the beat – the line – the rhythm and metric that the full capability to move us resides in the English language. English is in fact naturally iambic in constitution, and that is why something like 90% of great poetry is written in that form; and the form properly used enables infinite varieties of meaning and beauty. For an object lesson in this one has only to read Yeats, who was a modernist, but also a master of the iambic line, which he probably used to greater effect than any other poet in the last two hundred years.

The third primary reason, then, to write poetry is to create art: which is as much as to say, which is to create beauty, by using words to draw the inherent meaning in anything and everything, but especially in being a human being and all the richness that that means. We are not all going to be great poets, and it’s not a competition anyway; we are all dependent on the Muse and we need to wait in the silence till that voice speaks and that flow begins. If we can let the ego go, then we can write to heal ourselves and may be in time write some words that really do speak beauty. In that way we help and encourage others.




Two Plus One Reasons to Write Poetry - #2

The second primary reason to write poetry is to heal, oneself first of all, and others secondarily, if they able to read your words and take strength from, and identify with, your situation. Healing and poetry have been soul mates from  the beginning: the god Apollo was the god of healing and the father of the Nine Muses of poetry, and specifically, inspiration.

We need to bear in mind that there are three fundamental desires of the human spirit, or soul if you will: the desire for meaning, for truth, and for beauty. And these three intangible concepts are not isolated systems or mutually exclusive; at their greatest moments all three are present in the greatest works of art and poetry, and they interact with each other. A simple example would be looking at a stupendous scene of nature: we are overwhelmed by its beauty perhaps in the first place, but oftentimes we also sense that that beauty stems from a deep meaning or purpose in the heart of things.

For now, if we consider the primary reason of healing for writing poetry, then it is clear that we write in that way for meaning and truth, and that the beauty – the sheer art of poetry – is less evident and important. In fact it is the focus on the beauty that constitutes our third primary reason, which we will discuss in our third blog on this topic.

So, writing poetry in order to heal oneself – how is this possible? One way of approaching this is to go in reverse and ask ourselves why we are sick? In dysfunctional families two conditions always appertain. First, the expression of what one truly feels is always forbidden; your own feelings must be subordinated to the feelings and welfare of others. This is particularly true and pernicious  when one is a very young child and a parent or parents severely stricture, and so eventually prevent, the child from saying what he or she feels. It is unacceptable, for example, to dislike one’s sibling, or to express anger towards some obnoxious relation who provokes one regularly; and one consequence will be the parent induces guilt and shame in the child for such feelings. The result of all this is a disconnect between what you think and what you feel – and what you feel is invalidated, which means you are invalidated.

Alongside this, dysfunctional families always have ‘secrets’: these are things – usually to do with the (mis-)behaviour of family members – that cannot be spoken about. The family wants to appear normal, like other people, like other families – as ‘good’ as them - and so there is an unwritten code that this must be never discussed. In short, there is a suppression of the truth of what is really going on; another disconnect in other words.

What has this to do with the healing of poetry? Everything! What poetry is doing is providing a mechanism in which the self can express freely, truthfully and accurately what it has heretofore repressed or kept only in the conscious mind – the conscious mind being limited and furthermore a source of anxiety. This is not easy; the more clogged the conscious mind is with suppressing feelings, repressing truth, and trying to counter the meaninglessness that results from such activities, then the more it is likely – if it is writing at all – to resort to cliché and banality to express itself. However, poetry is a discipline – given the time and the silence to go deep, and given line breaks and the freedom to experiment with language as a condition of the art, people can truly come to express themselves, sometimes for the first time, and then on and ever in real terms in their lives.

Poetry, then, becomes the medium for meaning and for truthfulness, and this is cathartic. It washes away negative emotional and sometimes negative spiritual residue. Furthermore, it is compelling, because the poet has become an author – a writer is an author, and an author is an authority; it is the same root word. We are becoming the authors of our own lives; this is empowering and simultaneously energising. And as we read our own words – if they are words of meaning and truth – we can believe them, and so we begin that slow process of hypnotising ourselves into the good and better life that is possible. A life where we are healed and healing. The words on the page – the poem – become the record of our journey, and what a journey that is for all of us: to find meaning and to experience truth in our essential being – that is healing.

In the third and final blog on the primary reasons to write poetry I shall discuss poetry as art, which is as much as to say, the expression of the truly beautiful.



Seven More Questions to Stimulate Motivation

Following my blog on seven questions to help you stimulate motivation with your staff, let me suggest seven more ideas that have impact.

First, do you take a personal interest in your people? This is more than a mere hope you are well, or what time of day is it, interest. Have you considered whether the right people are in the right jobs? It is astonishing the difference this makes; it’s like asking a right-handed person to do something important with their right hand! Most of the time staff are being fitted into job-moulds for which they are not ideally suited and the result is discomfort, poor performance and low motivation; they are having to work with their non-dominant hand, as it were. A small consideration, then, with big implications for productivity.

Further, and second, how does discipline work in your company - is it behavioural and private? That is to say, is it about what they do rather than who they are.  The former is amendable and improvable, and the latter is not. And, are staff humiliated publicly? Nothing is worse for motivation than public humiliation by an authority figure; reprimands should be discreet and kept that way.

Third, are your teams well briefed? The number one problem in virtually every company in the world finally comes down to one word: communication, or more exactly, the lack of it. How often do these briefings occur and how effective are they? Are you measuring this? How – you ask? Through feedback and surveys – more communication, indeed.

Fourth, can people get to innovate? Staff – people generally - love being at the cutting edge, being where the new is formed and given shape. The reason for this is simple: creativity is inherently meaningful – is inherently god-like – and purpose is a central driver of human nature. Given half a chance most people want to innovate and make improvements, but mostly people don’t get that half chance. As Deming put it: "Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins, no contest". What is your system doing?

Fifth, and this is a real crunch issue: do your meetings address real issues or they management-speak and jargon? The fact is, alongside emails, meetings are almost universally considered to be the biggest waste of time within all organisations! How can that be? Surely, we need them in order to operate, to function, especially as teams? If your organisation is one of the few that structures meetings so that they are purposeful and productive, you will gain the eternal gratitude of your staff and motivate them at the same time. One pointer that can make a real difference here is very simple: incorporate into every meeting time to review the facts of the situation and how people FEEL about those facts. It is the expression and release of feeling that seriously contributes to enhanced motivation.

Sixth, what perks are there? We all expect our wage – that’s a minimum, and the obligation on the staff for a wage, the minimum, is that we do a good job. But what happens when we do an excellent job, or an outstanding job? What more is there that can spur us on and keep us buzzing away collecting the organisational pollen? Perks are in reality an inexpensive way of retaining and motivating staff, and it’s an area in which deep creativity can be exercised.

Finally, what social activities are there? Here we must ask: are these ones your staff want or activities you like? The Christmas dinner springs to mind. So many things are done because they have always been done that way, and nobody now can remember why they did that. Once perhaps it was a good idea, but now? Give your staff social activities they want – let them initiate, and then support them. Remember, your ideas of what they want are likely to be wrong – you like golf, maybe, but they want football!

You know have another seven ideas on motivating your staff. Which of these resonates with you? Where do you need to take action? Small steps can make huge differences if applied consistently, and consistency is a core and overarching idea to supplement all fourteen ideas in these two blogs. When staff perceive that you are serious about their welfare in a persistent and consistent way, that alone helps raise their motivation level – so there is the fifteenth idea. Go, do!