Joy-Sorrow: An Existential Meditation


It is 8 am. I am on holiday. Two of the people who matter the most – Marco, Clea – are here on holiday with me. And, I cannot help but notice that sorrow is present in the house of my being. It’s a sorrow that leaves me unavailable to listen to up tempo songs / music. It’s a sorrow in the presence of which any and all dance (that resides within me) has vanished.

Not Joy, Not Sorrow, Only Joy/Sorrow

We tend to think, indeed we are brought up to think, that there is joy and there is sorrow – as discreet entities. From an existential perspective, this is not the case. It’s better to refer to them as one unit – joy/sorrow – like two sides of a coin. For only if one experiences sorrow can one appreciate/value the presence of joy. And, only if one has experienced joy that one can truly experience/feel genuine sorrow.

When joy is present, as in you find yourself joyous, what is your response? Is it not to accept it and live: just be joyous, enjoy being joyous, and share your joy with others.

So what is the appropriate response to sorrow? It occurs to me that it is accept it when it arrives. Allow it to be there – for me to experience all that comes with sorrow. Be patient – allow sorrow to do its work. And, to learn – learn that which sorrow has to teach me about myself, about others, and about the world. Today, I am choosing to share my experience and learning with you. Why? No reason other than it’s the best use I can make of my sorrow – to dive into it and see what I can learn.

A Critical Existential Need: To Be Understood, Accepted, and Valued

I am unusual. I am odd. I am a maverick……Take your pick, it amounts to the same thing. And, the consequence has been a life long feeling of loneliness – a kind of loneliness not filled by the presence of people in my life. I made peace with this a long long time ago. Explains why it is I have over a thousand books. And, only a handful of friends – good friends.

Recently on an online course on Uncertainty and Complexity, I found that this loneliness was no longer absent. In its place joy is present – a kind that I have never known before. Why? The joy of being understood by another human being. An understanding that has allowed me to share that which I have not shared with any other – for no other was in a position to really listen to it and get it.

It occurs to me that at an existential level, the longing to be understood – truly understood – is a deep one for all of us. It is so deep, that I find the following quote resonates with me:

“Some people underestimate how erotic it is to be understood” – Mary Rakow

If one can be both understand AND valued on the basis of that understanding then that is, in a sense, the whole deal. It doesn’t get any better. Why? In a sense that is the fullest-deepest sense of being loved: seen, understood, accepted, valued.

What Brings Sorrow To The House Of My Being?

It occurs to me, that for me, there is no sorrow like that of being misunderstood by someone who truly matters. What makes it sorrow rather than mere sadness is this: the fact that my conduct arising from good intent has been seen and treated as something other than that which it is. That I am so misunderstood is especially difficult to bear when it is one or more of my children who misunderstand me.

Allow me to give an example and make this come alive. Yesterday, on the way back from Lugano to Central Switzerland, my son Marco insisted upon driving. I told him that it was a 2 hour drive – some of it tricky and that he needed to make sure that he was willing to concentrate. And, using a moderate (Swiss) driving style rather than his aggressive English driving style. He agreed – no conditions, just agreement. All was going well until we arrived at the Gotthard tunnel.

In the tunnel, I noticed he was driving too close to the car in front. So, I asked him to stick to the speed limit (80km/h) and the requisite distance 150m. And, asked gently but firmly. Marco did not take this well. The opposite – told me not to tell him how to drive. I did not take this well either. And, I shut my mouth as there is no point arguing with he who is absolutely convinced he is right. And, that you are the fool.

We arrive at Fluelen in Central Switzerland. The road is carved into the side of the mountain. It bends. And, it is not that wide. So attention to the road and to the driving conditions is required. There, right there, is Lake Luzern – so close that you can practically touch it. Suddenly I saw myself shouting “Watch out!” Why? Because the car was headed into the mountain. Why? Because Marco was looking at the lake.

How did Marco react? With a thanks? No. That is – often – asking too much of us human beings: it requires owning up to the fact that we are messing up or have messed up. Instead, I got a lecture on: how I scared him; how I over-reacted; on what a burden it is to drive my car under the conditions I impose and so on.

