transformation

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.

The Missing Ingredient

Most people approach spiritual practices the same way they do everything else in their lives; they wait and hope that one day it will all turn out. "If I can just hold a headstand for three minutes then…” or, “If I am really consistent then…” or, “If I just lose 5 pounds, then…” Rarely do we stop to recognize that on the other side of accomplishment and of doing that we often find ourselves in the same place.  We might be a little stronger, more disciplined, or thinner, but who we are hasn’t fundamentally shifted.  And yet we’ve all been told that spiritual practices like yoga can offer a transformative shift in our experience of our relationship to others, our worlds, and ourselves.  What’s the missing ingredient that can create that metamorphosis?

We won’t find that extra bit in a different practice, a better teacher, or the more so-called ‘traditional’ approach.  All of these are the trappings of form.  What we are after is something that is beyond form.  We are after a shift in our being that creates certain qualities, like openness, wisdom, loving kindness, authenticity.  These are ways of being in the world, but access to them seems mysterious and elusive.  And yet, to one degree or another, this is what draws us to spiritual practice.

We do it in the hopes that ‘one-day’ it will all turn out.  Consider that it already has turned out.  You are sitting down reading this. You have a computer, or you have the time to ponder such things.  You even have time for spiritual practice, for contemplating what it is to be a human.  You are in the top 99.99999% of the population in terms of survival.  At this very moment, most people in the world are struggling to get their very survival needs met, while you read this.  And if you stop to consider that, indeed, it has turned out, you may wonder why you still feel that fundamental angst, that uncomfortable feeling that propels you toward the ‘things’-- like the new car, the latest hairstyle, or even the spiritual practice--that hopefully will remove the discomfort that something isn’t quite right in our world, the feeling that something is missing.

Doing It Correctly Doesn't Necessarily Make You Happier

The missing ingredient is that we have thrown the cart before the horse.  In other words we hope that if we do a particular spiritual practice, that it will result in a shift in consciousness.  However, the doing of spiritual practice, does not result in a shift in consciousness.  We also hope that having certain things will result in a sense of satisfaction.  Doing and having, however, do not beget being. Being is a choice we make that informs what we do.  In other words:  be first, do second.

We’ve all been sold the line that if we do a particular job for a certain amount of time, and earn a certain income, that at the end of the day, we get to be happy.  We all know, however, that that isn’t necessarily the case.  Hard work and having money do not necessarily result in peace, happiness, or wholeness.  I am not suggesting that they take away these qualities.  They simply do not create these qualities.  Human happiness does not increase a whole lot as wealth increases.  In other words, wealth and happiness are not a corollary.

Spiritual practice is all about having a say about our lives.  But you and I do not have a whole lot of say about what we do or have in our lives.  We have some say, but not a lot.  We can try to get that job or earn that income, but there are a myriad of factors that can get in the way. While we may not have a lot of say about what we do or what we have, we are always at choice—whether we wish to acknowledge it or not-- about who we are being.  I am not suggesting that we have a say about our moods, which are also the circumstances of our lives.  Moods are not an aspect of being.  They are what we notice when we will be.  Being is almost like a perspective or an ever-shifting set of perspectives that either give us power or undermine us.  And here is where we are at choice in the matter.

Choosing What Empowers

We can choose ways of being each moment.  We don’t need to perform outlandish postures or learn spiritual practices from a guru in India in order to choose being.  I am not suggesting that we do away with spiritual practice or great teachers.  Both are useful ingredients in the meal of transformation, but they aren’t the secret ingredients.  The secret ingredient is being, and it is the recognition that we are at choice with who we are being on a moment-to-moment basis.

So, instead of starting our spiritual practice from the perspective that we hope to get something out of it, why not start it from a particular way of being or perspective, one that empowers us in our relationship with ourselves, our community, and our world?  Most importantly, why not start practice from ways of being that give us a sense of resourcefulness, authenticity, wholeness, ways like aliveness, wisdom, compassion, love, power, etc.?

