Thursday, June 30, 2011

Just Noticing, Part 4

This will be my last post on Just Noticing. I've been talking a lot about noticing your thoughts in different contexts. I know it is helpful for me to look at my reactions to people, my thoughts about myself, messages that we get from others and my thoughts about those messages.

And of course, we can also notice our thoughts at and about work. If you haven't already, I'd encourage you to take some time to do that.

Today, though, we're going to notice something different. Something that actually isn't there.

I want you to notice, to find, where all those thoughts are coming from. The silence from which everything emerges.

This noticing is a lifelong practice in some wisdom traditions. Some spend years in retreat meditating on it. 

But it can be powerful event to notice this for one breath. It can give us a sense of peace, and of calm. In the midst of turbulence, this silence, this space, is always available to us. This is the place where, moment by moment, our world is created. And many have said that to rest in it is the ultimate healing.


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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Just Noticing, Part 3

On Monday, we took a look at the thoughts we have about other people.

On Tuesday, we took a look at the thoughts we have about ourselves.

Today, notice all the messages that you get--through advertising, the Internet, the news media, and so on.

Some of those messages might be that one political party is good and another is bad. Or that you could be happier if you only purchased a certain brand of toothpaste or watch a particular TV show. Or that certain body types are more desirable than others, or certain lifestyles are better than others, or certain types of education or reading material or careers.

These messages might be a bit more subtle than the ones from the last couple of days, because you are not necessarily looking just at your thoughts. But notice that these messages turn into thoughts, which are followed by your reactions (also in the form of thoughts) Notice that your thoughts about the messages are probably different than the messages themselves.

You don't need to analyze this or make it overly complicated. Instead, just notice the messages and your reaction to them.

For example, when I'm at the mall, I notice there are a lot of very glamorous people in ads that have beautiful things. I notice a sense in me that I don't have these things, that something might be missing in my life, that I might be a more desirable person if I did have these things. Then I also notice a questioning in myself. Is that really true? Can I be a better person based on the things that I have?

What do you notice?

More tomorrow.


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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Just Noticing, Part 2

Today's experiment is similar to yesterday's.

Today, though, I want you to go to a quiet place, away from other people. Get comfortable, in a chair or on the floor. Whatever works.

For a few minutes, I want you to notice what you're thinking about, especially if it's a thought about you. Notice the stories that you are telling yourself.

Maybe you're thinking back about all the great things you've done. Maybe you're feeling good. Or maybe you're being judgmental of yourself.

I tend to think about things that I'm afraid to do. Or things I wish I could have done differently.

I think most of us tend to be pretty hard on ourselves. Harder, maybe, than we are on other people.

So here's the second part of today's experiment.

Whatever it is that you are afraid of, or that you regret, I want you to imagine that your best friend came to you and told you that he or she is dealing with the issue. This issue is now your best friend's, not yours.

And I want you to think about how you would be with your friend. The love, the caring, the understanding you would have. And now I want you to talk to yourself with the same caring and compassion, the same open gentle heart, that you would use with your best friend.

How does that feel? Can you be a little bit more kind with yourself? Can you forgive?

Can you, just for a moment, act as if you are your own best friend?

Try it and see.


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Monday, June 27, 2011

Just Noticing, Part 1

Here's an experiment you can try for a few minutes.

Go to a public place. A mall, a bookstore, a restaurant. Someplace with a lot of strangers.

Then walk or sit and people watch. Don't stare--we're not trying to get in a fight or creep anyone out. But I want you to notice the thoughts that pop into your head about each person you see.

When I do this, I notice how quickly I form conclusions about people. How quickly I assume that someone is nice, or a jerk. I sometimes write a story about them on the spot. Where they live, where they work. Whether their kids like them, whether they're a jerk in the office.

We do this all the time. This is what human brains do. They try to make sense of the world. They build models and draw conclusions.

But I have to ask myself, is this prejudice (which literally means means prejudgment) actually helpful?

I notice I even have a reaction to the label "prejudice."

I'm not sure that we can wire our brains to be different. But, as this exercise shows, we can at least notice how often we do it. And, once we are conscious of it, we can choose to give less weight to it.

