coaching

A Passionate Life

There are three yogis in a cave. They’ve been there, practicing meditation for the last 10 years. Around the tenth year, something moves by the mouth of the cave. One yogi murmurs, “I think that was a rabbit." A year later, another yogi whispers, “No, I think that was a squirrel.”

Six months later, the third one blurts, “If the two of you don’t stop fighting, I’m going to have to leave this cave."

There’s a misperception that to be mindful means to be a detached navel-gazer in a cave, that being present and aware is devoid of creativity and passion. Mindfulness, in fact, highlights our passions.

By bringing us fully into the experience of the here-and-now, we are more aware, allowing us to appreciate each moment with far greater subtlety: a bursting feeling in the heart when we realize we are in love; the uplifting quality of a new and creative idea; the power when we sense our connection to a cause that aligns with our deepest values.

Because our senses are more enhanced, we can grasp more clearly what is actually calling us among the myriad, transitory complications of our modern lives. We can also see who we are with less judgment and more acceptance. Sometimes even more importantly, we see the inauthentic roles we have been playing out, those roles that do not reflect who we are essentially.

When we stop wanting to be someone else, we can finally recognize our unique gifts, talents and passions and what we want to do with our “one wild and precious life.” We can let go of playing by everyone else’s rules—our parents, our bosses, our partner’s, society— and start to ask the question, “What matters to me?”

Make Your Life Your Message

When asked for his message for the world, Gandhi responded with the now famous line, “My life is my message.” Is your life a reflection of your message? To live such a life, is to live passionately, as Gandhi did.

Webster dictionary defines passion as, “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.” At its core, passion is an interior force, a sort of current that drives and energizes us to understand and merge with the object of our passion. It can be an activity, a quality of mind, a path and, of course, it can be another person or animal. When we are not living in accordance or in harmony with our passions, our lives feel discordant, lifeless, flat and hollow.

In contrast, when we live with passion, we are compelled and fueled with enthusiastic emotion. Whatever the object of our passion, it connects us to a greater sense of purpose, the feeling that we are part of some greater whole. It also leads us to a greater understanding of what makes us unique; whatever the object of our passion, it is our very own.

It is not something to be found somewhere other than where we are. It is already inside of us, yet for most of us, passion is ill-defined. Instead, it is a lived experience that emerges in subtle inklings. It can show up at the birth of a child, a sunset, the completion of an arduous journey or the beginning of a new one. Our passions often can be discovered in the activities where we completely lose ourselves, be it a sport, a hobby or a particular kind of problem solving.

We are not always aware of our passions because we are so busy with our to-do lists. It also does not help that many of us were told that our passions were not practical, that if we followed them, we likely would not succeed or we would not make enough money to get by. We learned to turn a blind eye to the glimmer of a calling. Regardless of the cause, for most of us, our passions are hidden.

Obsession and Clinging

Our passions can also blind us. When our passions control us, they can lead toward obsessions. When overdone, passion can completely undo our lives. Just think of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, lechery and sloth. In Buddhism, each sin is considered a form of grasping or clinging. When we obsessively clinging to the pleasant feelings that passion can fuel, we forget that like all things, even passion is impermanent: it comes; stays for awhile; and eventually passes away.

We are all vulnerable to obsessive passion. We all get lost in it sometimes. Wealth, power and fame can be alluring for each of us at times. Mindfulness practices are not moralistic. Because we meditate does not mean that we should not abstain from enjoying the things we have or pursue success.

Instead, our practices have the potential to show us our embodied response of when passion has overtaken us and when we have become attached. We can be sure that we are working with clinging when we find ourselves on the hunt for increasingly greater thresholds of success and, at the same time, are despondent at its loss or evading quality.

Mindfulness practice helps us maintain an even quality of mind. It helps us to see that whatever success we have attained in following our passion, it does not define us, nor is our happiness dependent on it. The practice itself helps us remain discerning. We use the practice to distinguish wisdom from delusion, to make choices that are life enhancing not only to ourselves but others, as well.

So enjoy what lights you up. Explore all the varieties of California Pinots. Protest race inequality. Make music that delights you. Sweat your prayers. Make love with abandon. And bring your mindfulness practice to each experience: breathing with it, sensing it and ride the wave all the way until the end. And when it is over, let it go.

