Living in a world of such a variety of religious beliefs and persuasions it can be incredibly difficult to discern what it means to live a life that is in the most positive sense truly spiritual. Add to that the pressure to be productive, busy and active and it becomes harder and harder to define. Is spirituality defined by what we do are by who we are of a combination of both? We also live in a world where centuries old values of right and wrong in such fundamental areas as lifestyle and sexuality are being questioned and systematically dismantled. Under the guise of secularism (which really is another form of religious belief that lacks the self-awareness to recognise a higher value) another set of values is confidently espoused.
In many ways this is nothing new. Here is how the apostle Paul writing in the first century described an unspiritual and empty life. The English translation is from a paraphrase called The Message:
"It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on."
That was written 2000 years ago, but it could not be more up to date!
That is a pretty depressing description of human nature and yet in may ways it does illustrate some of the characteristics of modern life presented through much of the media and culture around us.
So what does a truly spiritual person look like?
The best explanation I have come across again is that from the apostle Paul. He talks about this in terms of 'the fruit of the Spirit'. In Galatians 5:22-23 of his letter , the New International Version of the original Greek, states:
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."
Here is how the Message translation paraphrases each of these different qualities:....
The concept is so simple and obvious, yet it is so easy to overlook. All of us have a certain finite emotional capacity or reserve. How do I know when I am reaching my limits? Life is full of so much coming at us in different directions. How do I know when I am getting overwhelmed and over-extending myself? How do I ensure I am in a healthy place to deal with all the demands on my time and energy?
This 8 minute video by Wayne Codeiro gives some helpful insights from when he went through his own personal burnout and emotional exhaustion. (by the way please don't be distracted by his shirt - the content is too important!). I first came across this video almost 10 years ago, and since then it has profoundly influenced the way I live my life:
According to Wayne Codeiro we all have a certain emotional capacity, or tank if you like. There are certain activities that will drain and fill that tank. Generally speaking those things we enjoy fill our tank and those things that bring us stress and tension tend to drain our emotional tank. Its as simple as that.
If you occupy your life with just those activities that drain your tank then you will notice a series of predictable effects on your overall emotional health and wellbeing. While the effects presented are somewhat simplistic they are still a helpful framework within which to monitor yourself.
These symptoms become like those canaries mine workers use to take down into the mines in the 19th century to warn them of the dangers of a lack of oxygen. As the oxygen levels in the mines depleted, then the loss of consciousness of the canaries with them served as a warning that the conditions were becoming dangerous and they needed to act quickly to get out. So what are the symptoms to watch out for?....
We hear a lot about balancing life and work in our day and age. Wherever you look and whoever you talk to, getting the right balance in life is something many people are hungry for. With so many priorities and responsibilities in our lives this is becoming for many of us increasingly important and relevant.
But what do we actually mean when we say we want balance in our lives?
Do come and join my co-host Andrew Horton and I as we unpack this important subject. In particular we discuss:
How balance is grossly over-rated as a concept.
Why balance is more of a tension to be managed than a problem to be solved.
How work-life integration can be more helpful than balance.
The power of looking at my life as symphony
The relevance of seasons to life.
Counter-intutitive reflections and examples from my favourite hero and book when it comes to balance.
Creating a future that is greater than your past is essentially an act of your imagination. You have to be willing to go there. That for most people is easier said than done. If growth is about creating a future greater than your past, then the first step is having the faith to believe a greater future is possible. You don't need to see the whole path, but you can have faith to take the next step. And the next step. And the one after that again and again. (Also see The Law of Process).
Creating that vision of the future is an act of faith, drawing on your imagination.
In other words then it is in the quality not the quantity of our thinking in our information saturated world that all future potential lies.
As Einstein put it, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." So to create a better future we have through our imagination to change the quality of our thinking.
I've been struck how the opening verses of Genesis in the Old Testament imply this with the story of creation. God spoke - or, put it another way, He expressed a thought - and it was so from light to the heavens to dry land to the celestial bodies to the fish of the sea and animals. While you and I are certainly not God, we are God-like in that we are created in His image. Even with all our weaknesses and failings, it is staggering what we are capable of through the quality of our thinking.