That way our spiritual practice becomes an expression of that way(s) of being, like a dance that expresses grace.  The grace is already there within the dancer.  Otherwise the dancer wouldn’t know how to express it.  It isn’t as if she hopes to experience it after she has done the dance. And her years of practice, development, and technique that the dancer brings to the expression of grace adds depth and nuance to the expression of grace.

So when we start practice from the place that we are this quality or this way of being, the various aspects of spiritual practice—like the breath, the posture, and the attention--naturally coalesce together in order to express it.  Spiritual practice then transforms from a game of waiting and hoping that one day if I practice for many, may years or many, many lifetimes, I will do it in just the right manner.  And when I do, I will find my happiness, my peace, and my completion.

The transformation occurs in the recognition that we have access to our wholeness all the time, including, now.    Spiritual practice then becomes the time and space where we consciously honor, reside in, and express that knowing.  We don’t do it in order to squeeze wholeness from it.  Unfortunately, that is not what practice provides.  It is simply choreographed dance without emotion or expression. And it is up to us to fill it in so that it can become an expression of what is already and always present, true, and accessible.

The Practice You Can't See on the Outside

What I am describing is truly the inner practice within the practice.  This is something that cannot be seen by the teacher or by an audience.  In yoga, in particular, it is what is at the heart of the practice.  Often times teachers will say, “Yoga is what you cannot see from the outside.”  And then they will point to things like the breath and bandhas.  But the being part of yoga predicates how we breathe, how we engage the bandhas.  Too often, we all get caught in the act of wanting to do it right, to look good on the outside, to impress either our teacher or those around us.

Admittedly, I believe I spent maybe more than half of my life in the practice of yoga, hoping to impress others.  I knew deep down inside that this was a no-no, but I couldn’t help it because I didn’t really understand where else to put my attention.  I’d spent years studying with well-known teachers and life-long practitioners who imparted a certain “way” to practice yoga.  Some emphasized the breath.  Others emphasized alignment.  Often I experienced an amalgamation of both with the addition of some other techniques.  At some point, I started to recognize that all I knew about yoga was what my teachers wanted for me.  I had to make the pose look a particular way if I was going to do it ‘traditionally’ or ‘correctly.’  At some point, I began to experiment outside the boundaries my teachers described.

What I came to realize was that, indeed, the boundaries my teachers created were artificial.  It’s my sense that yoga postures, like the ones we practice in yoga studios throughout the world, are not timeless or eternal.  In all likelihood, they are an amalgamation of a variety of movements designed to support health and spiritual insight.  The postures themselves are like empty vessels.  The attitude we bring to these postures is what gives them their mythical, eternal quality.  If we were to perform these postures at a circus, they’d have no more affect on the psyche than jumping rope or a run through the park.  No doubt, they’d increase endorphins and work out some of the kinks in the body.  The mythical quality is the attitude or the being that we bring to it.

Setting Intentions

What I began to notice a few years ago was that a lot of the attitude that I brought to my practice was the attitude of ‘doing it right.’  That attitude left me practicing from the outside in.  I was always noticing whether my limbs where aligned, whether the movement was graceful or not, whether my breath appeared smooth and fluid.  The result is that I had a practice that might have impressed a few people but left me wondering why I got more good from a sitting meditation than I did from yogic postures.  I always appreciated the feeling of ease that yoga practice left in my body and being, but I couldn’t get at the meditative aspects of yoga.

So I started setting an intention before I practiced each day.  I would set intentions, like “harmony,” “gratitude,” “ease,” “intensity,” and “power.”  What I came to discover was that the techniques I’d spent so many years hoping to master, like the bandhas, were my tools.  I could use them in service to the intention. I started to use the various tools we learn in yoga practice--including alignment, ujayi pranayama, mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, hasta bandha, pada bandha, etc—in service to the intention and not the other way around.  What I found, for example was that the breath altered significantly when my intention was “grace” versus when my intention was “sass.”