How To Deal With This Sorrow?

The Existential philosopher make a BIG deal of freedom. Particularly, that whilst we do not get to choose what happens to us, we ALWAYS get to choose our interpretation (the story we make about what has happened to us). And we get to choose how we show up (attitude) and travel (behaviour/actions) given that which has happened.

So, I am choosing to:

1-Just be with that which has occurred;

2-Not allow my son to drive my car. If he wishes to drive a car here he can simply rent one, he has more than enough money to do so. Further, I am even prepared to pay the rental; and

3-Not go in a car that he drives as often I do not feel safe with his way of driving.

I do not know how he will take this, and that I accept too. And, I am clear that I have made the choice. And in making this choice I find peace – even a smile on my face.

If you have followed me here, to the end, then I thank you for your listening. I wish you the best – may you live well, live beautifully. Until the next time….

Life Isn’t Working Out As I’d Like It To Work Out


Life isn’t working out as I’d like it to work out. The question that I am left with is this one, how to be about what is so?  I have been grappling with this (including some help from Gregory Bateson) and I want to share with you what showed up for me.

Lets imagine that I am at a disco and the DJ is playing all kinds of music: pop, soul, rock, disco, R&B, ska, country, jazz…… etc.  Further, let’s imagine I am at this disco to dance – to just dance. What is my experience if I insist that I will only get up and dance to say R&B music?  Is it not likely that I will spend most of my evening dissatisfied – sat in my chair, being dissatisfied with the music being played, complaining that the DJ has not taste, getting drunk ….

Now imagine that I have two normal dice in my hands. And I roll the dice. What shows up? Any combination: two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, or twelve.  Right?  That is simply what is so given the nature of the dice and the game that I am playing.

Given the design of the game, I know that if I play this game or find myself playing this game, I will end up with one of eleven outcomes. I know this beforehand. Yet, I cannot know nor determine what I will end up getting when I roll the dice.  Nor can I know what will show up if someone else rolls the dice for me.

two-dice-one-red-and-one-black-landed-on-double-six

What happens to my experience of living if I make my self-expression, happiness, aliveness, fulfilment, conditional on getting two sixes every time I throw the dice?

Have I not limited myself to being happy-fulfilled, on average, once every 11 throws of the dice? Have I not, at the very same time, condemned myself to the experience of dissatisfaction even misery for the other ten throws?  Have I not stacked the odds against myself?

What happens if I put myself in a position (through being and doing) where I am as expressed, as happy, as alive, as fulfilled, if I get an eleven as well as a twelve?  It occurs to me that I have doubled the occasions for experiencing being alive, being self-expressed, being happy, being fulfilled.

Now imagine that I have arrived at a place where I am ok with whatever the roll of the dice generates.  What is my experience of living in this case?  Is my experience not transformed?

Knowing this, I have a choice in the matter of how I choose to show up, live and thus experience my life.  I can choose to:

  • dance with whatever shows up and in dancing I can became a better dancer;
  • act on others and the world to get them to conform to my wishes – each and every day; and/or
  • resign myself to being self-expressed, alive, happy and fulfilled when life shows up exactly as I insist that it shows up.

What is the greatest gift you can grant another (and yourself)?


Do you really want your life to work?

Do you want your life to work?  Really, truly, deeply do you want your life to work?  Do you really want your life to work or do you want to be right, dominate, have the world work to your wishes, your whims, your point of view?  If you are honest then you’d be present to the latter – your focus on being right, validating yourself, dominating others, insisting that the world work according to your fantasies.  How has that been working out?  Has it brought you peace, freedom to be, self-expression, vitality, connection, love, joy?   Are you up for, really up for, having peace, vitality, connection, love, joy present in your life?  If so then this post is for you.

People matter – are central to the quality of our life, right?

