Mind the morsel: food, mindfulness and death.

(Reading time 8 minutes)

The repeated dry thud of the hammer striking the wooden block announces the meal time. The monks seat themselves upon their platforms, facing their bowls which are carefully wrapped in cloth. In a precise choreography of movements, they untie the knot, lift out the utensils and napkins, then the bowls, and calmly place these in front of them. The cloth is carefully folded and placed next to them. Then they wait in meditative silence. One by one, monks assigned to cooking duties move by them pouring and placing foods into the bowls, them move onto the next seated monk, raising a trail of fragrances and steam. A bell rings, and the monks begin a ritualised engagement with the food, inviting  all their senses to participate. They smell , the look, they savour. Sometimes all food is served at once, sometimes many different dishes are served after one another. When the last morsel has been eaten, the monks clean their bowls with a napkin and hot water, and then arrange all items on the wrapping, and tie up the knot. They lift the bundle up again and return it to their respective storage compartment.

During all this time not a single word is spoken. The meal was entirely made from donated/gifted ingredients, and food grown on the temple grounds by the monks. This is meal-time at a zen monastery.

elsewhere, Mindless Morsels.

Food is socializing.
Food is pleasure.
Food is communion.
Food is nourishment.
Food is social status.
Food is medicine.
Food is control.
Food is religious.
Food is priceless.

More often than not however, for most people in what is often referred to as the deloped world, food just happens.

It happens in between loud conversations both friendly and hostile. It is rushed in mouthfuls in between words in a meeting, or while getting children ready for school. It is consumed voraciously and washed down with drinks on a Friday evening. It is snacked obliviously while the eyes are entranced by the intense drama unfolding on a screen. It is mechanically ingested while your team forges ahead to score that decisive goal, the entertainment demanding our fullest attention. It is taken discretely in scoops and handfuls from the buffet for fear of missing out. It is piled down round after round in reply to a persistent craving. Thirst and hunger, fatigue, fragrances and aromas, the rustling of someone else’s sandwich bag, and virtually anywhere you look there is something that reminds us about food.

But can you actually remember subtle nuances of fragrance and flavour, aroma, even temperature of your last cup of coffee? Or what particular flavours and aromas were present this morning in your breakfast, or last night’s dinner?. That is, without checking Instagram to remind yourself what you ate.

Besides a general and obvious description, don’t be surprised if you struggle. You are not alone.

With the technological advancements of food production and distribution we have massively improved access to food and disperesd regional variety of ingredients across the globe, while on a local scale we have lost  over 80% of our agricultural diversity including many native and indigenous food stocks, and with that we have also lost the knowledge about their cultivation and preparation.

As a byproduct of this convenience we have also lost our ability to comprehend the true significance of every morsel of food that we place in our mouths. And we paying for it dearly. Modern food production (both plant and animal based foods) make up over a third of all green-house-gas emissions, and the scale of soil degradation, and land and ecosystem destruction is threatening its very production. We also have a grave (and growing) health epidemic that is firmly founded on how and what we eat.

Mindful Eating.

While the deeply considered and ritualized meals of a zen monk are perhaps an extreme manifestation that is neither practical nor necessary for most, it provides a useful framework towards grasping the true meaning of food.

The general perception of mindfulness is often misunderstoood as a passive thing, implying non-action. Mindfulness is not an action, it is a way to act. It is not constrained by what the activity is. It may be as fundamental and simple as simple breathing, or as laborious and physical as sowing crops.

And if we take this idea toward its most extreme application, it is also possible to kill mindfully.

The first of the ten grave precepts of Buddhism (and parallel principles exist in nearly every other faith or philosophical framework) proposes that we should endeavor to avoid or abstain from killing any other living being. Yet while the natural order may appear in direct conflict with this principle, it is actually a profoundly important – and evolutionarily essential – foundation to the propagation of life. The conflict is not in between nature and this foundational philosophical value, but in our understanding and our western relationship with life and death. Virtually every religious and spiritual teaching has undergone millennia of repeated translations and cultural shifts, and the languages and the concepts embodied within specific words can today only be assumed from what we know about their cultural context.

The teh common and underling fundamental premise is less about killing than it is about preserving and protecting life.

Vegan eating has long been associated and represented by many religions as the embodiment of this idea of not killing. While on the surface it may appear like a credible argument, the simple fact is that all complex living organisms exclusively rely on other living organisms for sustenance, either plant or animal. Besides certain bacteria, every living organism needs to eat other living-origin matter to stay alive. Humans are no exception. In order to eat the leaf of a cabbage we must dismember it, – remove it from its life-support system- to take advantage of its medicinal and nutritional potency. Even the most staunch vegetarian is inflicting death upon a living organism with every mouthful.

