Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Trouble with Goals

In many cases, goals are helpful and even necessary. Goals help us focus at work and in our personal life. They can help us learn a new skill, and evaluate how we are doing. They can provide useful tests of where we are, and how much further we have to go. They can serve as milestones--getting a degree, finishing a project, getting a promotion.

When what we are trying to do is open to uncontrived awareness, though, goals are worse than useless. They can actually be harmful.

As soon as we ask "is this it?" we can be pretty sure that we are in a space of evaluation and constructing and cognition. Awareness is beyond and before thought. Awareness is the container, if you will, in which everything arises. Asking thought to evaluate awareness is like asking the wave to evaluate the ocean, or the blue to evaluate the sky.

There is nothing wrong with having goals, or expectations. Just notice that an expectation is a sense that is something is missing right now, that whatever it is, it can't happen until another time, in the future, when things are different. And a goal makes that something missing definitive. If it weren't missing, you wouldn't need the goal.

But without that thought that something is missing, can you find anything missing? Without the list of goals, is there anything left to be done?


Monday, August 30, 2010

Life and Death

I found out on Saturday that a fraternity brother of mine was recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. He is married with three children.

The prognosis for ALS is never good. It is a degenerative disease--over time, the body loses all muscular function.

I have not spoken to him yet. I did not know him well, but my heart goes out to him and his family. What I most notice, though, is my hesitation, my discomfort, my fear. What can I say? What can I do?

The answer may be not much. But I should still try. We shy away from death. We try to deny that it will happen to us. We tell ourselves some version of a story that we will not die. Much of religion serves this purpose. That our fear is unfounded. That there is something on the other side that is much like we have here, only better.

While we have no way of knowing what is on the other side, we do know that we all will die. And that it does no good to shy away from it. Others need our help when they are facing it, just like we will when it is our turn.

I am looking for the strength to reach out despite my fear. I hope I find it.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Just a Minute

In other posts, I have talked about the importance of meditation and inquiry, suggesting that even five minutes a day can make a dramatic difference in how we view the world.

Turns out I have been topped. Martin Boroson has built a meditation model around what he calls One Moment Meditation. The idea is that we can get the benefits of meditation in as little as one minute (and ultimately, one moment), repeated a few times a day.

I've tried this. And I like it a lot.

Just the idea that we can take a one minute break anytime we want is incredibly refreshing. We can do it before sending an email or after receiving a difficult one. We can do it before a call or a presentation. And we can touch that inner silence that is so healing.

This is not a quick fix. What it is, I think, is a quick entry into a meditation practice. Where, like with most things in life, our ability to touch that peaceful space will only improve.

With practice.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Myth of Authenticity

For a long time, I would say that I was searching for a way to be more authentic in my life. Authenticity, to me, was a way of being that was better than being inauthentic. If I was being authentic, I was being true to myself. Real.

But I can see now that the search for any authentic self is a myth. We are always authentic. We are always exactly what we are. There is no way to be otherwise.

If we are nervous, or insecure, or happy, or confident, those things are obvious to anyone nearby. Whether we say the words or not, we are communicating that essence of ourselves in every moment.

A more valid question is whether we are being honest. If I am honest with myself, my current practice might be "cranky Jeff trying to be upbeat," or "nervous Jeff trying to speak clearly." Honesty, especially with ourselves, is something we are afraid of. Why, I am not sure. I am not even sure I was honesty searching for authenticity. I think what I was actually searching for was comfort.

We all get cranky, or nervous, or afraid. It can be tremendously freeing to accept that. And, paradoxically, we can be comfortable with our discomfort.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Writing as a Practice

The act of writing can be a good rehearsal for life itself. It can be a preliminary practice, a preparation for the conversation that we want to have, or don't want to. It can be a record of our values and what is important to us. Or it can serve as proof of our ever-changing nature.

At its best moments, we have thoughts in writing that we do not have otherwise. We enter a state of flow where thoughts just come, and those thoughts may be things that we have not considered or even things that make us uncomfortable. Writing can inspire our creativity and our courage.

And when we are done, we have something that we can look at, or reflect upon. We may decide to reject it before we show it to anyone else. Or we might use it to inspire us to do something that we never thought was possible.

I find writing every day is helpful for other reasons, too. Looking back, I can see what was important to me at a given point in time. And I can see how that changes.

