Thursday, December 23, 2010

You're Still OK

Maybe you messed something up today.

Maybe you didn't get everything done on your list.

Maybe a friend is angry with you.

Maybe your presents aren't all wrapped (or bought!).

Maybe you haven't packed for the big trip.

Maybe you really, really, really want things to be different.

Can you see that there is a still silent part of you, the witness of these events, that is unchanged by any of them? That cannot ever be anything other that peace and joy?

Just for a moment, can you rest in that peace and joy?

Because no matter what is happening, the real you (your ever present awareness) is still OK. And always will be.

I am out through January 3. Happy Holidays!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

That Time of Year

We often miss the changes that happen to us because so much of our daily life is routine and repetitive. Just like friends have to remind us how much our children have grown, sometimes another perspective is helpful.

The holidays can serve as a wonderful lens because we often leave one intense environment (work) and enter another (extended family).

That shift is worth noticing. What stories come up for you as you enter your childhood home? What patterns reappear? Who is bugging you? Is it the same people who bugged you the last time you were there? Is it something new? Or, perhaps, is the tension a little less this time?

This works with in-laws, too. Sometimes we can look at someone else's family and not understand all the drama. Or maybe we think that our partner should be behaving differently, because we know then as an adult, and not as the child he or she was when these patterns were formed.

It's a mistake to walk into these situations with an idea that "I'm going to be calm" or "I'm not going to let my sister get to me." There is no goal.

But we can notice where we are, and be all right with that.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Magic Room

What if there were a magic room that has the following properties--

--Everything you do or say or even think about is exactly what's right for you in each moment.

--It's impossible to make a mistake, but there is constant learning.

--There's no need to worry about the future (or the past), because everything is taken care of at the appropriate time.

--Everyone and everything is there for your highest good. Even (especially!) those things and people you find difficult.

--You see everyone and everything as just another part of yourself.

Would you behave differently in that magic room? Would you find yourself spending more time in that room than outside of it?

What if I told you that you're already in that room? And that you've never been out of it?


Monday, December 20, 2010

Is There a Shortcut?

A friend of mine is very involved in the mindfulness community, and specifically, in bringing mindfulness into the legal world.

Recently, we were talking about inquiry, mindfulness, and the idea of bringing some kind of presence into the corporate world. And he asked a great question--

"Can you be mindful at work without having a regular meditation practice?"

I'm not sure there is a clear answer to this. I think he and I both agree that we have found presence at work, and we both have regular practices. We have also found that our ability to be present at work as increased over time. (I'm using mindfulness and presence interchangeably.)

So it seems that meditation is one way to deepen presence at work. But I'm not sure it is the only way.

I know one other thing. Even among those friends of mine who are on this path, very few of them have a regular mediation practice. Mediation, it seems, is like many things that are good for us. We can be convinced of the benefits and still not do them. So it might be useful to reframe the question.

Let's assume for the moment that meditation is the best way, and yet that most people will still not meditate. Then the question becomes, "Is there a way that provides some of the benefits that does not require a regular sitting practice?" I suppose that way would get bonus points if, over time, people who would not have meditated see the benefits and start.

That's the goal of this blog, and, I think, one of the goals of Peter Fenner's work.

If we can show people a space of presence and healing, and if they can see that space without having to meditate for ten years, it seems like they ought to be able to get some benefit from that. Even without meditation, it seems like we can see that space, and reside in it for a time, if we do those things that we know activate the right hemisphere of the brain. And there are a ton of benefits that come from that.

If a lot of people do this, then there's a lot of benefit, even if none of them are as present as they might be with regular meditation.

For now, that seems like more than enough. It's the beginning of a transformation. But not the end.


Friday, December 17, 2010

When Fear Kicks In

The biological intensity of our automatic reactions can be surprising, even when we know what we otherwise should be doing.

Recently, I bumped into another car in the parking lot. The space was a bit tighter than usual and I clipped the tire of a large pickup truck pulling in. I didn't think I was close--so to hear that sick "crunch" was a bit of a shock.

My heart pounding, I got out to look at the damage. My bumper had cracked. But it appeared there was, at most, a couple of tiny scratches on the other car.