We can not survive without consuming – and thereby transforming – another living organism or a part of it into nutrients that we ourselves need to live. There seemingly is simply no way to escape the life-and-death duality. We either kill in order to eat and maintain ourselves alive, or we abstain from killing, and die of hunger, thus intentionally bringing about our own death.

Life and death.

Linguistically, we define death as the opposite of life.  Other definitions include the absence of conscious self-awareness, or even absence of self-regulating biological processes. We have no difficulty in recognising life and death, even a child has an intuitive understanding of these modes of existence. And while science accurately predict and define the presence of life  through specific measures and observable processes, a comprehensive definition of what it is remains elusive.

The concept becomes even more intimidating if we take the definition beyond the individual organism. Think ant vs ant colony.

If we consider life as a function that is not intrinsically tied to single individual organisms, but that the organism is part of a larger living system, the the “transfer” of life-supporting matter for one organism to another acquires a whole new level of meaning: we are now ensuring that life is sustained, that such matter (i.e. the nutrients) are being utilised to nourish, heal and sustain another living organism. Life and death are evolutionary pre-requisites, and at this level, both have essential life-preserving purposes. In the concept of killing is no longer true in the strictest sense of the word, eating and all activities invested in the harvesting of food -be it animal or plant origin- becomes an act of transfer of life, of transformation. And transformation underpins all forms of existence.

Let us return again to the very ritualized meal of a Zen monk.

Before the food is eaten, it, and its origins, are acknowledged.
This simple recognition places a whole new level of understanding upon what is served to us (or what we may have prepared ourselves for others) It raises our consciousness towards deep respect to what it is we are eating. We embody and feel gratitude towards the source of the food itself. This is no longer just consuming, it is mindfully recognizing and cherishing the life that transformed will become a part of ourselves.

It rises our conciseness towards the healing and nourishing power of the dish. It is also useful in bringing to our attention when such food may be unhealthy, reducing our wellness, robbing us of vitality, or simply being sourced from a nearly endless chain of processing that leaves little or no trace of its true origin.

Then we see the dish, we contemplate it. We rise our conciseness yet again to the presentation. The colors, the size and form of the ingredients. Our attention now centers our respect on the cook, of the offering itself, and the effort made by either ourselves or so someone else in bringing that regenerating nourishment and healing to us. We recognize the offering as a a gesture of generosity, and we can delight in the craftsmanship and be thankful for it.

Then we allow ourselves to inhale the aromas. As before, our conscious appreciation continues to be elevated – and yet we have not had a single mouthful of it! It is impossible at this point not to sense a profound reverence and gratitude for what we are about to eat. Our show of such respect is to do justice to the offering, by devoting our full attention to the meal, taking the time to appreciate and recognize the subtle and the bold flavours, the fragrances and the textures that constitue our meal.

Most good foods are full of lush and complex favors. From a simple piece of apple to a mouthful of plain steamed rice, all have layers of delight that are only revealed to us whe we allow ourselves to be fully present, to mindfully eat. And while it is not necessary to eat austere and minimalistic dishes, doing so from time to time will only help you have an even more fulfilling experience when you eat a complex dish.

All along this process our awareness to how this food makes us feel naturally also increases, resulting in a very clear sense of when we have had enough to eat. It is impossible to over-eat when we are eating mindfully, even if our plate is stashed high. A well known Japanese saying sums this up: “Hara Hachi Bu” or “eat until you are eight parts (or eighty percent) full”. Only when you are fully aware and present while eating is it possible to sense when’s our have eaten just enough.

I invite you to apply this level of attention to your next meal, regardless of where or what it is. Leave your desk if you can. Stop and sit down, somewhere you can calmly eat. Away from screens, magazines, book and mobile devices, including your mobile phone.

One by one invite every one of your senses to participate and share the meal with you. Even the simplest food will appear sublime, extraordinary. It is not something that anyone can describe for you, as that can not easily be put into words. I can only encourage you to practice it, and feel it. A deep sense of fulfillment from a meal is only possible when we have appreciated in full all its qualities, experienced the flavours and aromas, and reached the point where we have eaten enough to feel contented and satisfied, but not so much that later on our satisfaction is diminished by a feeling of bloated fullness.

This is a simple practice that when cultivated will change your life.