Maybe the person who rushed past me is dealing with a sick relative. Maybe the person who glared at me just got off a difficult phone call.

Maybe, just like me, and just like you, everyone is trying to do their best. In each and every moment.


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Friday, June 24, 2011

Am I Really Too Busy?

The number one complaint I get from corporate types is that they're too busy. And it's true that we seem to be busier these days. And more stressed.

But I wonder if the issue isn't really that we're more distracted, not more busy. We have plenty to do, but there's also a lot that's competing for our attention.

You're reading a blog right now (and I thank you for that). But how many blogs do you read? How much time do you spend on email? Facebook? Twitter? How much time surfing the net? IMimg? And that's just online. What about reality TV, video games, trashy magazines? All the things you do at home to just zone out?

And don't forget my favorite, the time we spend complaining about how busy we are!

My experience is that when I say I'm too busy, I often mean something else. Here are three possibilities that resonate with me.

1. Lack of focus. It can be hard to stay focused, and it's natural to want to take breaks. Trouble is that with all the distractions around us, a short break can quickly turn into an hour.

2. Lack of enjoyment. Sometimes, we enjoy the distractions more than we enjoy our work. I find myself completely zoning out on conference calls, comforted by what I can find online. And yes, distractions can include the support and attention that we get from others when we complain about how busy we are.

3. Lack of energy.  Maybe we're not taking care of ourselves. If we don't get enough sleep or exercise, we can drag through the day. I know if I've not slept, my work day isn't about enjoyment, it's about survival.

When I feel a bit overwhelmed, typically one or more of these three things is going on. How about you?


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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Letting Go

What if for just one day you let go of the to do list and did whatever came up for you?

What if for just one day you dropped your "shoulds"?

What if for just one day, or one hour, or one moment, you let whatever was happening happen? With no need to control and no need for a particular result?

Would you do nothing?

Would you try something new? Or something you have been afraid of?

Is there any way to know what you would do without actually doing it?

Try it for a day, or an hour, or ten minutes.

And see if you can view whatever happens as exactly what was needed.


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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Brain Training

It's only been relatively recently that we've realized that physical exercise was of benefit to us.

It's pretty common to hear that someone is going to the club or gym to work out, or going to play tennis or basketball, for example. People walk or run and part of the reason that they do this is they expect some kind of benefit from it.

What's less common is that people will have, or talk about a mental practice.

I'm not sure why. There are people who take drugs to increase their concentration, for example, or to feel less depressed, but the idea that their is "brain exercise" or that there is a need for such exercise does not seem all that widespread.

And yet the benefits of even a simple and brief meditation practice are well-documented and undeniable. We can be calmer, with greater concentration and creatively. We can be less reactive and more kind. We can have more mental endurance. Our immune system function is enhanced and blood pressure is lowered. We experience less reactivity.

And the first step is just to notice what's happening. What's happening right now? What are your thoughts telling you? And how much of it is actually true? Do that a few minutes each day and you have a proven practice for training your brain.

Someday, maybe soon, "What kind of meditation do you practice?" will be just as common a question as "Where do you work out?" is today.


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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Doing and Not Doing

There has been a lot written about wu wei, or "not doing," in Taoism and other Eastern traditions.

The idea is that we don't have to consciously do things, that things in fact do themselves without conscious effort on our part. That this is in fact the ideal state.

On it's face, this seems ridiculous. And the mind will not hear of it. How could we live if we did not decide what we are doing, where we are going, what we want to be in life?

That is certainly our experience most of the time.

But I wonder if it has to be this way.

Sometimes, it seems that things really do just happen. Sometimes the things that just happen, the things that happen "while we are making other plans," as John Lennon put it, are wonderful. Sometimes they are tragic. But they do happen, enough for me to think sometimes, "why bother?"

Maybe Eisenhower had it right when he said that "planning is invaluable, but plans are useless." That once one is in the heat of battle no plan will last more than a few minutes.

An analogy might be jazz. The very best jazz musicians play the same scales over and over and over again. Their preparation is legendary. And yet, in the moment of a performance, they don't know what they're going to play. They are just as surprised as we are. Many say that they are so in the moment that they don't remember what they played, and might not even recognize it when it is played back to them.