I didn't know what to do. I knew that I should leave a note, but there didn't appear to be any damage. What if the person took advantage of me? What if he said that there was more to it than there was? It seemed like there were so many bad things that could happen if I left a note with my phone number. My body was telling me to get away, to run, before anyone saw what had happened. (And did I mention that the damage was only on my car?) So I started walking, quickly, to the Metro station, hoping that no one would see.

I had just about reached the escalator when I calmed down. And I realized I should still leave the note. Just in case. That I would feel guilty if I did not leave it, and I had absolutely been in the wrong. And I walked back, took the elevator down, walked to the car, and left a note with my phone, asking for a call or a text if there was any problem. As I am writing this, I don't know what is going to happen, but I feel better. Though  it was surprising to me how strong the instinct was to run, even when reason said to do something else.

This is why we practice--to begin to overcome those impulses, which may have protected us from saber-toothed tigers, but which now occasionally lead us astray.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Presence and Leadership

Leaders are often seen as change agents, who through the force of their own charisma, create and execute a unique vision.

Sometimes, at least from the outside looking in, this appears to be the case. But can it be, really? Is anyone that smart, so talented that they can do all the things necessary to create that vision?

I worked with someone who started a couple of companies that have done really well. And he is probably one of the most humble people I know. He has ideas, plenty of them. But he realizes that the only way that he can execute his ideas is with employees and customers who believe in the vision.

Instead of being a dictator, I would say he is more like a co-creator. He talks to everyone. He outlines a set of principles and asks for feedback. He doesn't try to have all the answers. He sees that his way is not the only way. And what starts as his vision becomes a collective goal that motivates everyone. Even his customers become partners. They are building the vision together.

He is not trying to control things, but to gently guide them. And with that approach, he is able to do far more than he could on his own.

I think we have all had situations where we tried to convince someone of the rightness of our views. I'm in Washington, where that partisan, zero sum behavior abounds. But when I can only win if you lose, then you're not going to want to cooperate. Instinctively, you are going to resist anything I say.

I think there is another way through simple presence. When we bring presence to leadership and persuasion, we set up a different dynamic. We stop trying to fix this moment. We're not trying to change someone. We don't have a preferred approach. We are letting things be exactly as they are.

We can have an open conversation and identify areas of agreement and areas of disagreement. We can find common principles. We can build things together. We can even begin to let go of some of our personal views and instead focus on the goals of the team we are creating.

In this kind of collaborative leadership model, leadership and presence become inseparable. And even the question of who is leading becomes difficult to answer.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thoughts Thinking Thoughts?

We've become convinced that the thinking mind must get answers to all our questions. 

But what we fail to see is that the thinking mind generates the very questions that it is trying to answer. In this sense, the thinking mind is trying to control that which it cannot. The thinking mind can't affect this moment. The thinking mind can't change or control anything, even its own thoughts.

All the thinking mind does is divide and categorize and question. We confuse this voice with our identity, if only because it is such a constant part of our experience. But it can't be what we are, because of that very fact--it is an experience, not the experiencer.

The experiencer doesn't ask any questions. And with no questions, there is no need for answers.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Noticing This

How do we notice the timeless? How do we step outside of our habitual way of looking at the world?

One way is to make new habits.

Meditation can be one new habit. Yes, it can feel intimidating, or even difficult. But if you are looking for a habit that will transform how you look at the world, there is nothing that I know more powerful.

There are other things you can do, though, in addition to or instead of meditation. The most important thing is to understand, to feel, that your habitual ways of reacting to the world are not helping you. That, in fact, they get in the way of seeing the world as it is.

One of the most famous mystics of the 20th century was Ramana Maharshi. And he simply said to find the self. Who are you? Ask this over and over. Ask until you see the awareness that you are. Not as an idea, but as an actual experience. And when you are triggered, ask who is triggered? Who is thinking? Who is reacting? Reside in that, rather than the emotions that are leading you astray.

It can be helpful to think of times when you rested in this awareness. You may have felt it when looking at the ocean or a sunset, or when taking a walk in the woods. Being in nature can be incredibly powerful. In fact, there is science to suggest that being in nature can serve as a "reset" button to the automatic and repetitive left brain processing that we all do when we are living our daily lives.

Exercise can be helpful. Especially aerobic exercise, which can flood the system with helpful endorphins. Endorphins counteract or negate the "fight or flight" adrenaline which is normally in our system when stressed.

