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The world outside our windows

A story of being free from the illusion that stops us from listening.

Being self-obsessed is something I can relate to. It was pointed out to me how much of me I had on my mind 9 years ago. What I hadn’t realised until last week was that it was at the heart of what kept my mind busy and prevented me from having peace of mind that lasts.

Seeing it happened by accident.

Sarah had been a mentee of mine for the past 8 months. While her business was growing a little, and her work with clients was a little more impactful, neither was making the step change she was hoping for when she hired me for the year. (Between you and me, it was behind what I’d hoped for too – although I know better than to have that outcome on my mind too much.) That lack of progress alone is not unusual, it’s the year after people are mentored by me that the scale of their business leaps ahead to a whole new level. There’s often a time lag between their own depth of grounding and their impact with clients before it turns into a step-change in the scale of their business.

With Sarah, her coaching wasn’t rocking the lives of her clients the way I know it can. What we talked about was her ability to listen, to notice what was going on for her clients and her pointing at the one big thing that would transform their lives. It was all that she and I had been talking about for 3 or 4 months. Again and again.

Groundhog Day in real life. It was February 2nd for that entire time. We were in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. We were Bill Murray. 31 years after the movie came out.

Then, during one recent Zoom call, me in Berkshire, her in Oxfordshire, it dawned on me. February 3rd came. She was not listening to anything other than what things meant to her. About her. For her. Against her. Ok, it was more of a hunch than a big dawning moment. I went with my hunch…

I asked her to go to her window. Her home office is on the second floor of her townhouse. That much I did know. 

“Sarah, just go with me on this. Look out the window, and talk to me about all the things you see” I said. She stood up, turned to her left and looked out.

“Ok. There’s Mr Wallis’ car on the road. He’s not normally home at 2 in the afternoon on a weekday. I hope he’s ok. Someone is walking along the other side of the road with an umbrella. I didn’t know it was raining. I’m sure it wasn’t in the weather forecast. I’m walking to yoga later and I was hoping I wouldn’t get wet. It frizzes my hair you know… I mean, when are we ever going to have a bit of warm weather? Ok, we had that week last month, but come on!” She said.

My hunch was on to something!

“OK, thanks, Sarah. That was helpful for me” I said. Her eyebrows collapsed inward into a frown.

“I asked you to tell me what you see. There were 2 things you told me you saw, and a lot of commentary on those 2 things” I said.

“So what?” She said.

“Oh, this might be huge Sarah! I don’t know yet. Keep going with me on this” I said, she shrugged a spoonful of agreement and a pinch of ambivalence.

“Here’s what I’m wondering. How much of what goes on in your head is about the meaning you make of things, especially what things mean to you and about you” I said, and Sarah’s head turned a little to the side followed by the hint of a nod.

I asked her to try again. She got up.

“It’s still raining. I can see drips from the roof of the house opposite mine and the one next door to it. That reminds me – I need to call the roofer back about the guttering and the downpipe…” She said and sat back down.

“I see what you mean, coach!” Sarah said with a wink. “Ok, smart ass! You try it!” she said.

“Ok. Let’s see…” I said. I turned to my left. I have French doors that lead into my garden.

“There’s a sparrow on the bird seed feeder and 2 pigeons underneath it on the grass, hoping that some of the seeds fall down to the ground… One of the pigeons is much lighter in colour than the other one, and it has a white stripe near its tail... Behind that is the fence at the back of the garden and there’s fresh ivy growth on the top of one part of it... Behind that, there’s a row of trees. Sycamore, hazel, oak and elm... There are still gaps between the leaves and the branches. The leaves are fresh, and not fully grown. The green in them is shiny. In the gaps, the blue sky is poking through. In the next few days and weeks, they’ll fix more carbon from the air and become bigger, filling in the gaps... In the far right corner of my garden, there’s my olive tree. It’s leaning forward. Some of its leaves have fallen on the grass... It still looks like it’s thriving with fresh growth in its branches. It’s all just gorgeous out there. The light. The colours. The movement of the trees in the light breeze. Some of the leaves catch the wind more than others, and they show their undersides, which are paler than the top side… The sparrow – a female - has just flown away. 3 more pigeons have come down to join the other two. One of them is mottled with a load of little white patches between the main slate grey colouring of its feathers… A squirrel is running over the top of the back fence... It’s jumped over the ivy and gone to the fence at the back of next door’s garden.” I said, slowly, taking in the scene."

“How did you do that?” Sarah said

“Do what?” I said back

“Talk like that!” she said

“I just said what I saw, which is what I asked you to do,” I said. Sarah sat back. Then leant forward, her head close to her laptop, so the screen of mine was filled by her face.

“I think I’m seeing what’s going on with me. I make everything about me. OK, maybe not everything, but I do make some meaning or story out of everything. And a lot of those stories and meanings I make are about me” she said.

We sat in silence for a while, as that insight marinated.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, Sarah and I reflected on this. What the implications had been on her life and her work until now. And the implications seeing this might have on her life and her work moving forward. 

What it might mean for her inner peace. What it might mean for her ability to connect with people. What it might mean for her ability to listen and hear her clients. What it might mean for her appreciation of being alive.

A wake-up and smell-the-coffee moment. Scratch that. A wake-up and savour the coffee moment.

Then her practical mind, her intellect came back into the world.

“How do I stop myself…. I mean what do I DO about this?” Sarah said.

I gave a wry smile.

“Want a confession?” I said. She leant forward, eyes wide, tight-lipped smile.

“About 9 years ago, I asked my mentors the exact same question. They confronted me with an observation they’d both had about me. I was fascinated by myself. How I was doing. As a man. As a coach. Even as a client! I mean, was I being a good boy for teacher, that kind of thing? They weren’t wrong. Although they might have been taking it a little easy on me. They said fascinated. I was obsessed. Self-obsessed” I said, and went to say more about that morning with my mentors. 

Once I reflected on their observation, and told them that they were right, I asked “What do I do about it?” they replied:

“If we thought you would do something about it, we wouldn’t have told you”  

My mouth opened. And stayed open. What on earth was that supposed to mean, I thought. What kind of impossible riddle about me had I been set?

Here’s the cool thing. I didn’t do anything about it. Nothing planned, cognitive, nor shrouded in intellect or ego anyway. 

It just faded. Something seen, known as important with a desire to change it was enough. The deeper mind and the power of insight would take care of it. Wisdom had my back.

Over time, I’d seen how much meaning I was making of things that was my internal commentary on the outside world, everything and everyone in it. I saw my meaning-making machine in full force. And how I could take anything personally while realising that nothing was. 

I shared this with Sarah, who I noticed was relaxed and was listening to my story. Real listening. Her face and eyes showed it. We spoke a little longer and the contrast between the real-time observations of the world outside our windows earlier in our call.

We have windows, between us and the world. They can distort. They can block the truth of what’s there. They can be a mirror, turning everything back on ourselves.

I shared more with Sarah about the windows. That I’m only ever seeing through them. Not the world. My windows. I’m even able to see things that aren’t there while I’m looking at the world when my thinking paints over the glass, with a version of a memory. Or a version of a prediction of the future. Or a version of what other people think. Or a version of what I think of myself. A muddy mirror. Not clear glass.  The windows in my mind. 100% of the time. No exceptions. 

Thought, appearing real.

What a gift to see!


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