So the paradox is to be totally prepared and totally spontaneous. To simply let go in each moment, knowing that whatever happens is the only thing that could happen, given the preparation that we have done.

Life, in other words, has perfectly prepared us for this next moment. And yet, we have no idea what that moment will bring.


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Monday, June 20, 2011

Making a Difference

I'm sometimes asked if I think meditation and my work with different spiritual teachers has made a difference in my life, and my work life in particular.

It's a difficult question to answer, because there's no real way to know for sure. But this is what I feel--

I am calmer and more focused.

I am more honest and willing to be vulnerable.

I am more aware of what's actually happening versus what's "my stuff."

And I'm less reactive when my stuff comes up. Let's face it, any time there is an emotional reaction to something, chances are there is some stuff for you in there if you look for it. If you can see that and just ride it out instead of attacking or defending, it can make a huge difference.

How does this make a difference at work? When I can set aside my worries and my agenda, I can focus on the other person. I can listen. The other person feels heard and valued. I'm worried about them rather than defending me. I can do my very best to meet their needs, to help solve their problems. And we both win when that happens.

I am sometimes selfish and unkind and gossipy. But in other moments, in moments of clarity that happen more and more, I'm able to establish connection and trust. And that changes everything.

Did those changes happen overnight? No, and in some ways I feel like they're only beginning.


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Friday, June 17, 2011

Just Ten Percent

Imagine you could go through your work day ten percent less stressed. Or with ten percent more time. Or ten percent more energy or focus. Do you think that could make a difference?

When I think about transformation, sometimes it seems so daunting. I automatically think it has to be some huge change to make the effort worthwhile. I think that if I do the right things, with enough effort, I can turn "always unhappy" into "always happy." Or turn from primitive ape into enlightened sage. Most of the time it doesn't seem to happen like that.

But it doesn't have to, either.

Ten percent may feel like just a little bit, but if the world was just ten percent better, I'm convinced it would be almost unrecognizable.

The truth is that any of us can remake the entire world into one that has more joy, peace and love. When I am in a cranky place, I can't believe how grumpy and vindictive everyone is. But if I'm acting from my heart, the whole world is in love. It's through our own efforts that this happens. I can't tell you how many years I waited for the difficult people in my life to change. And yet when I began to change, I see it's not them, it's just my thoughts about them that are the problem.

They're trying their best, just like me. Even a glimpse of that is transformational. And worth every effort we put into it.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Just Busy

I've got a lot going on this week. I'm busy. I find my first inclination is to blame people when that happens. Maybe someone is late on something owed to me, or someone misunderstood something I said.

It turns into stress pretty quickly. And I find I'm quite good at questioning others' competence or motives, deflecting blame, getting defensive, and a host of other time-honored and not very honorable strategies.

But being busy doesn't mean that something is wrong.

And I generally find a way to get everything done that really needs to get done.

I find I'm more productive if I take breaks rather than push through. And more pleasant to be around, too. Today, I even got to the end of a major deliverable and took a 20 minute nap before moving on to the next one. I know I had some insights that I would not have had if I had pushed through, caffeinated, and worked without taking some time to breathe.

It's OK to be busy. Sometimes, it's just what's happening.

And when busy happens, we do our best and move on.


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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Seeing Through the Dream

For a long time, not only did I not think about what I wanted, it didn't even occur to me to think about what I wanted.

Sure, I might want a gadget here and there. A new toy or a set of golf clubs. But the more fundamental questions, like where do I want to live, what do I want to do, were always driven by things that I perceived were outside of me.

Like my parents' expectations, or the pressure of other people. I was smart and successful in school. What do smart successful people do? They go to more school. They become lawyers. They go to big cites. They buy big houses in the suburbs. Their kids go to private schools. Maybe they add on a summer home and exotic vacations. They live the upper middle class version of the American dream.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, except for the fact that, for me, it was ultimately unsatisfying. There are a lot of people who figure out the emptiness of the path of achievement a lot earlier than I did. There are a lot of people who figure out that stuff doesn't make you happy (and even imprisons you) a lot sooner than I did.

But my repeated mistakes gave me the advantage of learning those lessons very, very thoroughly.

You want to know why the big house isn't satisfying? I can tell you, because I have one.