Receive your meal with genuine gratitude, and consume it with respect and your full attention, embodying such gratitude, honouring all the life that now becomes part of you. Not only will your enjoyment of food increase, but your will naturally be drawn to the pleasure of wholesome foods. And just imagine what powerful effect this will have on your overall health, your stamina, your mental clarity and ultimately your life-expectancy. Teach this to your fiends, your spouse, your children no matter what their age, perhaps even teach it to your parents.

Over-consumption and mindless eating are becoming a tragic generation-defining habit, augmented by the disastrous  medical and the social ailments that these foster. Meals are consumed from disposable containers while reading social media feeds. The food itself has become secondary – a nearly forgotten mechanic activity, devoid of purpose, and devoid of the profound delight and communion that is inherently and naturally part of it. While there is a trend emerging in reclaiming our knowledge of not just preparing foods, but also understanding and mastering its production, for most people simply giving each meal the attention it deserves is all that is needed.

Food, besides your breath, it is the only other substance that ever becomes a part of you.

What is beyond Humility?

(Reading time 1 minute)

Humility.

Every major religion promotes it as one of the highest virtues.
In executive-land it is deemed a highly desirable attribute of a great leader.
It is symbolic of sanctity, something that even a intensely materialistic person somehow aspires to master.

But what if it was not actually true? What if humility was in fact a symptom of an inflated ego?

One of the great rewards of coaching is that one continues a journey of learning that can digress into some unexpected and amazing “places”. I am privileged to coach some extraordinarily aware people, and recently this very question emerged.

Ultimately, all virtues are manifestations of the ego.

They are manifestation of the ego, because they are polar opposites of a less desirable trait. Humility is no more than the opposite to vanity and arrogance.

The act of recognising a virtue engages the ego. This very recognition is inevitably a public gesture of receiving veneration, of receiving admiration., perhaps even being an object of worship. This is not inherently a bad thing. Let’s face it, a person who considers humility a worthy trait is almost certainly likely to behave with compassion, respect and a sense of contribution towards others. But along our journey of spiritual development, it is necessary to also acknowledge that humility is only a step on the path to a higher fulfillment, and one that still demands of us to divide, to categorise, to judge. It is a virtue that is only possible within a dualistic mind.

How do we get past this?

The finger points squarely at the essence of mindfulness, at the essence of Zen: Be.

To simply allow oneself to be as one is implies full respect for oneself, a full unconditional self-acceptance, devoid of judgment. It is embodying fearlessness and true detatchment. It is a pure manifestation of love and of gratitude, neither directed at ourselves, nor away, but in all directions equally. The next higher state of being is simply this: to do what is necessary because it is necessary, not because it is good. It does not mean doing away with discernment, but does away with the need to be rewarded and recognised for what we do. It is being able to delight in the consequences of our actions not because they are our actions, but because they have brought joy to someone. And when gratitude is expressed in return, to be fully able to receive it without a sense of guilt, unworthiness or pride.

I am not sure that we have a word for this. But seek to practice this anyway…

10 Awesomely Simple Brain-Hacks That Will Give You An Unfair Advantage. Really!

(Reading time 5 minutes)

While people like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Elon Musk and a group of other visionaries are developing AI (artificial Intelligence) to extraordinary levels, most of us fail to materialise even the basic capabilities that we are already endowed with. We are not applying the latest science to our education ad self development, and missing out on some serious goodness, both in terms of our own capacity to do amazing stuff, as well as the intensity and quality of our experience of life.

Fortunately, most of it is actually surprisingly simple. You don’t have to go to the extremes that Tim Ferris has experimented on himself in order to get more mileage out of what you do. And it is not about efficiency, productivity, paleo-diets or fitbit apps. Instead change a few simple things in your daily routine.

1. First of all, get smart about learning.
Before anything meaningful can improve you need to improve your ability to learn – and retain information. And since our information comes primarily from written and spoken sources, reading speeds and listening are essential.
Learning hack # 1: Do this simple 10 minute exercise 3 or 4 times over the same number of weeks and you will see your reading speed increase from 250 words per minute to 600 and higher (we know that comprehension begins to fall apart at about 900 words). If you double or triple your reading speed – will that have an impact on your life? I am assuming that you are not just reading pulp fiction but meaningful stuff that will refine and develop you.
Learning Hack # 2: Listen to podcasts at 1.5 speed. Again this does not affect comprehension – although it may take a little getting used to listening to what sounds like over-caffeinated speakers on helium, you will be able to either listen to a podcast repeatedly (and increase retention) or simply be able to listen to more of them. 1.5 times is .5 more than what other listeners are getting through.
Learning Hack #3: Do all your learning activities within 2 hours of going to sleep. In 2009 a study at Berkley University conclusively established the relationship between learning and sleep. Motor skills and cognitive skills are processed separately in different stages of sleep, but in any case, having a decent sleep after studying or practicing a physical skill will help you get better at it faster. If you want the condensed version watch this interview with author Josh Kaufman.