How to Make Profound, Lasting Change

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When we lose a job, get a bad review, experience burn out, or our heart is broken, we often can’t help but experience a sense of groundlessness and paralysis. We struggle with meaning and end up feeling stuck.  Who am I, now?  How do I recover from the sense of frustration, overwhelm, or loss?  In this post, I am going to suggest that what stops us is not the situations themselves.  It’s never fun to lose a job or have our hearts broken, but there’s no inherent meaning in these losses.  In other words, the circumstances of our lives don’t make us unhappy.  Rather, our experience of them depends entirely on the meaning we bring to them.  Some perspectives empower us when faced with even the most difficult of situations and some render us incapacitated.  How we hold the circumstances of our lives can either grow us or take us down.

Part 1: Uncover your interpretations of the situations you find ourselves in.

Rarely do we relate to our actual experiences. Instead, we relate to the meaning we make of our experiences and the emotional charge we feel about the experience.

If we observe ourselves over a few days, we’ll notice an automatic, unconscious propensity to see that we’re always adding meaning to the experiences of our lives.  We have the tendency to fit each experience that shows up into an ongoing story we have about our lives and who we are.  In fact, rarely do we regard ourselves in relationship to the immediate circumstances we find ourselves in.  Instead of relating directly to our experiences, we often just relate to our beliefs, opinions, and judgments about the experiences.  And so when things fall apart, and we lose meaning in life, it can be incredibly helpful to reassess how we make meaning of our lives.

A 48-year old client, Mary, had been driven her whole life to make it big in the corporate world.  A year ago she arrived at my office and declared: “I am totally burnt out and am just going through the motions of my life.”  She didn’t sleep well; she’d gained ten pounds over the last few years; and her relationship with her girlfriend was suffering from her tendency to what she called “workaholic tendencies.”  She’d been to a psychologist already, and while that work had clued her into why she felt stuck, it still didn’t propel the change she desperately needed.

When I asked Mary why she didn’t leave or alter her situation in her job, she responded that to do so felt like torture.  Mary’s sense of purpose in life, up until that moment, revolved entirely around her work.  Her sense of self and the qualities of her relationships went down when her work went down.  Likewise, they went up when her work went well, not to mention the fact that she’d spent her whole life working her way to the top.  Now that she’d finally made it to the “big time,” she couldn’t help but look around and scratch her head, asking, “Is this as good as it gets.”  Her health and her personal relationships were suffering, and she found her colleagues, in fact, intolerable.

While Mary felt that to make a change would put her family in financial jeopardy, she knew, rationally speaking, that they’d do fine if she took a pay cut.  She, like most of my clients use the “financial card,” as an excuse not to make a change.  But when she looked closely, she was really afraid to upset her relationship with her girlfriend. As a child, her alcoholic mother had been inconsistent, sometimes present and sometimes altogether absent. When we looked at her “life’s story” it was obvious that she’d done everything in her power to give herself the security and safety that her mother constantly took away from her.  She’d lived her life in service to accruing professional accolades so she wouldn’t feel the way she felt as a little girl, scared and destitute.

Part 2: Meet the feelings you’re avoiding.

To make profound, lasting change not only must we uncover the background stories that help us make meaning of our experiences, but we also must meet the nervous system’s response to the experiences.  Embedded within each of our narratives is a statement like, “I never want to feel "x" again.”  "X" might be loneliness, sadness, anger or fear.  The narratives that live in the subtle background of our lives help us not only to succeed but also to avoid certain feelings.  If we’re ever going to really transform, we have to be willing to meet the feelings we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. In Mary’s case, her workaholism protected her from the fear of being destitute. As Mary examined her life’s narrative and discovered her propensity to be risk averse, she started to confront bodily feelings of terror: fluttering feelings in the chest, queasiness in the stomach, and a knot in the throat.