Yes, I do sometimes practice with sass.  It is my sense, now, that the practice is an opportunity for me to express the infinite possibility that I am as a human being.  I liken it to a painting.  If I want to paint a blue mood or a tone, I am going to use one particular set of paints versus a tone that is dynamic will use a different set of paints.  Each of the tools we learn can be used in service to the expression of the painting. However, if we get stuck thinking that there is only one ‘correct’ way of painting, one proper, one traditional way, we miss the opportunity that yoga has to offer us.  And often, we will get stuck trying to fit ourselves into a box that doesn’t fit us.  And we will often get stuck practicing from the outside in.

Practice as Art

While I am describing the inner expressing the outer, I am not denigrating the importance of learning technique.  We all need to learn technique.  If you’re a piano player, it’s critical to learn the scales.  And if you want to be a great piano player, you need to continue to play the scales.  But if you want to be a virtuoso, you don’t play the scales exclusively.  And you don’t just play the music on the score the way you’d play the scales. You play with your heart and soul.  The same is true of yoga practice.  Breath, bandhas, drishti, alignment are all forms of the scales we play.  A master doesn’t just repeat the technique over and over in hopes that he will get to the heart of the matter.  A master moves from his or her heart or soul.

The problem with thinking of practice from the perspective of a pianist or a dancer is that these art forms are external expressions. They are designed to please an audience.  In the practice of yoga, we often turn our teacher or other practitioners in the yoga room into our audience.  However, if the practice will have transformative affects on our being, we must become the audience.  We must learn how to direct our awareness inward toward our intention, toward the expression of the intention, and to continue to shift and adjust technique so that the intention is expressed to ourselves, not anyone else.  I recognize that this is a very different experience of yoga because we are all so used to receiving correction and attention from a teacher.  In the beginning such correction and attention is critical to learning the basics.  Eventually, it becomes a hindrance because it directs our minds outside of ourselves.

I speak about the intention or the being that we bring to each practice.  However, intention can have much more far reaching affects.  We can set intentions for our year, for a relationship, for the work we do, and really for our lives. Our practice can be used as an opportunity to develop those intentions. It can become a sort of laboratory in which we explore them, tease them out a little further, and develop some muscle of awareness around those intentions.  Most importantly, a yoga practice can be the place in which we learn to embody those intentions.  This is what is unique about yoga postures.  They are an embodied expression of our being.  They ground out the experience of an idea or a notion into form. They help us to actualize what is simply an idea or an intention in physical form.  Once embodied, we have a much clearer, intuitive sense of how to actualize them in our relationships, our work life, our health, our home life, etc.

Exercise for Setting Intentions

Peak moments can be very instructive.  Often in moments when we experience the fullness of life, we're connected to a way of being in the world, one that is authentic, present, and resonant.  If we can start our practice focused on a particular being that evokes one or more of these qualities, our practices will start to sing. So in this exercise, I am going to ask you to draw your mind back to a peak moment in which you felt authentic, present, and/or resonantly alive.

  1. Conjure up a memory or two where you feel one of these three qualities: a)authentic/honest/real b) present/conscious/awake c)alive/connected/expressed
  2. See if you can see what was going on at that moment that makes that moment so significant.  Notice who was present; what was happening; and how were you feeling in that moment.
  3. If you feel authentic, present, and/or alive, notice who were being in that moment.  What perspective were you in?  What did you see, believe, or think about the situation you were in in that moment?
  4. Note with pen and paper who you were BEING in that moment?  Possible ways of being, include:  joyful, centered, clear, playful, sexy, alive, connected, loving, passionate, driven, focused, detail oriented, peaceful.  In fact, there are a myriad of ways of being.
  5. When you go on the mat tomorrow, connect with that way of being before each Sun Salutation.  Notice how it affects the way you move and what you focus on as you go through your A's and B's.
  6. It may also be helpful to have your teacher or a friend give you some outside feedback about the way your movement appears, both connected to an intention and without an intention.  You'll find that to an outside observer the distinction is often subtle but clear, nevertheless.

 

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.