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.

Why is it so difficult to embody love?

(Reading time 3 minutes)

I have a great friend whom I often have profoundly esoteric discussions with. Almost every conversation leads to a realisation of some sort, or at the very least leaves an unanswered question that simmers quietly in some obscure side-alley of the mind, until one day it emerges transformed, radiant, ready to shed light upon something else.

While I have always held that love (or some variant of it) is central to human existence, I have also always white-washed it somehow.

Let’s face it, love is not a “manly” term.

I don’t mean to suggest that it something that can not be related to, but rather that its full significance is elusive. I became aware of this after several conversations about the nature of the highest form of spiritual existence, which he always summarised as love, as does most of the literature on this subject. It noticed that this made me uncomfortable somehow, but I could never clearly work out why. It was as if that word was not the right descriptor, and in my mind I always sought to replace it with other words.

I have always been fascinated by the endless mutations of self-image and in particular self-doubt, and have always held this as one of the most fundamental areas where meaningful personal transformation begins. For a very large part of my life it is something that I didn’t even know was a problem, and it quietly left its trail of damage that I could attribute to so many other shortcomings. Once I figured it out, the only thing that changed was that I could attribute the damage to my self-image. The problem did not just go away, instead it revealed its true complexity. And this brings me back to the subject of love.

If you have any kind of trepidation about the word love – whatever your interpretation may be – and you begin to impose conditions and limitations to what and who it may or may not apply, I propose to you that you do not fully love yourself. By that I mean that we have gone beyond just accepting and forgiving whatever it is that needs to be accepted and forgiven about ourselves, and we actually have declared full and unconditional love for ourselves. We have signed that inner contract that formalises our irrefutable like-worthiness, our awesomeness and our flaws. We have vowed to care and nurture ourselves, to commit to doing what we love, enjoy, value and believe in, to put ourselves first. Above all, we have committed to treating ourselves as good and better than what we like others to treat us.

The reason for this is as simple as it is difficult. Before we can love ourselves fully, we have to confront and overcome a rather ominous entourage of demons. We have to address each of them, and defeat each of them. There is no way to your destination until every single one has been defeated, or perhaps the better term would be dissolved. And who are these demons? They are manifestation of our fears, our attachments, our guilts, our opinions, our vanities, the guardians of our comfort zone, and also the agents of suspicion, distrust, self-doubt, frustration and resentment. Sure we can claim that we do not hold a grudge, or that we are not materialistic, but somewhere deep within we know the truth. We are sh!tscared of loosing what we have, from our jobs to our loved ones. We buckle at the thought of forgiving someone we deem unworthy of forgiving. We mask intolerance with proclamations of personal values and principles that we know full-well we do not fully adhere to. We are daunted by social conventions that we neither fully understand nor agree with, and yet we comply. In that state it is hardly surprising that we can not fully love ourselves.

That last paragraph alone may raises the question – why bother?

The answer to this is personal.

Some may not think they should, or at least not at this time. You need to answer this for you only. But know that when we have faced and defeated each of these demons ourselves, the world appears different. Everything changes, in a good way. We can understand stuff. First of all, we can suddenly appreciate fully the severity and difficulty of the battles that others may be fighting, and the circle of what we consider worthy of love expands. We can recognise their journey in ours, and compassion becomes normality. When we finally reach that point where we love ourselves fully, the circle is infinitely large, dissolved, and we become also an infinite source of love. Sounds esoteric, perhaps you may even think it sounds un-manly. Loving yourself may seem difficult, but it is the foundation to truly love someone else. It is the foundation to forgiveness. It is the foundation to compassion. It is the foundation to tolerance. But most perhaps most powerful of all, loving oneself fully removes all fear, all self doubt. That is true freedom.

When we begin to truly love ourselves, we become the real deal, we are authentic and true to ourselves. We believe in the worthiness of our offering and contribution to the world, and are able to engage with that intention without hesitation, without apology. While our life’s circumstances may not start out as we wish for it is inevitable that they eventually become that. We are able to put one step calmly and confidently in front of the other, neither rushed nor hesitant. We may not know our life’s purpose, but we have a deep sence of confidence in our direction.

When I finally reached that point where I sighend that contract with myself, and declared this love fully, I understood, and the word made sense. And everything changed. While nothng around me physically changed, what I was able to see and recognise from thereon changed. Everyone is worthy of love, and no judgement, no opinion, no perception and no value can possibly challenge that.