You want to know why striving for and getting the partnership in the big consulting firm is unsatisfying? I can tell you about that, too.

I can tell you about the insecurity of a life based on status rather than connection. I can tell you a lot about what not to do. But unless you've seen it yourself, you're probably not going to listen. I know I didn't. I kept thinking that fulfillment would come with the next thing, and failing to see what I had right in front of me.

I used to think that people who talked about that path not being satisfying were just people who couldn't hack it. Now I know better. I could hack it. I did hack it. For a lot of years. Until I saw that, for me, it wasn't bringing satisfaction.

But the difference now is I see I don't need to get satisfaction from my job, or in my stuff. I can find fulfillment right here, no matter what is happening. I don't always see that. I don't always remember. But more and more, I see that the only source of frustration, and the only thing between me and happiness, is my own thoughts.

In many ways, I am still doing the same things and living the same life that I always have. But at the same time it couldn't be more different.


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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lessons from the 28 Day Challenge

I've meditated almost every day in some form for a lot of years, but my wife Jen, while a devoted yoga teacher and practitioner and sometime meditator, has been wanting to develop a daily practice.

We resolved to sit together for 10 minutes as part of the 28 day challenge. Most days we did. As we got further into the challenge, we got more consistent. And now we really enjoy it.

But the interesting thing is that the biggest beneficiary of our sitting together may not be either one of us. Instead, it might be our 12-year old, Caelan.

Before we began sitting, Caelan's energy was always very high coming into bedtime. He was always asking for more time for a snack or to do something that absolutely had to happen right then. (Like the time he needed thirty minutes to cut his toenails because they were distracting him.)

Jen strategically decided that we would sit at 9:20 each night. Caelan goes to bed at 9:30, and could use the time to get ready. The first few nights naturally brought some resistance. He wanted our attention, particularly Jen's.

We had to explain a few times what we were doing and why. And he began to get it. Interestingly, he often finishes brushing his teeth early and sits quietly with us. Not on a cushion, and sometimes looking at a book, but he likes the energy. He likes being quiet and then going to bed feeling more settled.

And he's started falling asleep faster, too.

Is every night perfect? Absolutely not. Some nights sitting is a challenge for all of us. But it's so much better in just the four weeks since we started.

Fourteen of you officially "declared" that you were taking the challenge. I'm not sure how many others might have at least tried to sit here and there. I'm interested if there were any surprises? Any benefits that you might not have anticipated going in?

For those of you who didn't start, or weren't as consistent as you would like, here are some final words of advice from Sharon Salzberg.

"The most important thing is just to do it. The everydayness is more important than every session being lengthy. And remember that every session will be different. You haven't fallen down, you haven't failed because you were less concentrated today than yesterday."

"You can always go back to five minutes. You can always begin again."

Thanks in advance for sharing here or on Facebook.


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Monday, June 13, 2011

Dog Days

It's been close to a hundred degrees here in the DC area for the last few days. And it's not even summer yet.

It can be tempting to think that nothing should change when it gets this hot. But I know that even with air conditioning, I don't sleep as well. When I get to the office, it takes a few minutes to air out. Lunch tends to be shorter, closer, less healthy. Going home, the people on the train are damp and cranky.

This is how it is when it's hot.

So cut yourself a break. Slow down. Push yourself a little less. Recharge. I feel a bit guilty when I do that, but I also find I feel better.

Respect your energy cycles and in the long run, you'll get more done. It will cool down again. You can work more then.


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Friday, June 10, 2011

And Then What?

We double sales.

And then what?

We roll out our new products.

And then what?

We bill more hours.

And then what?

Everything we do, everything in the plan, seems to be about doing more, making more.

Is that satisfying? It might get us our paychecks. It might get us some nice stock options or a healthy bonus.

But is it satisfying? Is the stuff that the money buys satisfying? Is pushing ourselves to our absolute limits, slowly killing ourselves with stress, to squeeze out another five percent, then another two percent, then another half a percent satisfying?

What about the people we meet? What about the problems we solve, the insights we have, the joy of creation?

Where are those things in the plan?