The reading exercise alone will be enough to get you fired up about consuming books, so start with stuff you always wanted to read but never have time for, or finish that book that has been collecting dust for the last six months on your bedside table. If you are studying this will change your life, and your results.

Before we move onto items 2 and beyond, the first question will possibly be “What should I learn/read/practice?”

I suggest keep it simple. Don’t try to over-reach, pick one thing that you always wanted to learn or get better at, and commit to that one thing for a couple of months, longer if necessary. Why? Because the most difficult thing will not be the learning part, but developing enough discipline to do it regularly. Your practice needs to become habitual. If you don’t get to that then most things will not get past the attempt.

Besides learning to learn, here are a few more proven brain-enhancing hacks.

2. Add a musical instrument to your learning palette. Music is by far the greatest brain-enhancing activity. It improves all sorts of things from spatial awareness to self-awareness, from the the ability to stay calm to becoming better at maths, puzzles and geometry. Above all, you will suddenly comprehend jokes and the universe in a way that can only understood by other musicians.
3. Reduce your screen time to the absolute minimum necessary, and have one, two or even 3 screen free days every week. Seriously, I dare you. If the world ends on day 3 we’ll all know, otherwise let us all know how you did via the comments below. Screens are the antithesis to a brain-hack (with the exception of your kindle and reading important posts like this one)
4. Meditate daily. Start with 10 minute breathing exercises, and if you really want to alter your brain physically (all good ones) then work towards 20 minutes or longer in a single session every day. There is that famous Zen poverb: “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”
5. Put your to-do list in your diary. To-do’s take time, so if you are not scheduling some time for it, it is unlikely to ever happen! Besides you will learn really quickly to prioritise when you begin to run out of time-slots in your agenda. I could go on here about the power of saying no, but that’s best left for another post.
6. Write important stuff by hand. It has been verified over and over again that writing stuff by hand goes into your brain and stays there, in other words handwriting has a much higher rate of retention than typing. It is probably no big deal that the appointment you typed into Sunrise Calendar on your iPhone is forgotten until the reminder pops up, but it matters when you are taking notes at a meeting. Having important information stored in your brain will ensure that you solve complex problems more effectively. And don’t worry – it is extremely unlikely that you will ever get a notification from your brain saying “Brain full. Would you like to archive old files now?”
7. Dictate to your devices instead of typing. Not really a brain hack, but yeah, why not use technology to your advantage. Typing is slow, speaking and listening back will actually help with retention when your favourite notebook and pencil are not at hand. Besides, its the way of the future (for now). Most devices now do a pretty good job at this, and many of them learn to recognise your way of speaking. Spooky, but very very cool.
8. Get/keep fit with a 10 or 15-minute daily regime. No excuses here, there is a plethora of decent programs out there, find one and refine it as you get a routine going. The simple fact is that your brain works way better if it is carried around by a fit and healthy body. Slouching in a chair, mouse in hand for 8 -15 hours a day staring at a screen is not just destroying your body, it is also destroying your mind, which brings me to the next point.
9. Take breaks. Your thinking ability begins to decline rapidly after 45 minutes at the same task, and is totally zapped, zero, nil, at around 90 minutes. My personal favourite is the Pomodoro Method, where you work for 25 and take a 5 minute break, meaning 5 minutes of doing something away from the desk that has absolutely nothing to do with what you were doing before. If you can go outside, breathe some fresh green air, stare at the clouds and hear cows and birds in some kind of vegetated space even better. But beware – use a timer for this. Time flies when you are getting stuff done!.
10. Eat and drink well and regularly. Up the leafy greens and veg big time, more whole foods and less processed, ditch the sugars where you can, and don’t be afraid of oils and fats. your brain needs them! And of course keep up the water (or green tea).

That book you always wanted to write? A language you wanted to learn? Whatever it is that you have parked because it is to difficult to learn, you now have no reason not to start. It may not make you rich overnight, but I am certain that it will make you happier.

In closing, if you are a parent teach this stuff to your kids. I hope this helps look at your life and theirs in a different way.

You don’t need to be Lucy on performance enhancing drugs to overclock your brain, most of it is simple science, a little discipline and a lot of fun.

Who is Winning the Battle for Your Mind?

Mindfulness.