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.

The nonsense of following your passion exposed!

(Reading time 2 minutes)

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”.

This profound and simple statement by Confucius has been misunderstood. Or perhaps misinterpreted. In any case it has evolved into something meaning “When you find your passion you will find happiness”.

Yet when most people are confronted with making a decision about their passion they freeze. Everything screeches to an uncomfortable and alarmed stop. Cold sweat streams down their backs as fear paralyzes everything from their imagination to their vocal cords. The eyes go vacant and everything goes blurry. Panic sets in.

So then they pay someone to subject them to a plethora of third-eye-opening exercises that after intensive dissection of everything from childhood dreams of space -flight and ponies to James Bond adventures, gold-plated golf clubs and endless fishing, only to confirm their confusion.

What has happened? Why is it that you can’t find your passion? In painfully slow motion, everything unravels as the future of your dreams that seemed so certain a few weeks ago slips away into the fog of confusion, almost certainly for good.

While I think almost anyone who has tried to figure out what to do next in their life as experienced this, few ever ask themselves the right question.

The question is not “What is your true passion, your calling, your purpose in life?”.

The question always must be “Which one of my passions should I invest in at this time in my life?.”

In all my coaching work I have never met a one-passion person. I doubt that such a person even exists. What I have seen however is a great deal of confusion when people try to isolate one, for no other reason that decades of self-help gurus, books and seminars have set an expectation that the focus the focus should be on one, and in doing so removing all legitimacy from all else. Sadly, nothing could be worse. No wonder then that panic sets in, followed by paralysis that often lasts a lifetime. It breaks my heart.

Ever since I was a kid, my inspiration were people like Leonardo DaVinci, Ben Franklin, Buckminster Fuller, Ray Kurzweil, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Rabindranath Tagore. What I didn’t know at the time was that they are all considered Polymaths. I just thought they were cool, they knew stuff about a lot of stuff, and did a lot of cool stuff. They made music, wrote books, invented and discovered things, all in one. It was no one thing, but a wide range of interest that made these people shine.

And this is why I believe that trying to distill a single passion in your life is nonsense.

Your life may have an overarching theme. But that is rarely tangible, and often it is so obscure that many will never really know what it is. And better still, it does not matter.

What matters instead is to acknowledge that you have a rich, very unique and intimately personal palette of passions.

Instead of culling, invite them.

There will be many things that may take weeks and months to emerge, they are often so deeply buried in our psyche because we have had to suppress them for long periods of time, often since childhood. Delight in that richness and variety, it is the fingerprint of your soul. If you need to get practical about them, lay them all out, cluster them and look for those things that are relevant and accessible at this moment in time.

Your palette will change over time. Acknowledge that too. This way your decisions of what cluster you will focus on now, where you will create a project,  business venture or a creative career, will cease to imprison you in a cage of failure and regret, and instead can become a wonderful and fulfilling adventure.

Best of all, if you do fail, you will still have so many other wonderful places where you can start a new adventure…

The Secret to a Fearless and Compassionate Life

(Reading time 3 minutes)

From the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep we are bombarded with reasons to worry.

We worry that the kids will dawdle and we may be late for that important-yet-earlier-that-desirable work meeting.

Worry that we won’t have enough food for our diner guests, or that they may not like coriander.

Worry that the pay will not go in on time to cover that pesky overdue bill in time.

Worry that our wardrobe choice may be an unpleasant mismatch.

Worry that our partner may not love us as much as we like to.

Worry that the annoying ache in our back may be getting worse.

Worry that we cant find our car keys.

Worry that we will not meet that work deadline.

Worry that we haven’t studied enough for that exam.

Worried that we may not secure that next all-important lifeline client.

Worried that the backers will withdraw funding if our venture does not proceed fast enough.

Worry what our colleagues may think of our demeanour, or our last crazy proposition.

Fear gets in the way of nearly everything we do in life. It stops us from picking up telephones, from voicing our views, of unleashing our imagination, of being authentic. Fear of something is without a doubt the reason why your life isn’t quite what you expected. And it is also the thing that will continue to stop you from getting that life.

Nearly all religions declare in some form or other that we should practice detachment, and that it is necessary to attain whatever state of enlightenment, grace or wholeness that one may aspire to.
And for good reason.

Detachment kills fear.

And the irony is, we are inherently fearful of this idea of detachment. There is this sense that it means not caring, it means becoming disengaged and unemotional, it means becoming heartless.