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Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Opportunities in Toxic Work Environments

As the economy has continued to sputter, many of us have seen a decline in the quality of our work life. Maybe the company hasn't been doing well, or there have been layoffs or restructurings. Maybe all of those things are happening, or there's just a sense of our employer losing its mojo, the swagger and confidence it once had.

On the one hand, we're struggling with these changes. On the other, we feel lucky to have a job, and might feel powerless to challenge what clearly have become difficulties. When that happens, the uncertainty of the future, and our own apparent lack of control, hits us harder than usual. This is an opportunity.

When we're uncertain, we can become afraid, tentative. We can treat people differently that we usually do. We can retreat into a shell, hoping to get some kind of protection. Fear can lead us toward all sorts of nasty things that we think are helping, but are actually having the opposite effect.

It can be helpful to notice our own reactions in these times. Are we feeling like running away? Are we snippy and defensive? Do we feel helpless? What other things show up for us?

Here are four things to do more of when times are difficult at work.

1. Stop. Take a breath. The purpose of this is not to stop working or to escape. Instead, it's to interrupt the pattern that we're frustrated with, whether that's anger or escape. Every time we catch ourselves is a victory. And even if we miss one or two (and we will), we're no worse off than we were before.

2. Look. Take a close look at what is happening in that moment. It's easy to say an entire environment is toxic, but is it really that? Or is it one or two people, or one or two situations, that cause problems for you?

3. Listen. What are your thoughts about the situation? What stories are you telling yourself? Are they true? If you hear as story that "this company's going down the toilet," for example, is that really true? If you're thinking "I can't lose my job, I'll starve," can you see that's probably not true? Whatever your thoughts, what are the two or three facts that are leading you to think that? Are there different interpretations of those facts? Are there other facts that might suggest a different conclusion?

4. Choose. Given what you're observing, both about yourself and the situation, what's the best response? It may not be what you have instinctively done in the past. You may not be able to choose your thoughts, but with some effort, you can decide to respond to them differently.

Maybe you could apologize to a person for being cranky or stressed with her. Maybe you can notice that  another person seems to be struggling. "You seem to be frustrated right now," can open up an opportunity to deal with some of the feelings that arise.

It may be difficult to do this at first. But stepping into a position of vulnerability can create a sense of profound connection with the other person. And we can discover that while we may have different interpretations of what's happening, we're not in opposition.

Certainly, one way of thinking about a toxic work environment is as a burden to be overcome. But another, maybe just as powerful, is to see it as an opportunity for practice.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences.


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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Stressed for Success

Our society seems to think that the way that we succeed is to work all the time. We press the accelerator to the floor so that we can get to our destination faster and faster.

And then we break down.

Even the best sports car needs gas, oil, and maintenance. We need to take the time to fuel up, to sleep, to step away from what we are doing to get another perspective.

We want to think that with the right combination of sugar, caffeine, and other chemicals, we can go 24/7, or close to it. But the more we push, the more likely we end up ineffective at best, exhausted and sick at worst.

What we need is rest. What we need is play. What we need is to use our natural reset button.

It's only in finding the right combination of effort and recovery that we maximize our chances for success.


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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Better than Perfect

I want you to think of me in a certain way. And I'm betting that if we met, you'd want me to think of you in a particular way, too. (You might even think that as you're writing a comment or asking a question.)

I have an image of myself, some things that I want to believe are true. I want you to believe them, too. That I'm smart and warm and friendly. That I care deeply about your happiness. That I'm happy all the time.

I think that's what you expect from me. So that becomes what I expect of myself. And I have no idea why.

Because I'm not that person, I'm always afraid that I will be found out. That someone will figure out I'm not that perfectly projected persona. So I think you want me to be something that I'm not, try to pretend that I am, and then worry that you'll figure it out.

Why is that? I know I'm not perfect all the time. I'm pretty sure that's true of most other people, too. I can get tired, cranky, defensive, and ineffective. If I try to be what I think someone else wants, I end up not liking myself very much, and then not liking them much, either.

But whenever I just let myself be what I am, and do what I do, regardless of what I think other people think, everything seems to work out a lot better. Amazingly, people seem to like the real me more than the me that I try to make up for their benefit.

Turns out the mask I put on, the one that is trying to protect me from all the bad stuff out there, ends up also keeping a lot of good stuff in here. And when the mask comes off, as scary as that is, what emerges is so much better that the stuff I was trying to make up.