In a way, then, writing is a record of our impermanence. When we think our view of the world is a constant, we can look at our writing and see that we are wrong. That given enough time, everything changes. Even, perhaps especially, our very view of self.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010


There are things that we don't know.

We don't know, for sure, why we are here. We don't know what happens after death. There are many times that we can be unsure about the best course of action for us, or about what we are "meant" to do, or about how we can make a difference in the world, or at work. And there are times that because of this uncertainty, we are plagued with doubt.

Doubt isn't a problem because we don't know things. Doubt is a problem because we think we should.

Try a thought experiment. The next time you are feeling frustrated with not knowing an answer to a big question, say "I don't know, and, right now, it seems that I am not supposed to know."

Cut yourself a break. The list of things that we know is short. The list of things we do not is long. There is a space of not knowing, and knowing that you cannot know, that can be open, nonjudgmental, and even comforting.

When you really need to know (as opposed to just wanting to), you will.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Bad Days

Every now and then I have a bad day. There might be a series of events that caught me off guard. Things that trigger me can include unexpected financial expenditures or unexpected things happening at work. They are often things that are outside of my control, or that relate to something that happened awhile ago that has "come home to roost."

Bad days and good days seem to have one thing in common--we assume that they are going to continue. So if there are a couple bad things that have come together, we assume it is a trend rather than just a bad roll of the dice.

This is harder to take when it is three or four bad things than when it is three or four good things. It can be helpful to see this, to think of times in the past that may have been similar, or even to repeat that old standby, "This, too, shall pass."

And to see that, for the most part, things are just happening. Our reactions, and our interpretations, come from the stories that we've told ourselves about those things. That something should not have happened or that someone should have behaved differently (or my personal favorite, "should have known better." I fall for that one all the time!)

What are your stories? Are they true, or not?


Friday, August 20, 2010

Two Perspectives

We can have at least two conflicting views of how life works. And there is evidence to support both.

One is that we are separate beings who have goals and intentions and some level of control over what happens in our lives. We make choices and face consequences (good or bad) based on the results of those choices.

The other is that we may have different perspectives (literally "points of view"), but at a fundamental level we are interconnected and that everything that arises is happening on a co-created basis beyond the level of individual intention.

I don't think this a matter of picking one over the other. I don't think that either view is definitive, or capable of being proven right or wrong.

But it can be helpful to notice what happens when you are operating from one perspective versus the other. And what and how you feel when you do so.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pain and Suffering

It seems like this has been my week to observe suffering.

I hurt my leg coming into the house after a long trip. I was carrying my bags (heavier than usual) and coming up the front steps. Somehow, I missed a step and when I got my footing and teetered forward, I did something to my calf. I think I may have torn it--it reacted by going into spasm. And hurting a lot. Searing pain, like it was being cut with a knife.

It hurts less now. When it happened, a lot of the pain, and suffering, was because I was afraid. I did not know what had happened. I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted this pain, this injury to not be there. I wanted desperately to rewind those two seconds and do them again. As I limped and grimaced, I searched for a way to move forward, a shuffle, anything, that did not cause excruciating pain, and create fear that I was making my injury worse.

Once I found a way to move, the pain started to subside. It is stiff, yes, and it still hurts like crazy when I stress it the wrong way. I might be going to the doctor tomorrow. But the pain, when it is just pain, is bearable.

Pain is not suffering. Wanting the pain to be different is.

Pain is part of being human, as is suffering. We all suffer from time to time. It is part of our human nature to resist what is happening, or to want things to be different. But I think it can also be helpful to see how we can often put up with more pain than we think is possible, just by accepting that it is there. Every little bit of acceptance helps. My leg is living proof.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Meeting Prep

I am noticing the things that I do to avoid preparing for a presentation.

Like writing in this blog.

There is a side of me that wants to wing it in a meeting. I want things to be spontaneous and fresh. But at the same time, I think I lose opportunities to hone the message. To be more polished, perhaps. To make sure that I connect with key messages.

I need to get back to that. I talk about really opening to feelings and experiences, and yet, here I am, doing everything I can not to open to the process of preparation. Am I afraid of feeling nervous? Am I afraid of feeling unprepared? Or I am afraid of the work itself?