The truth is precisely the opposite.

Not only does detachment kill our fear, it also fills us with gratitude and allows us to fully experience the present moment.

The thing about detachment is that it takes our attention away from what is not yet – and may never eventuate. It means removing the fairy-tale that is continuously forming in our mind, evaluating risks, anticipating wins or losses that may never materialise, or create judgements about what may be be going on in the minds of others. While this may be important and relevant when you are planning something, it gets in the way any other time. And so our attention is inevitably on what is instead of what may -or should- be.

When we allow ourselves to not get attached to the outcome of an activity, we can act with absolute clarity and good judgement.
When we allow ourselves to not be attached to the idea of needing to be loved or even acknowledged by someone, we are able to recognise and accept the love that comes our way with complete gratitude.
When we are not attached to the need for a partner or child, we may cease to fear loosing them, and instead it is possible to completely immerse ourselves in the experience of their company at the present moment. It becomes impossible not to act with complete and selfless compassion and overwhelming respect for them.
When we are not attached to the accolades, promotions or recognition, we can serve our intended purpose without limitations or restrictions (which are almost always self-imposed).

Next time that you sense any kind of anxiety, change the question. Don’t ask what it is that you are worried about, or what you fear.

Look instead for what it is that you are attached to.

Then, when you make the connection, release it. Let it go. Allow it to take its course, give permission. It is a form of respect and complete engagement with what is.

What you may experience can not be described in words. It must be felt. Elan, joy, liberation, grace. But above all, a deeply caring sense of gratitude and calm. Fearlessness. Clarity.

Of course uncovering what you are attached to may not be a simple thing, and may take some time. You may find that there are other hurdles in the way, other attchments. But as you gradually break each of them down, uncover them and cut that rope, you will get better at recognising these attachments. and some may not show up without a guru or teacher. But whatever it is that you need to do, do it.

That is the secret to a fearless and compassionate life.

To Be, and not To Do

(Reading time 2 minutes)

Somewhere in the last century, as manufacturers faced increasing competition, the need to differentiate lead to increasingly preposterous claims and assertions. Slowly language has been misappropriated, words have been misused, and messages have become garbled. The payload – its’ meaning -has been diluted, taken for granted, sometimes contradicted and sometimes outright and violated.

Think about the contents of your refrigerator…

From pasteurised milk and packaged salad mix to frozen vegetable packs and tv-dinners, the word “fresh” is hardly a appropriate descriptor for a product that has undergone some form of industrial process. The fruit juice labeled “squeezed daily”, or the bread “baked daily in grandma’s kitchen” may sound evocative of intangible attribute, but the reality is that a large factory can ill afford idle days.

But it is not just freshness. In the same way that everyday terms have been hijacked by advertising, and in perhaps more sinister way by politicians, some big words need to be brought back to their true essence, because they are about our essence as human beings.

Three of these big words are “respect”, “honesty” and “compassion”. I have always considered these as words that embody an attribute, as adjectives that describe a timeless, immutable quality about a person. It was with some surprise when I recently heard someone use the word “compassion” to describe their actions, in this case inferring that another person had been bestowed with “enough” compassion, and therefore they felt it was appropriate to withdraw any further compassion towards that person.

In a single breath, the word had ceased to define a quality of the giver to instead become the privilege of the receiver.

Two other things also happened in that instant.

First of all I felt dissapointed. Not for the recipient, but sad for the person administering the gesture. In one sentence they had gone from being someone who I believed to be genuinely compassionate, to someone who “did compassion”. Clearly no only did they “do compassion”, they also felt they had the authority to administer compassion – and withdraw it – as they saw fit.

Secondly, their trustworthyness was suddenly compromised – it had become conditional.

In an age when words are being increasingly misused, abused, and misconstrued, sometimes by accident, but more often with the deliberate intention of forcing misleading associations with a deeply significant idea or quality where clearly there was none, it is important that we protect our clarity and understanding of the basics.

Doing something that demands wholehearted acceptance, respect and non-judging openness from time to time at our convenience and branding ourselves respectful does not make us a respectful person. Ask yourself what sort of person are you in the time when you are critical and not respectful of others?

Telling the truth from time to time at our convenience and labeling it honesty does not make us an honest person. Ask yourself, what are you in the time when you are not practicing honesty?

Doing something kind for someone from time to time at our convenience and labeling it compassion does not make us compassionate. Ask yourself, what are you in the time when you are not being compassionate?