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Monday, June 6, 2011

The Challenge: Week Four

For the last week of our meditation challenge with teacher Sharon Salzberg, the focus is on lovingkindness.

For most people, this is a little different focus. It may also be a term that's new.

Lovingkindness is simply cultivating feelings of love and compassion while in meditation. First, we do this for ourselves, and then we do it for other people.

"Sometimes, I describe concentration as steadying our attention, and mindfulness as refining our attention, in that some of the things that normally clutter up or distort our attention get cleared away," Sharon says. "Lovingkindness I often describe as opening our attention or playing with our attention in that it is an experiment in paying attention in a different way."

There are a couple ways of doing this.

"If you have a tendency to look at yourself at the end of the day as though to say 'how did I do today?' you might remember only the stupid thing you said at lunch at the meeting. So much so that your sense of self collapses around the stupid thing you did."

"The practice of lovingkindness is to say 'did anything else happen? Anything good?' The bad is not all we are, ever."

We're looking at ourselves in a different, more compassionate way. "We're challenging that collapse, that identification with only what is wrong with us."

We can do lovingkindness with other people, too, and the book has a lot of ideas around this.

"An example might be all the people we disregard, looking through other people who don't count, not in prejudice or bias, but through indifference. We ask ourselves what happens when we really pay attention to this person, when we really look at them, when we really listen instead of ignoring them. The practice of lovingkindness is doing this with ourselves and with other people."

I'm new to this practice, but have found it incredibly powerful. It has helped me see myself and other people in a more loving, generous way. I hope it is the same for you, and that you have enjoyed this meditation journey and will continue it.

Please feel free to comment here or on the Facebook page about your experiences.


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Friday, June 3, 2011

Firm Ground

There are a few things I know.

I know that when I truly look at my experience, when I examine it closely, when I peer into the silence that occasionally arises, I see nothing. A vast, all encompassing nothing.

I know there's nothing I know. That there is nothing, seemingly, that I even can know. (Nothing that can be put into words, anyway.)

I know I want to know, and I want to believe that someone somewhere knows.

So when someone or something claims to know, I'm very tempted to believe.

These knowers go by many names. Politicians and political parties, religions and preachers and theologians, commentators and philosophers and ethicists. CEOs, even. Parents. Friends.

All trying to come up with an explanation, or rules of the road that apply to them and everyone else. For those of us who are not so gifted. And often these knowers judge those who don't know, or who think differently.

Some claim to know what we should do. What is right and wrong. What the future holds.

And I really want to believe them. I really want to believe that someone knows.

I've met plenty of people I wanted to believe, and some who I did believe. And they didn't know.

None of them knew. Sometimes it took me awhile to figure this out, but it always happened eventually, And the ones who seemed to be most confident, most articulate, most capable turned out to be the ones who were least likely to have a clue.

I want firm ground. And there is none to stand on.

At first that was terrifying. Because that means I'm in charge (and so are you). That means I have total freedom (and so do you). No rules. No expectations. No limitations. No failure, and no success. Just experience.

Just this.


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Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Flip of a Coin

One of my favorite coaches, Michael Neill, sometimes advises people to flip a coin when they are having trouble making a difficult decision.

Why? Is he really leaving what could be a major life choice up to chance?

Not at all. Try it. See how you feel when the coin lands. What I find is that I end up rooting for head or tails, or I'm excited or disappointed when the coin lands.

When this happens, I know what I really want. Not what I think I should want. And then I can do that.

And you can too.


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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Conversation with Teacher Scott Kiloby

Recently, I got a chance to spend an hour with teacher Scott Kiloby. The recording can be found here, and Scott's introduction at his Kilologues page here.

Scott is one of my favorite teachers. He points people to what he calls, among other things, "freedom." The simple space of just being. Who we are without our stories and concepts.

Scott and I met late last winter when he visited the DC area. Until recently, he was a practicing attorney in Indiana. Our conversation is wide ranging, about the corporation as a structure that, like any, can be seen through, about how noticing freedom can ease our struggles at work, and about Scott's own story, which was, in his words, an addiction to feeling special.

I hope you enjoy.


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