You can set reminders to yourself to notice awareness. Perhaps an hourly chime can be a reminder to take a minute or two.

There are also some things that you can avoid, because they tend to heighten the production of those stress chemicals.

Sugar and caffeine do this. Processed foods (which tend to have all kinds of disguised sugars) are something that you likely want to avoid. I notice that I see the world very differently when I am not drinking coffee. Things just don't have the urgency that they might otherwise have. And yes, over time, we can see that this is a good thing.

In all of these ways, we can gradually lessen the fight or flight response and increase what is called the "relaxation response." This is the timeless experience of the right hemisphere, and the most direct view into awareness.

While we can have powerful insights, it is only in establishing this way of looking as a habit that we can deepen our experience. And doing this will pay profound rewards.


Monday, December 13, 2010

The Science of Presence

There are lots of different versions of the following story--

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two 'wolves' inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

I think there is a different version of this story that is just as true, maybe more so. For most of our lives, we are aware of a part of us that needs to be doing things. That needs to achieve, that needs to understand, that needs to know. And this part is never satisfied, because it is always seeing and creating more things to have and do and know.

This is the list maker. The perfectionist. The judge.

There is another part of us that most of us are less aware of. This part of us operates outside of time. This part of us sees that things are already perfect right now, that there is no other way that they could be. It is the part knows there is nothing we need to do or know. It is blissfully happy, right now and always.

Interestingly, there is a lot of science that suggests that these parts of us actually exist, and that, roughly speaking, the "achiever" part of us is tied to the left hemisphere of the brain, and the "blissfully happy" part of us (which we are much less aware of) is tied to the right hemisphere.

So which wolf do we want to feed? The one that can never be satisfied, or the one that is already happy?

Most of us want happiness, and yet we keep thinking that doing more and having more will get us there. But the left side of the brain will never be satisfied, because it can't be. Its job is to find division and create need and separation. Yes it creates solutions, but only because it creates the problems in the first place. We are very good at feeding the left side--for most of us it is all we know.

But what would happen if we fed the right side?

We're already happy just by our very presence. But what would happen if we recognized that?


Friday, December 10, 2010

Thought Control

Most people think that they are in control of their lives. That they are in charge of their destiny.

It may seem this way most of the time. But let me ask you a question—

Can you control your thoughts?

If you said yes, congratulations. But I don’t believe you.

The truth is that we don’t know where our thoughts come from. Somehow, they pop into our heads. There might be patterns to them, and we might be able to predict when some thoughts will happen. But we are never 100 percent accurate. Sometimes our thoughts can be very surprising, or even disturbing.

Noticing trends is about the best we get. Like looking at the weather or the stock market.

It seems to me that “I decide to go to work” or “I decide to eat soup” is also a thought. And if decisions are thoughts, it seems like we can’t control them, either. 

And if we can’t control our decisions, then it must be that we can’t control our actions, either.

So are we in control, or not?

This is a radical and threatening concept for just about everyone. If we are not in control, who is? If we are not the ones driving the car, who are we? And who's driving?


Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Nature of Work

I'm beginning to think that the very nature of work is changing. With folks like Marshall Goldsmith, Dan Pink, Seth Godin, and Srikumar Rao addressing this issue in somewhat different ways, it seems that we might be at the beginning of a movement.

We used to define what people do based on what box they occupied on the organizational chart.

We used to even define who people could talk to based on what box they occupied.

No more. Today's organizations are flatter and less bureaucratic, because they have to be. A consultant with an Internet connection can outperform most employees, and, truth be told, most consulting firms. And she can be quicker and cheaper while doing it, while having a lot of fun.

People of all ranks are looking for more than a paycheck at work. They are looking for fulfillment and expression, not stress and corporate hierarchy. They are focusing on the process of work more than the result. They are working, more and more, because they enjoy it.

The firm of the future may be like your body is today, a loose confederation of sorts. Your cells are constantly changing and a year from now, not much of you will actually be the same material as it is today. And you (whatever that means) are not even aware of this change because it is so seamless. You get everything you need and you get everything done that you need to do, even while the stuff of you completely turns over several times in the process. And firms are beginning to find that they can get things done with lots of different people who come, do their thing, and leave.