This part of the journey can be very uncomfortable and equally counterintuitive. Each of us spends a whole lifetime avoiding these feelings.  Turning around and looking at them can be like turning around and facing the demon we swore off almost a lifetime ago.  It takes incredible courage, even-mindedness, tenacity and compassion to ride the waves of emotional pain.  And to do so can feel like this:

Heavy-heartedness… irritation in the chest… boredom… really heavy heartedness… tightness in the ribs…. burning rage…heat in the face…tight throat… boredom… fatigue… numbness… impatience and boredom…. nothing… nothing…nothing…hurt

Often times my clients will ask, “Why would I want to be with this shit?”  Often my response is that to meet it is to transform it.  To avoid it is to let it rule you.”  If we don’t meet the body’s response, we miss a deep learning that our suffering has to show us. So as Mary met the fluttering, queasiness, and knots in one of our meetings, her “fear of change” lost its hold on her.

Part 3: Reinterpret the experience in such a way that it leaves you powerful.

At that point, she was no longer afraid to feel her terror.  She could see that she didn’t need to be a workaholic her whole life in order to avoid “ending up broke, homeless, and alone.”  Instead, she was at choice to create a new narrative, one that created possibility and that empowered her.  When Mary tapped into the wiser and more intuitive parts of her being she could see that instead of her burn out being an obstacle, that it could be seen as an omen for change.  “I could work less, maybe even go to yoga class, and have time to eat a meal with Donna [her girlfriend].” Instead of creating less safety, this crossroads might give her an opportunity to explore a new way of being in the world, one in which work wasn’t the only focus, but, instead, included family and intimacy.

Part 4: Make the insight real through action that leads to specific and measurable outcomes.

All it takes is a moment to see our situations in a light that renders us free, powerful, or expressed.  But to make the changes necessary to fulfill this recognition a clear set of goals accompanied by practice. Once Mary committed to a change in her work, she started to look for new work opportunities, both within her corporation and outside.  She made a point of meeting colleagues within her network.  It took time and a lot of what I call “t.s.o.-ing”—trying shit out--to stumble upon an opportunity that excited her and gave her the flexibility she needed.  She knew that she’d have to surrender some of the clout of her previous job, and so she also established some practices that made this transition easier on her nervous system.

Part 5: Practice mind-body techniques that support the nervous system and facilitate the change.

Mary and I co-created a morning ritual.  Each morning she did some movement, whether it was yoga I taught her or taking a walk with her girlfriend.  I also taught her a few simple meditations, which she could practice for 5-15 minutes.  Finally she wrote in her journal on an inquiry I’d assign her each week. An inquiry is an open-ended question that can be answered from many different sides that gives new insights each way we look at it. One inquiry that uncovered a landmine of insight for her was, “What must I drop in order to gain something new?”  This question helped her discover the confidence that she wasn’t just dropping off altogether but that her change would put her in touch with something new.

Slowly, over a six-month period, Mary discovered the right fit she’d been looking for in a new company. To an outsider, that move might have been seen as a demotion, but to her the move enhanced the quality of her life immensely.  She worked less; had more time to explore new ways of relating and playing with her girlfriend; and found time for herself.  Essentially, this move provided the breathing room Mary needed to replenish the well that had dried up inside of her.

Exercise

  1. Very briefly, write an account of your life and conclude with the situation you currently find yourself in.  Keep the writing to a minimum of one page.
  2. Reread your brief account once.
  3. Notice how your life’s story influences the current circumstances you’re in.  Does  it empower or disempower your circumstances?
  4. Review your brief account, again, this time, reading your account out loud.
  5. Notice how it makes you feel in your head, throat, heart, belly, and genitals once you’ve completed the account.  Do you notice any emotion, sensation, or charge in these areas of the body?
  6. If you notice that you do, read the account out loud, once again.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until any feeling of constraint has altogether gone away.
  8. Notice if there’s a new meaning you start to derive from the circumstances you find yourself in accompanied by new possibilities for yourself and your life.
  9. Write them down on a piece of paper.
  10. Hire a coach. A coach will hold you accountable to making the changes in life you sense you need to make.  Don’t bother trying to do this part alone.  Creating something new can be incredibly daunting.  A good coach is really a skilled change agent.  He or she will collaborate with you in designing practices that will make the process of change easier, fun, and intelligent, too.