An respectful person always respects, regardless of who or what they are dealing with. An honest person will always speak the truth, regardless of who or what they are dealing with. A compassionate person will always be compassionate regardless of who or what they are dealing with. These three qualities are attributes of the giver, not privileges of the recipient.

Don’t do respect, honesty or compassion.

BE respectful. BE honest. BE compassionate.

Embody these, make them a fundamental part of who you are, instead of just doing these as a momentary public gesture that is conditional on you assumption of the worthiness of others.

How the Motivation Candy Epidemic it is making you fat!

(Reading time 3 minutes)
Picture a beautiful sunset, golden clouds reflecting on the ocean. Or waterfall photographed with a wide angle lens through the mist. Or a climber contemplating the view from mountaintop. Or crystal clear waters washing onto a white sandy beach, complete with a near-cloudless blue sky and leaning palm trees.

In bold, or thin, or delightful cursive writing is a famous motivational quote.

 And right now there are a few hundred, if not thousands of these every two or three posts apart on virtually all of your social media feeds!
Let’s face it, we all feel warm and fuzzy and uplifted when we read these.

Or perhaps not?

Motivational quotes are useful. But like most things, they become extremely harmful when consumed in excess.

And right now I believe we have a motivational quote obesity crisis.
As people go on with their every-day life struggles seeking to gain some reprieve, brightening an otherwise dull day with a inspiring quote or two, the gap between the message and the real-life circumstances progressively widens. The quote looses its potency, its message becomes diluted, and its payload is delivered to a mind that is not ready to act. Instead of becoming high-performance fuel, it is a sugary candy that does little more than mess with their spiritual insulin: their self-confidence.
As the gap widens, a person’s ability to believe the quote, to feel its true power and meaning, becomes eroded. Instead, self-doubt increases, and a lengthy downward spiral of questioning their own ability to convert such a simple truth into a result in their life. They increasingly begin to ask themselves what may be wrong with them, as any wins and accomplishments if any, have been modest. Victories, accomplishments and success becomes something reserved for others better than them. And so the cycle repeats and they sink a little lower.
So what is missing? What is needed to turn that quote from sugary candy to a green-energy smoothie?
I believe that two things are needed.

The first one is a motive. The second is validation.

Most life and success coaching is based on the assumption that these are already known, but in my experience this is precisely the part that keeps people from beginning, let alone achieving. Finding your motive is not easy. Having it validated by peers who are equally unsuccessful is even more difficult. This is affects not just low achievers or high achievers only, in fact great for high achievers the frustration and pain of un-fulfilling and misplaced success is all too common. In fact with that great success also comes a profound and often inescapable dependence on that very thing that has been a success. A change at that level often demands an extraordinary price.
Knowing your life’s purpose is made extraordinarily difficult in our society as the expectation to follow and comply with a social framework is embedded in our thinking from an early age. While those frameworks themselves do not necessarily restrict us from following our passion, the demands of time and energy that tend to envelop us generally overwhelm us, and result in our passion being put in the too hard basket, and eventually promoted to the impossible basket. The tragic consequence of this is that most people end up dis-associating from their real passions, until it becomes a deep sad ache, a frustrated and sorrowful festering memory of a parallel universe that they believe they were never meant to be in.

Before you can be motivated, you must know you true burning deeper purpose. And you must believe it is an absolutely worthy pursuit.

If you have been able to figure it out on your own, you are in an extremely rare minority.
If this still eludes you, know first of all that you are normal! Next, have the courage to ask for help. Most never will, and that act alone sentences them to a life of disappointment, mostly in themselves. No amount of motivational quotes will ever fix that. The motivational quote becomes the sugary candy that only fattens their self-doubt.
You will need to invest time and effort, and possibly even money to get help in discovering your big motive. You may need to get uncomfortable and surround yourself with people who will validate rather than weaken your true vision. Be mindful here that I am not referring to people who have a vested interest in your success in a venture that is not your “own”, but instead the people who will selflessly instill faith, credibility and confidence in you and your aspirations when they have nothing to gain from your success.
As you real motivation takes form, know that almost certainly you will get it completely wrong, several times. You will have false starts. You will make mistakes and it will take some fine-tuning. And once you get going with it, you will face hurdles. Only this time your mind is ready to act, the mix of ingredients is right, and those motivational quotes will truly be your green-energy smoothie.

This time they will all makes sense, and infuse you with strength, belief and confidence, because you know where you are going, and why.