There are some big companies that are starting to get used to this idea. But the industries that are driven by process and procurement, and doing things because that is the way they have always been done, are destined to die. Faster and more creative firms will thrive because they actually focus on work and innovation. They get things done. They push the boundaries rather than refine their processes. If you are not a consultant yet, just wait. Because as the bigger firms die off, what's going to happen to the folks that work at those firms? What's going to happen to you and me?

As Dan Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, you better start using the right hemisphere of your brain, because if you don't, what you do can be outsourced or programmed or both. And that means you are replaceable.

I've written a lot about why I think the opposite is true. That each of us brings something unique to the world that doesn't fit into a box and shouldn't be made to. The question is whether we have the courage to declare that.

What will the future bring? I don't know. No one does. And that's a beautiful thing.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Training Wheels

Before you learned how to ride a bike, you probably used training wheels. Training wheels helped you get the feel for riding a bike. You could learn to pedal, to stop, and to turn the wheel. And you could do so without fear of falling (or at least without as much fear).

Meditation retreats are like training wheels.

Think of what you do when you go to a meditation retreat. You go away, to a quiet room, away from distractions. The people are generally nice and kind (not like the ones back at work!). There is no computer or phone nearby. And in that quiet undistracted space you sit and breathe, for a day, or a week, or a year.

Like riding a bicycle, the most important practice in contemplative life might just be balance. And, just like training wheels, meditation retreats offer training in just about everything except balance.

The question that I always hear at retreats is "how do I take this home?" And the simple answer is you can't, because a retreat is, by design, a safe space. You are protected from the very things that are problems at home. (And even at a retreat, mediation is difficult!)

But just like training wheels, retreats have incredible value. While you might struggle a bit when you get home, the line between when you are meditating and when you are not will become more and more difficult to find.

Training wheels are usually cast aside. We don't generally do that with retreats. But we might just find we need them a lot less.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Circle of Life

Have you ever seen a circle?

Most of us would say that we have, but we actually haven't. A circle is defined as "a plane curve everywhere equidistant from a given fixed point." In its purest sense, a circle cannot be drawn--it is a one dimensional curve in a two dimensional space. It can't exist in physical space at all. It's an idea, a concept.

You may see pictures that represent circles, but the only circle that I know of is the idea of one that I have in my head (and that I assume is also in yours).

This is true for many more things than circles. Honesty, for example, or truth. These are things that do not exist except as mental concepts, and, except for very simple things like circles, our mental concepts are often unstable and very seldom in complete agreement with each other.

Here's another thing that only exists as a concept--the self.

Though we all have a strong sense of self, and our minds insist that we must have an identity, no one has ever been able to find a self. You can test this. See how what you think about yourself changes from day to day and moment to moment. Your very memories can changes--notice how often we disagree about what happened. All we seem to be is a changing physical location that experiences a stream of thoughts that is constantly changing, too.

We spend so much time trying to pump up and protect this sense of self, because it seems to be so fundamental to what we are. And yet this is what we are trying to protect? An uncontrollable thought stream?

It's only in those rare moments when we are without thought that we see the very real possibility of living without boundaries. We see that the only boundaries that exist are the ones that our thoughts create. And when we begin to see through those boundaries, we see freedom itself. We stop fighting about concepts, and we gradually see that our lives are almost nothing but concepts.

And life becomes easier (it begins to life itself) because there is less and less in the way.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Less, not More

It's been quite a few years since I had the realization that started me on the path of inquiry and meditation.

I remember it pretty clearly. I was at a new job, having moved from a law firm for better opportunities, and I was very much in the mindset of wanting more.

More skills, more money, more authority, more prestige, more power. I was convinced that more would make me happy.

It was making me frantic, until something hit me that was utterly obvious--

There was no end to what I wanted. There was no way that I could ever be happy if I was depending on things, or achievements, or education, because there would always be something else to have or do or get.

I decided at that point that I would pursue the ultimate project, what the books that I had started to read talked about. Enlightenment. Once I had that, then all the other things wouldn't matter, right? And I could finally prove my worth to myself and others. Enlightenment seemed like the most rare and special of all accomplishments. The ultimate trophy.

I suppose that my story is not that different than many others, who are led to a path of inquiry to escape the pain and disappointment of everyday life. And the joke is that there might be more pain, more upheaval, more uncertainty on this path than on most others.