Time to find out.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Permission to Feel

My teacher, Peter Fenner, talks a fair amount about what he calls "spiritual bypassing."

There are a lot of people who engage in some kind of spiritual search as a kind of mental salve. Perhaps there is pain (emotional or physical) that can be numbed through meditation, or through hiding is some kind of empty state. After working at meditation for awhile, it can be relatively easy to float in a state where we can't really feel anymore. And one can substitute that practice for living. But that really isn't practice.

The hard part is to use practice to more fully open. There are so many things that we are afraid to feel. We may feel frustration about something going on at work, or we may feel like we really need to make some changes in our lives. It can be difficult to summon the courage to confront those feelings.

I have found that one of the most difficult things to do is to give myself permission to feel the way that I feel. To really dig in. If I am in pain, for example, the tendency is to push it away, or to find something to distract myself. But instead, if I can just say "it is okay to feel exactly how I am feeling right now," something different happens entirely.

When I have truly opened myself to what I am experiencing, I find that it is not nearly as bad as I thought it might be. In fact, I find that most of the bad stuff (sometimes all of it) was residing in my resistance, rather than in the experience or memory or thoughts themselves.

When I truly open to pain, I often can't find it anymore.

This isn't just another kind of salve. Sometimes I find a lot to explore, and that is okay, too. But the important thing to note is that opening oneself to an experience changes the experience. And there is power, and transformation in that.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Family Time

I spent the weekend visiting my mom.

When I visit home, there are lots of thoughts that come up that I haven't considered in a long time. The roles that we play with each other become more apparent. The things that can bug us about a close relationship can become all the more apparent when we are in person, for three days, then when we are in a casual phone call from a safe distance.

I used to evaluate how things are going in my life by whether or not my mom can press my buttons, and whether or not I have the desire to press hers. This weekend, I saw the futility of that.

We are where we are. Sometimes, we are clear, and life is easy. Sometimes, we are triggered. This mix can change over time, but I am pretty sure it is always going to be here in some sense. I would like to think there will be a state of "full relief," whether that is from the suffering that we can feel from relations with family members, or memories of childhood, or things that are going on at work. I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen, though, at least not in this lifetime.

But I realized this weekend that it is okay. It's okay to be mad sometimes. It's okay to express our feelings. It's okay to get caught. The only thing that might not be okay is to expect things to be different than they are.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Boundaries and Business

I work with a few clients as a coach. While I would like to say that I offer profound insight and help people make dramatic changes in their lives, that just isn't the case.

But what can happen is that the client can have his or her own insight. I can't say where it comes from or why. I can simply say that I was there, and that I am grateful to have witnessed it.

One of my clients and I were having a conversation the other night when he started taking about boundaries and relationships. He had been reading about the idea of boundarylessness, looking at relationships from the perspective of not being able to find the boundary between two people. This is a radical idea--that while we can see physical bodies, we really can't find a line where you stop and I start. We may be separated by miles but have the urge to call each other at the same instant. We may come up with the same idea at the same time. Or we may simply sense an energetic connection or intermingling when we are together.

My client, though, had been drawing a line between boundarylessness in personal relationships--friends and spouse--and business relationships. He had simply not allowed himself to open up in his business relationships. But as we were talking that line suddenly just dropped. He saw the humanity of those he worked with, or negotiated against. He saw that they wanted connection just as much as the other people in his life. And he saw that, in his feelings of vulnerabilty, he had been putting up walls that actually pushed the others away. He could see in the times that he had opened up, for whatever reason, that the relationship and results were profoundly different.

It can feel dangerous to open up in the business world. To share. To trust. It feels like in business, we defend first, and trust is earned later. But what is it, exactly, that we are protecting?

What if we trusted first? What would happen then?


Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Power

There have been a lot of thunderstorms lately. And with the storms there are often power outages. Unfortunately, these can last several days.

The power is a reflection of our utter vulnerability. In an instant, we can be plunged into darkness. With a gust of wind or a fallen tree, we can go from air conditioning and refrigeration to hot nights, cold showers, warm milk, and spoiling meat. Finding ice is a priority. Keeping the essentials chilled becomes a science.

Our focus completely shifts in a moment.

This is the life we lead. We are at the whim of forces so much greater than ourselves, and yet we live, most of the time, as if we are in control.