Mindfulness is hip! How science, social media and the GFC triggered the mindful leadership revolution.

(Reading time 5 minutes)

Mindfulness is hip!

Mindfulness is trending in all channels of social media. In 2014 mindfulness was the new buzzword among celebrities from Katy Perry to Sir Richard Branson, from Will Smith’s kids to media magnate Arianna Huffington. And by all signs that was just the beginning. 2015 is the year that will see mindfulness practice become embedded as a fundamental leadership trait in the boardrooms of the early adopters.

So why has this esoteric practice formerly reserved to monastic lifestyles suddenly entered our collective consciousness and infiltrated the hard and serious world of big business?

Enter science, Social Media and the GFC.

While for centuries meditation was exclusively the domain of spiritual practice, often in faraway temples atop misty mountains, and of purple-crystal-worshipping-new-age-hippies, it was not until the last decade that medical imaging technology, in particular MRI’s, has made it possible to study meditation in a controlled scientific context. While the likes of Jon-Kabat Zinn have been promoting the virtues of mindfulness to professionals before then, there was no fully validated evidence that any of this was more than anecdotal. But a series of recent published and ongoing studies conducted in the likes of Harvard University Medical School have not only validated and reinforced the anecdotes of the mystics, but revealed a raft of other remarkable and highly beneficial phenomena.

So far the science has revealed this:

  • Meditation practice turns down the “inner voice” in our mind (a function of our language centre) and reduces self talk, which is overwhelmingly imaginary stuff constructed out of fragments of past experience. Why is this good? Because while pre-emptying dangerous situations is an evolutionary important trait, it has “overstepped” its bounds in our technologically and socially advanced world. By reducing this mental chatter we become more aware of the true context of an experience. Information is not pre-filtered by our emotions, and as a result of this clarity we are able to make better decisions.
  • Meditation increases creativity. This means that as we are able to see problems with more clarity, we are also able to imagine a wider range of possible solutions.
  • Meditation reduces stress. This happens both directly as a result of chemical activity in the brain, but also on a meta level: as we are better able to comprehend, evaluate and engage with a situation, we are also less emotional and more in control, which in turn increases our confidence and unleashes all kind of positive metabolic responses. Which leads to the next point: Health.
  • Meditation makes you healthier. As we become less inclined to emotional responses to stimuli for food, alcohol, drugs and toxic behavioural traits, we are less likely to succumb to those. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Meditation releases happy hormones in your body, which in turn invigorate your immune system making you less succeptible to illness, and more likely to recover quickly. Never mind the fact that feeling good will also benefit how you engage with others. And that brings us to the next benefit: Empathy.
  • Meditation increases your empathy and compassion. While this may sounds like a Buddhist quote, it is actually happens at a chemical neurological level. We become more connected to our sense of life and that of other beings. In simple terms it means you will have much better relationships with people because you will behave kindly towards them. You become more trustworthy and you will be more trustworthy.

While all this may once have sounded too good to be true, it is now understood on a neuro-scientific level to be true. And I have left our a lot, this iss really just the tip of the iceberg. Meditation re-wires and physically reshapes our brain for mindfulness, and physically alters not only how we perceive the world, but how we engage with it. It also alters (and improves) how our bodies function.

So far so good. So how does Social Media fit into the story?

Social media plays two key roles in the mindfulness revolution: The more obvious one is the dispersion of information. As twitter and other platforms shifted from text to images, tiles with happy quotes proliferated and got shared. The second one is curated feeds. Stuff that got shared got seen, the rest of the stuff disappeared from our collective consciousness. Two things got shared frequently: the happy quote and the videos of dramatic incidents (from rescues to beheadings, from extraordinary feats to epic fails). People’s lunch postings faded from view, making many social media channels less personal and more about entretainment. While many demographics have swarmed to new apps that look to overcome that, the general sense of loneliness, meaninglessness and alienation has hit hard across right the connected generations.

Add to this the GFC.

While the glitter of the virtual world of imaginary stardom faded (and still continues to fade) slowly, the discontent, distrust in “the system”, fear and sense of personal failure brought about by the global financial crisis that began in late 2008 was somewhat more sudden, less visible and far more personal. It affected people from all social strata, and continues to do so as its effects are slowly displaced by tectonic shifts in industry and the exponential increase in labour automation.

These three factors were catalysts that made it acceptable for the profound social discontent to become a public conversation.