Like many others before it, it has become the new buzzword in success circles.
It’s use has progressively surged in the last 5 years, so much in fact that in the last six years it’s Google interest rating has constantly risen from 40 (out of 100) to 92!.
In 2013 it exploded onto the mass media with posts and articles in all major news channels, and celebrities and CEO’s all loudly proclaiming their newly dicovered joy of mindfulness.

Given that the practice of mindfulness has been around for thousands of years (yes that’s not a mistake!), why is it suddenly becoming fashionable? And why should you care?

The first question is answered by two fairly recent changes in our global culture.

One, that more than ever we are seduced into mindlessness, which that is increasingly wreaking havoc with our lives. People are are hurting as a result, and are beginning to notice.
And two, that we have had a greater exposure to this concept through the very same channels that have fostered that mindlessness.
I am talking about our obsession with being “connected” via the web and social media, and our capacity to access information at a whim. We are inadvertently shifting our focus away from what is actually happening around us, while preoccupying ourselves with highly edited and pre-selected information that in reality is of no consequence to our life. We are more disconnected than ever before, and our experience of life is becoming drastically empoverished as a result.

And now, why should You care?

This will take more time to answer, and over the next three weeks I will address each of the following topics in detail, each building on the one before. These are:
  • What mindfulness IS, and what it IS NOT: how to spot a fake.
  • What actually happens in the mindful brain – and why it matters more than you think!
  • How to win the battle for mindfulness: simple practices that will make your every day more awesome.
My goal with these is not to transform you into a remote cave-dwelling enlightend nun or monk in perpetual meditation, but to help you experience a refreshed and deeply satisfying engagement in your life that you have most likely not felt for a long time, or in most cases never before.
Enjoy, and please share if you found this valuable. I look forward to some great conversations in four weeks…
Have a wonderful day.

Five things that will spoil your recipe for success (and a happy life)

There are about as many definitions of success as there are recipes for Bolognaise Sauce. Everyone has one, and everyone believes theirs is the original one.

But regardless of what your Bolognaise Sauce of Success recipe tastes like, there are some fundamentals that – if ignored, will sabotage the dish. Like the pasta recipe, I have no doubt that there are a thousand more, but here are my top 5, all equally important.

  • Never ever bite back. It does not matter what people do to you – it only ever matters what you do. Retaliation and revenge do not make a better world, the instant that you engage in it you create for someone else the same terrible experience that you just have had. It propagates. You want to make everyone’s experience of you a good one. You can never reverse what has happened, but you can do your part ot ensure noone else ever has to experience that from you. You will not instantly become wealthy, (in time you may!) but it will definitely make you more attractive. Compassion has a radiance that is unmatched by anything else.
  • Never take more than you give. Ok – wait a minute – isn’t that back to front? No it is not. I am not suggesting that you live above your means. I am suggesting that you should not haggle about opportunities to help others. When you offer a service give more value than what people pay you for. Genuine and meaningful value, not token stuff. Share your knowledge freely. Let’s face it – most people will have forgotten your grand idea the moment they leave the conversation. But they will walk away with trust and perhaps also inspiration. Always, always, always give more than you get.
  • Never forget to stop talking. Regardless what you have to say, it ceases to be interesting to others the instant that they can no longer contribute and share their thoughts. Besides, you learn only when you are listening. Shut up. Listen deeply – be open to learning. There are no exceptions. It took me a long time to learn and master this!
  • Never pretend to be who you are not. The real meaning of “Fake it till you make it” is not that you pretend to be someone else, but that you embody the successful version of yourself. You are unique. Become acquainted with your uniqueness, get comfortable with it, wear yourself with authenticity and  pride. Being genuine means being truthful (neither deprecating nor arrogant) to yourself, about yourself. Authenticity increases your self-confidence and makes you trustworthy to others.
  • Never berate, undervalue or underestimate yourself. This is a tough one and probably the one I personally have struggled with the most. It means that you know what is great about yourself, and that you never stop improving it. There will be moments – sometimes very long ones – where we doubt ourselves, our capacity, our wisdom, our expertise, so we downgrade. By no means should you cease to be  critical of yourself, but know your benchmark. You will need to look outside of yourself to define it. We all have a yardstick of excellence – if in doubt refer to it. Don’t guess!.-  Value yourself. When you know what you have to offer, you are in your strength, and will continue to be of service as long as you remain humble.

Each of these deserve a post all of their own, and over the coming months I will revisit these in more detail.

If you can think of something that you have experienced that is part of your Bolognaise Sauce of Success recipe, please send me a note – i’d love to hear from you.