Everything is created twice - first in the mind and then in the physical world. As human beings made in the image of God we see the outworking of that everywhere around us. Just look around the room you are sitting in right now. Everything, apart from the people and plants in your room was once a thought in the mind of another human being - from the chair you are sitting on to the paper clip on your desk to the computer you are reading this from.
On one level so obvious, but on another level quite amazing. Changing the quality of our thinking can have astounding results in our lives and in the world around us. The quality of our lives is intimately woven into the quality of our thinking.
Here is how the writer C. S. Lewis puts it:........
It would appear that change in some form or other is inevitable. Nothing stays the same. Whatever you focus on is either growing, stagnating or decaying. All healthy organisms and organisations grow. The same can be said about us as human beings.
We see growth most obviously in the physical world when we observe healthy babies physically grow into children, adolescents and eventually adults. However, other forms of growth are no where near as predictable. Intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual growth are much harder to predict. To put it bluntly it would seem many people do not grow much in their lives. Yes they grow physically, but they stay at a juvenile emotional, psychological or spiritual level. Even so, there are notable exceptions. It is those exceptions who provide inspiration and a vision to the rest of us for what is possible. (For examples see the life of Nick Vujicic or Lessons on Happiness From a 108 year old).
Its for this reason I have always been curious about personal growth, and why it is that some individuals and teams can dramatically excel in their performance and well being, while others in broadly similar circumstances will stagnate, plateau or even decline. The same opportunities and the same environment yet two people can go in radically different directions.
A helpful definition of growth I have come across is from Dan Sullivan when he says, "growth is about making your future bigger than your past." In many ways the desire to grow is a manifestation of the love of existence, or just being. In other words growth is a passion for existing in this world and a deep desire to fully explore life. It is about letting go of one's fears, insecurities, perfectionism and what other's think to live towards the God given potential we have all been given. Stepping out into the unknown is always an uphill and at times painful process - but it is also more fulfilling than the status quo.
The Greek writer Plutarch said, "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.".........
They are the richest couple in the world with a fortune currently estimated at $90 billion. Since 1994 they have donated $35 billion to charity. The Gates Foundation that was launched in 2000 is the world's largest charity with over $40 billion in funds. But the following 25 minute TED talk by Bill and Melinda Gates is a fascinating insight into what it personally means to develop a healthy attitude to giving.
Granted that none of us has access to the resources and expertise that the Gates have, but what is particularly interesting to learn from them is how they have deliberately and intentionally thought through how they should use what they have been given. It has now become for them a life time's work of service to the world. Rather than retiring and living a life of luxury they have chosen to focus on some of the world's greatest and most deeply entrenched problems, particularly global poverty and inequality.
The primary aims of their foundation are, globally, to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in the United States, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology. But it started with a trip to Africa when they were an engaged couple which opened their eyes to extreme poverty and their responsibility to make a difference. They could have chosen to ignore what they saw, but instead they have deliberately gone after some of the hardest practical problems in the world......
All of us struggle with the problem of ego. In the right amount ego is inherently positive and provides a healthy level of confidence and ambition. When ego works well it drives out insecurity, fear and apathy. But left unchecked, and this is where it is most obvious, it can get out of control. Ego can easily then become arrogance. When that happens it attacks our talents and abilities. This is either through overconfidence and giving the false illusion that we’re better than we actually are, or by robbing us of confidence so that we lose trust in our ability to use those talents to capacity.
So at one extreme ego is the tendency to think too little of oneself and so fall into the trap of not valuing who I am and the contribution I can make. At the other extreme is the more obvious problem of thinking of oneself more highly than is appropriate and running insensitively over the feelings, plans or ideas of others.
The football manager Jose Murhino is often disarmingly honest and illustrates this danger with his comments to a Spanish radio station in 2011 when asked what he felt God thought of him:
"He must really think I'm a great guy. He must think that, because otherwise He would not have given me so much. I have a great family. I work in a place where I've always dreamt of working. He has helped me out so much that He must have a very high opinion of me."
When things go well in life it is very easy to fall into this kind of thinking.
Somewhere in the middle between thinking too highly and too little of oneself is humility that keeps our ego balanced and between these two extremes.