The secret reality of the 90-plus hour work week and the stratospheric career ladders as being inwardly un-fulfilling is no longer a secret.

The overarching question has now shifted from “How can I get to the top of the career ladder” to “How can I get to the top of my personal fulfillment ladder?” (or in most cases – “Which one is my ladder?”)

Social media has aided the spread of this idea, combined with some timely “seeds” like books such as Tim Ferriss’ disruptively titled “4-hour Work Week”, more recently Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” written following her sudden and personal crash from corporate life burnout, or one of the most read blogs in the world, Leo Babuta’s “Zen habits”. A plethora of “off-line” and “minimalist living” movements have spawned further legitimising the mindful lifestyle as the logical progression from a high consumption, high demand and high delusion life.

Most principles around mindfulness and meditation are simple. The “practice” in the form of meditation does the “hard rewiring” and makes the process of implementing constructive habits much easier, there is still an perception amongst business leaders and self-declared high performers that sitting still is bad for business, science has now joined the chorus and thoroughly validated the once esoteric claims of meditation and mindful living. Like all things, mindfulness and meditation takes practice and a willingness to learn a few new things.

The innovators have been mindful for a long time. Now the early adopters are jumping on board. There is no question that business leadership is facing a structural transformation. Coupled with the deep shifts underway in global work-culture, automation and mechanisation of tasks, leadership is becoming centered on meaning, on significance, on experience and on adherence to its altruistic foundational values. Mindful Leadership is not a fad, it is the next step in the evolution of leadership. Soon mindless leaders will become irrelevant, and eventually become extinct together with the business they once lead.

Mindfulness has been around for centuries, with the help of science and inevitable social tipping points is now becoming mainstream.

Mindfulness is hip.  But don’t mistake it for a fad.

The future of leadership is mindful, founded on bettering the human condition, including that of the leaders themselves.

Can you get as good as you give?

Giving.
Compassion.
Generosity.

The list of words that describe this simple gesture pervades all kinds of teachings, from spiritual and religious to conscientious entrepreneurship to success stories and life habits of extraordinary people.

For most people this concept, even if not necessarily executed in daily life to its full potential, at the very least rings true, and is something that is unanimously understood to be central to good character.

But giving has another side, and it is one that most people are profoundly uncomfortable about – if not completely averse to.

That other side is getting. Receiving.

Sure, when we are grateful when we receive gifts and more formal offerings, but how comfortable are you really with receiving?

The problem is deeply ingrained in most cultures, where the receiver is often plunged into a deep sense of unworthiness, entitlement, guilt, even haunted by resentment and jelaousy from others. We are trained from an early age to feel bad about receiving. It is the barter of good behaviour, it is the currency of appreciation, or more sinisterly, the emotional burden of a debt that expects to be repaid.

But for humanity to function on a simple basis around the principles of giving, compassion and generosity, for each gesture carried out someone necessarily must be a willing and grateful recipient. And sometime we must be that recipient. In fact the more frequently we show generosity and compassion to others, the more we must be prepared to receive it in return.

By refusing someone’s offering, we also do these three things:

  •  We short-cut the entire process of generosity – we effectively neutralise the other persons right and joy of such kind gesture. If we are not receiving, they are unable to give.
  •  We show disrespect towards the giver: we inadvertedly tell them what a poor judge of our character they are, what a looser they are for considering us.
  • We declare ourselves unworthy recipients, and are unable to immerse ourselves fully in the joy of the offering. We can not possibly feel gratitude or respect towards the giver. We make it clear to all that we think as little of ourselves, as we do of the giver.

It also applies to how we conduct ourselves in business, this simple reluctance to be open to receiving has a terrible price: it naturally causes us to undervalue ourselves and what we offer.

Refusing an gift is not a gesture of humility, it is a sign of arrogance, ungratefulness, disrespect and insecurity. To make our world better we must teach oursleves and our kids to be great receivers as well as great givers. We need to teach, and practice receiving with deep gratitude, understanding fully the depth and significance of the offering, emapthising with the giver, and allowing ourselves to feel the true value of what has been offered. We need to teach that with that gratitude and willingness to accept, we are affirming the giver’s right to generosity and compassion.

Give, and get. Yin and Yang. When we are able to receive with reverence, gratitude and respect, we give something profoundly meaningful back to the giver, and allow the entire transaction to become whole. Without it, generosity too is stopped.

Be whole, be wholesome. Get as good as you give.