SF Street Coaches

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My wife, Melissa, colleague and friend, Michael Ehrenberg, and I went out on the streets of San Francisco yesterday to initiate a new project that we call SF Street Coaches.  The idea was born from a Youtube video of Sivani Mair in London who calls herself a certified life coach and a professional communicator.  Another Colleague, Marla Skibbins, CPCC sent Sivani’s video off to me a few weeks ago, and it inspired me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uF4nembFLIk

Taking a Stand for Those Around Us, Including Strangers

I thought, “Wow, just think of the transformation that might be possible if we, as coaches really got out in the world and gave everyday people an access to their wisdom.”  It’s my hunch that we are living in a particular moment in history in which the old modes and models of living and being in the world are breaking down.  Our society is coming apart at the seams.  Just look at our political systems, our banking systems, our medical care, and our environment.  We’re in grave danger if we don’t get our act together.

At the heart of this massive and collective breakdown is a mindset.  From a very young age we all were taught not to rock the boat, not to want what we truly want, and certainly not to go after what we want.  As coaches, we think it’s critical that we individually and collectively wake up and actualize what authentically moves us.  When we do that, we can actually start to be a contribution in the world, we can start to give our gifts, and initiate the repair of all the breakdown we see around us.  We can only give our gifts when we follow the thread of authenticity and resonance.

As a coach, I have the unique responsibility--and opportunity--to remind not just my clients, but the people around me, including the strangers I do not even acknowledge on the street, to wake up to this knowing.  It takes incredible courage to both take a stand and to make it real in the world.  Hanging my shingle as a professional coach was a big step, but being a coach in the world is much bigger.  Yesterday, was a step in that direction.

Coaching the Masses

A few days ago I had buttons made that said SF Street Coaches.  I also made a shell of a website. Melissa, Michael, and I met up in downtown San Francisco.

 

We didn’t have a clue about how we’d start.  We all were both a little nervous and extremely self-conscious as we stood on Market Street.  As we stood there, we were looking at all the various people passing us by wondering if any of us would have the courage to stop someone and initiate a coaching conversation.  None of us knew how the heck we would do it.

So Melissa had a good idea.  She said, “I hate to be stopped on the street.  Most people do. Why don’t we go somewhere where people are seated and are relaxed?”  So we found a boulangerie where we ordered a tea and sat…and sat…and sat.  At some point Michael says, “I just want to tell you guys that I have no expectation whatsoever from this day.  If we don’t coach anyone, I am okay with that,” to which I said, “Me, too,” to which Melissa said, “Not me.”

And immediately she turned her head to a couple of young women next to us and initiated a coaching conversation. That’s how our afternoon began.  Instead of getting what we expected, “No,” “Not interested,” or “Too busy,” we got “Sure.” “I’m game,” “Would love it.”  After the second or third street coaching client, it became clear that, for the most part, each person we’d ask was up for it.

The Boomerang Effect

Even more interesting was that four out of the five people we coached were hungry and open for the inquiry.  What a privilege it is to have three ears listening curiously, attentively, and wanting only what you deeply want, rather than what your self-sabotaging voices want.  This is an unusual gift to give another person.   And when the authentic, resonant voices shine through, over those self-critical and self-doubting voices, something magical happens in the space of that interaction.

Each time we coached a stranger, the gift boomeranged right back at us.  Just as we were giving the gift of curiosity, our clients were giving us the gift of transparency and of vulnerability.  When complete strangers were sharing their hearts, their passions, their doubts, and their fears with us, it touched each of us. While we only spent 10 or 15 minutes with our clients, each managed to share their essence with us.  Each willingly danced with us.  The process really moved us.

Collaboration

I also really loved that we, the coaches, were a team.  We both approached and coached as a team.  It is rare that, as coaches, we get the opportunity to co-lead with one another.  The process is infinitely more impactful when six ears and three mouths are offered than just two.  Somehow whatever is said, either by the coaches or the client, is more real in the world when there are more than just one or two witnesses.  Additionally, as a coach, it helped immensely to be able to lean into the support of my co-leaders.  Finally, it was so much more fun to be able to share the experience with them.

Needless to say, the movement has begun!  If you’d like SF Street Coaches to show up in your neck of the woods, whether on your street, at a party you’re throwing, at your café, or at your office, please let us know.  We welcome any and all invitations.  If you’re a coach and you’d like to take part in SF Street Coaches, we’d love to hear from you.