John Newton (1725 -1807) was a slave trader who lived a life of profanity, gambling and drinking. He experienced a spiritual awakening which led to a radical change in the direction of his life. He wrote the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. A favourite saying of his captures what it means to live with humility while keeping one's ego in check:
I don't know who originally said it, but I've often laughed at the saying "If I could kick the person who has caused me the greatest amount of headache and heartache in my life then I wouldn't be able to sit down for a week!"
Marshall Goldsmith is arguably one of the most insightful and successful business coaches in the world. In this short 4 minute video he touches on the important subject of ego and how it can get in the way of us living truly satisfying and fulfilling lives. It is short, punchy and profound.
His provocative point is that everyday we make ego and pride (putting myself and my desires ahead of anyone or anything else) more important than our health, our safety and even more than the people we claim to love. In many ways pride is the ultimate form of selfishness. That selfishness is the worst part of our human nature, or as Tim Keller has vividly described it, " a ruthless sleepless unsmiling concentration on the self." This is no small or trivial issue. It is a blind spot that affects all of us in some way or another. It has destroyed individuals, families and even nations.
From the video, taking the example of surgeons not allowing nurses to ask a series of simple questions such as 'Did you wash your hands?" and simply systematising this into a simple checklist has, according to Dr Atul Gawande, contributed to more deaths than the Vietnam War, Afghan War and Iraqi War combined!
The positive way forward advocated in the video is to appeal to enlightened self-interest. So in the case of a pilot it is seeing that being asked simple questions from a checklist by a junior such as "How much fuel do you have?" is vital to prevent not just needless passenger deaths, but also the death of the pilot himself. When I let my ego win, ultimately I and everyone else loses.
The vast majority of us are not surgeons or pilots, but how can we be better armed against the dangerous self-sabotaging effects of our egos? Perhaps the best way is to recognise and be aware of the early warning signs before they cause irreparable and lasting damage. Here are four to consider:
One of the best definitions of effectiveness I have come across is 'getting the results you want in a way that enables you to get even greater results in the future'. This is about success that endures, is sustainable and is balanced in all areas of life and not just one part. That all sounds well and good, but achieving it is far from easy or straightforward.
There are three key elements to personal effectiveness:
– You know what the important things to be done are.
– You know how to do them
– You are actually motivated to do what it takes and they become habitual.
To understand this better it is helpful to reflect on Aesop's fable of the goose who laid golden eggs. For a humorous, very inaccurate and somewhat tongue-in-cheek dramatisation of this do watch the 7 minute cartoon below:
Effectiveness is about getting the things that truly matter done. You know what they are for you:
That project you keep putting off because it seems too complicated and out of your depth. But if you were to complete it would yield great benefits.
That conversation with a key person who could help to move things forward.
That important family friend or relative you know you need to get in touch with.
That time alone or at the gym to re-charge your batteries and help you focus better.
In contrast to efficiency, effectiveness is based on timeless principles that in the end will bring about the maximum long-term benefits. To really understand effectiveness then we need to first understand what we mean by principles.
Principles are natural laws or fundamental truths about life and the universe that are:
External to yourself
Do not change
Universal and timeless.
Produce predictable outcomes in the long term.
Continue to operate with or without your understanding or acceptance of them
Self -evident and enabling when understood and applied.
Correct principles are like a compass. They are always pointing the way. If we can learn how to read them, not only will we not get lost, confused or fooled by conflicting voices and values, it is more likely we will move forward in our lives with confidence and true power
As Stephen R. Covey puts it:
"We are not in control; principles control. We control our actions, but the consequences that flow from these actions are controlled by principles."
Principles are natural laws in the human sphere that are just as real, just as unchanging and arguably present as laws such as gravity is in the physical dimension.
The best example of this is found in the principles that govern the seasons and farming. Think about what a farmer does. He must prepare the ground, plant the seed, give time for it to germinate and grow. All this takes time and requires honouring the seasons by doing what is appropriate in a particular season. You prepare the ground and plant in the spring if you want to harvest in the autumn. How ridiculous it would be if you ignored this principle and instead chose to plant in the summer expecting a harvest in the winter! To do so is to violate the principles that govern the seasons and the growth of plants.
What are some examples of principles? When you hear them they seem obvious, and yet the media abounds with examples of people who do not live by them......