Have you noticed that you are not alone?  Have you noticed that the Earth (amongst other processes) ‘peoples’ and so wherever you are you there are people?  People show up wherever you are, right?  At home, at work, whilst your are walking, driving, shopping, eating, sleeping watching television……  Is it accurate that you cannot escape from people even when you are on a deserted island?  Even on a deserted island, do people show up in your thoughts, do they show up in your feelings?  People matter, our relationships with people matter, connection or the absence of it matters, friction-full or friction-free relationships matter to your living, our experience of life.  Right?

What is the greatest gift you can grant another?

How do you build great relationships with people?  What is the secret?  The secret is to grant them a gift, the greatest gift that you can grant another.   What is this gift?

1.  Let people be.  Let every person that shows up in your world be just as he is and just as he is not.  What is the access to letting people be?  Accept them (looks, clothes, voice, speaking, behaviour, history..) just as they are and just as they are not.  Choose to be totally OK with them just as they are and just as they are not.  If you let people be just as they are and just as they are not what is likely to show up in your world?  Peace?  Freedom?  Ease?

Are you up for going further – putting more into life, making a bigger contribution and indirectly being granted much more than peace, freedom and ease?  Then take on / live / be the following practices:

2.  Be a stand for the wonder and greatness of people – believe in them more than they believe in themselves.  How can I best point out / show what I am talking about?  Read and get present to the following words by Viktor Frankl who has a profound lived understanding /experience of our fellow human beings in all of their manifestations:

If we take man as he really is then we make him worse.  If we overestimate him……overrate man, then we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be optimists idealists in way so we wind up as the true realists”

If you are willing to make four minutes available to yourself, to treat yourself, then watch this video: http://youtu.be/fD1512_XJEw

3.  Belive in and be enthusiastic about the ‘life projects’ that matter to people.  Your fellow human being, the one that you are thinking about right now, is not simply defined by who he is, where he came from or what he does.  He is much more.  A huge part of him is the future he is living into and the ‘life projects’ that inspires him.  Yes, I get that he is a teacher, a family man, in his late forties.  Do you get that one of his most crucial ‘life projects’ is to be a musician – to pursue a dream he gave up early in life and which really matters to him?  ‘Life projects’ are simply possibilities that we imagine, create and project in the future.  They are hugely important because they give shape to our being today and influence/shape our choices including how we spend our attention/energy/time.  So leave aside your critical mind, your fears, your insecurities and step into the possibilites that you fellow human being (wife, husband, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, neighbour, colleague, manager…) has created and which give him and his life meaning.  Step into that possibility and be enthusiastic. If you are in position to do so then go further – lend a helping hand, help to open doors, to provide resources (including your encouragement), carry some of the load.

4.  Be there for the people that show up in your life.  Be there during the good times to celebrate – celebrate with them, acknowledge, congratulate, laugh, lift them high ‘onto your shoulders’.  Be there for them during the difficult times when stuff does not turn out as they would like it to.  Provide: an empathic ear;  a solid-warm-friendly shoulder for them to rest their head; create a ladder/scaffold and help them climb up when you judge that the time is right; lead the way up the scaffold, give them your hand and help them to climb up.   Do this freely and wholeheartedly and you and your relationship will never be the same again.  One of my most enduring relationships was built by literally helping a ‘friend’ climb a mountain – giving up the lead, letting others take the lead, providing encouragement to this friend in words, being a little ahead of him when I needed to be and offering him my hand when he found it difficult to climb up the mountain.  We may not speak for many months and the love is there – neither of us have forgotten that day, that experience.

What is the greatest gift you can give yourself?

OK, by now you should be clear that the greatest gift that you can grant the people in your life is made up the following: letting them be just as they are and just as they are not; believing in them more than they believe in themselves; being enthusiastic about and contributing to their life projects; and being there for them.

Now I have as surprise for you.  The greatest gift you can give yourself is to grant this ‘greatest gift’ to the people that show up in your life!  You might be wondering “What?”  Think about it.  When you grant this gift to the people that show up in your life and living you get the following treats:

Peace / Ease / Freedom – you no longer struggle with people because you have giving up ‘resisting’ them as they are and as they are not and that shows up as a heavy burden lifted off your shoulder!