But if the other path is about having more, it seems like this one is about less. We find that those things that we thought we needed we did not. We find that some of our stories are not serving us well, and they fall away. We find we are happier with less and less. With things simply as they are. And that process keeps repeating and reinforcing, a bit at a time.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Sip by Sip

Pema Chodron talks about contemplative practice as working sip by sip. What she means, I think, is that we can't and don't do everything at once. Instead, we notice things about ourselves a little at a time.

We notice something, work with it, knead it like dough, turn it over in our minds. And after a time, something that bothered us, that triggered us, becomes a friend, just one more part of this thing we call self. And in becoming a friend, it becomes less of a trigger.

Like a friend, it is not without fault, but we accept it and love it just the same.

And then something else arises. We notice ourselves getting caught in a different way.

And so on.

Our practice can be seen as taking an entire lifetime or more of noticing and working. Sip by sip.

And yet from another perspective, we only have right now. And there can't possibly be a path or a practice.

There is only what this moment presents to us. And the next.

Sip by sip.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Practice, Presence and Leadership

There are many different types of leaders, and many different ways to lead.

In the past, the question of who the leader was could be answered by the org chart. If you were in the box at the top (or you at least had a bunch of boxes underneath you), you were a leader. No more. As organizations change, the notion of what is and is not a leader changes, too.

Today, leaders may have any or all of the following characteristics, wherever their box is on the chart--

They develop and share knowledge.
They influence direction and strategy.
They manage people or client relationships.
They bring in revenue.
They help others develop in their careers.

I'm sure that you can think of many others. And while some of these skills are no different than the skills that were needed years ago, what has changed is the environment. In short, things are more ambiguous than ever and changing faster and faster.

The skills that we learned in school are obsolete; I was taught programming in FORTRAN in college; off the shelf software barely existed. (Nor did email, the Internet, smart phones ...) Whole industries have been created and destroyed in just the last ten years. Content changes to fast to keep up. So what can we do, as leaders, to keep ourselves relevant?

We can't do anything. But we can be.

It is our being, our very presence, that allows us to be leaders. Think of the people whom you follow in your own life. It is not the person who knows the most, or who works the hardest. Instead, it is someone whose very presence inspires you.

I believe this presence can be learned.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that if you stand this way or dress that way you will have presence. Presence comes from the inside. But it comes from the practices that we have been talking about in this blog. When we practice meditation, when we investigate our own awareness, we begin to see the fiction of a solid self. We realize that we are all connected, and that our egos only get in the way. When our personal agendas begin to drop, we connect with others in ways that we did not think were possible. We have ideas, as individuals and groups, that we would not have had. We create solutions that embrace our differences, and we find those differences are not nearly so great as we once thought they were.

We can do that no matter what our job title, our role, or our box on the chart. We can do that no matter what we know or what we have done.

Through our practice, our very presence can open a space of conversation, connection, and trust.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Skills and Mastery

We craft our lives each day as we choose how to spend our time. I've mentioned that it is easy to fall into routines, where we are not very conscious of what we are doing. Where things come almost automatically. Sometimes, this can be a bad thing. But it can also have its benefits.

When something is automatic, it is generally because we are very, very good at it. We can literally do it without thinking because we have done it so many times. Not many of us spend much time considering how we brush our teeth, for example. Or how we drive the car, or walk down the street. These skills are automatic and we are well served by them. And for most of us, a basic level of competence in these skills is just fine. I'm not aware of any tooth brushing championships, and if there are any, I'm not planning on entering.

But there are other areas where it is very important to consciously practice something. Where the skill is so nuanced that it rewards continued, focused effort. Writing is one of these things. The performing arts. Sports. It is not that difficult to get to a level of basic competence, but continued improvement seems to require a kind of intentional practice that is difficult, yet rewarding in and of itself. And that focused practiced must happen day after day after day.

The practice of presence, of simply being in the moment, is also one of these skills.

The returns from years of practice become more and more nuanced. And yet just as there are differences between actors who have worked their entire lives and those who are just starting, we can see differences between those who are here and those who are not. Even if we can't describe what we are seeing, we know the master from the novice. And we can see the results of what will be a lifetime of effort.

Every skill has a learning curve. Our choices of which skills to master will govern the quality of our lives, even though that may not be apparent for many years.

The satisfaction comes from the process itself; with mastery, there is no destination. And it is never to late to start.