At work, the power can be a new competitor, or a merger, or a new boss. The power can take a wild success and turn it into a failure, or the opposite. Some win, and some lose, and while the winners are sometimes more talented, they are sometimes just lucky.

Accepting this can be difficult. It can be helpful, though, to see the essential part of us that cannot be damaged or hurt. It is beyond winning or losing, success or failure. It simply is.

Even to notice that for a few moments each day can be the beginning of big changes in the way we view the world.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two Ways to Find Your Purpose

Thanks to a reader for sending me a couple of different items on finding the purpose of your life.

One was from a professor that I have mentioned before, Clayton Christensen, whose work I really admire. According to him, you should look at your life as an exercise in strategy. Look at the environment, and your strengths. Define your priorities. Make time for your family. Schedule. Plan. Prioritize. With enough rigor, it seems, you can make sure that at the end of your life you spent time on the things that truly matter to you, and accomplish what you want to. He warns that corporate America is hopelessly shortsighted, because it spends resources on things with a concrete (often financial) return, rather than those that are longer term but more nebulous, like relationships. But he says that this does not mean that planning is flawed. Just that we use the wrong inputs sometimes.

This is a valuable insight, and worth taking into account when you are considering spending another hour at work or spending an hour with your kids. It may be 20 years before you know if you made the right choice.

The other view is from David Brooks of the New York Times. He calls Christensen's view "The Well-Planned Life." He says it is the view of the individual asking how he can best contribute based on his own talents and desires. Another way, according to Brooks, is to look at what circumstances call you to do.  He calls this "The Summoned Life," which places the individual in a much larger societal context.

I don't think there is a right or a wrong here. There is clearly a role for goals and planning in any venture, whether business or otherwise. Perhaps the best part of planning is simply the thinking about what matters to you. We can identify values that are often hidden from view. And, as Brooks notes, this focus on the individual is very American, so there is a perhaps innate comfort that many of us in the business world will feel with this approach. Even if it turns out that strategies change, as they often do.

To me, The Summoned Life feels more like how life actually happens. As John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." No matter what we want to happen, our circumstances often require something else of us, sometimes something much more than we could have imagined. In those times, our plans, and often our thoughts of achievement, wealth, or other material satisfaction, go right out the window.

And there can be surprising blessings when that happens.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Construction Zone

Our brains are meaning making machines.

We can see this when we look closely at what happens in our daily experience. Life is going on constantly. Many of ten thousand things that are happening in a given moment we do not even notice. But then something might catch our eye, like a sunset, or our ear, like someone calling our name.

That experience is exactly what it is. Words cannot describe it exactly (or even come close, really). But our brains almost immediately use words to classify the experience--

"What a beautiful sunset!"

"Jane is so nice--she is a really great person."

"That screaming baby is so annoying!"

Our brains then construct a story around the happening, comparing it with an idealized version of what it thinks should be happening. In this way, we are constantly comparining what is going on around us with what we expect to be going on, or, sometimes, with a completely fictional ideal day.

Not surprisingly, what is actually happening is almost always different from what we expect or what we want. And this comparison, of a constructed ideal with what is, creates almost constant suffering. We often interpret this suffering as a personal failing. Perhaps we could have done something different to avoid this. Or maybe someone else should have done something different. We assess whether our lives are worthwhile based on this standard. And when someone suggests that we should "lower our standards" it feels like such a cop out.

But maybe this is not about higher or lower. Maybe for a few moments each day we can simply see life as it is, without comment, without internal dialogue, without an assessment of what it all means. Perhaps, just for a moment, we can let the inexpressible value of life itself shine through.


Monday, August 9, 2010


Coming back to work from a vacation can be jarring.

But the rhythms are essential. When we really get away, we actually can stop thinking about work for awhile. We can draw that line, between working and monitoring, or between working and not working. Occasionally, we can drop the thoughts about work completely.

And that really is my practice right now. To see where I am. To be with what is happening right now. If that is vacationing, then the practice is to be with the beach, or the eating of lunch, or the visiting of the farmers' market. And if it is coming back to work, then I am here. Not anticipating what is going to happen, but addressing the emails and phone calls, one at a time, until the work is done.

There can be a lot of judgment that is layered into that. In addition to doing whatever it is that I am doing, there is a judgment about what I should be doing that might be different. And that is okay. But over time, that judgment can lessen, leaving just what is right here.