Relatedness / Connection / Enthusiasm / Love / ‘Sense of Adventure‘- by choosing to let people be and enter into their lives through encouraging/supporting/contributing to their ‘life projects’ as well as being there for them through the good times and the difficult times you create the space for relatedness, connection, love, enthusiasm and a sense of adventure to show up in your experience of living.  Whenever we take part in ‘life projects’ we take part in ‘giving birth’ to something new and this shows up as a sense of adventure – we feel more alive!

My guarantee to you and my challenge for you

I guarantee you that the moment that you grant this ‘greatest gift’ your experience of living will be transformed – the quality of your life will be transformed.  To keep this transformed live you have to consciously keep granting this ‘greatest gift’ again and again – every day, every moment.  Are you up for transforming the quality of your life?  Are you up for taking me up on my guarantee?

On Christmas


When I was young, living with my parents, Christmas was simply not being at school and being able to watch lots of interesting / entertaining stuff on the television.  I particularly enjoyed watching action moves. We did not celebrate Christmas as my parents are Muslims.

When I was at university, Christmas was an opportunity to be with my parents, my brothers and my sister.  I remember taking them out to Pizza restaurants and just eating and laughing together.  Occasionally, it was an opportunity to go to a friend’s house and celebrate Christmas with his family.  The friend that comes to mind is James Harvey.  And I thank him and his family to introducing me to an English Christmas.  I enjoyed meeting James’ mother, father, sisters, nephews etc.

When I started my professional career and was single, Christmas was an opportunity to simply be.  To take time out and reflect on the year that had come to an end.  And to think of the year to come.  It was also a time to read books, watch movies and go spend time with friends and family.  I do not remember ever being focussed on buying stuff or receiving stuff.

When I got married into the French and started family, Christmas became a day spent driving to the centre of France.  And once there is became an opportunity to eat fine food and drink fine wine.  Sit at the table, for what seemed like an eternity, and now and then catch flakes of conversation.  And of course about giving and receiving gifts.  Firstly, this  occurred as strange and then it became normal.  Yet somehow it did not seem that Christmas belonged to me: it no longer occurred as an opportunity to be me, to reflect, to be thankful, to choose – it occurred as a duty.

How does Christmas occur to you?  Is it something that you have simply fallen into?  Like I have?

I have been rethinking Christmas.  How about making Christmas a time where I/we:

  • think about each and every person that has made a contribution to our life and experience that contribution and write to and/or call each of these people and thank them for their contribution – what they did, what difference it made in practical terms and how it made / makes you feel;
  • remember and acknowledge all the people  we have criticised, we have excluded, we have trespassed against and then say sorry – by writing or by picking up the phone – and asking what it will take to put the past in the past, to get forgiveness;
  • get present to all the grudges we hold against specific people and then get off our high horse and forgive the imagined or real trespass ideally by calling the other person sharing the grudge and having chosen to forgive – to put the past in the past;
  • take the time to get present to all the millions of people around the world that are not as fortunate as we are and then taking some action even if that is to be grateful for all that we have, that we take for granted;
  • to make a dent – even a small one – in the life of even one human being that we know is suffering, who can do with being seen through kind eyes, listened to with kind ears, lifted up with kind words of worth and validation, and touched by soothing hands; and
  • where we acknowledge ourselves as human beings who strive to do good, to make a contribution, to create a good world for ourselves and our children (whether born, or unborn) and accept that despite our best intentions we fail from time to time and yet what counts is that we pick ourselves off the floor and continue to make good on our commitment to be good and do good.

To put is simply, in the rich western world.  Most people need acceptance and validation – just as they are and are not – then they need presents.   Most people need good honest conversations where they can speak freely without judgement then they do presents. Most people need a heartfelt hug more than they need presents.  And yes, some need a helping heart who will give some of the necessities of life.  If you are looking for inspiration then I recommend watching The Blind Side (the movie starring Sandra Bullock).