Not-Knowing is Most Intimate

Quiet Encouragement for the New Year.

The monk Fayan was going on pilgrimage.
Master Dizang asked, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “On pilgrimage.”
Dizang asked, “Why?”
Fayan said: “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
            -The Book of Equanimity, Case 20
 

Not-knowing is most intimate? How can not-knowing be intimate?
 
It seems like everyone I’ve talked with the past week wants, in some shape or form, better relationships in 2019. Some want to relate more effortlessly with partners, family, co-workers, or friends. Others yearn to create some new, healthier relationships.
 
Inquiry and Intimacy
Intimacy, by definition a deep sense of closeness and familiarity, would seem the opposite of not-knowing. So how exactly can not-knowing result in deeper intimacy?
 
Here’s the thing: when you don’t know, you’re open. There's curiosity, and potential. Your mind–your knowing–gets out of the way, and you can be clear and unobstructed.
 
When you don't know, there are all possibilities.
 
When you think you know, there is only one: the one imbedded in your mind. It becomes difficult to see beyond the fact that this sucks, that she's being stubborn, that he's being a jerk, or that you're going to miss the important meeting because the MTA is a disaster.

When you don't know, there’s the opportunity for it to be something else. Maybe he's suffering, or she has a great solution that doesn’t, yet, make sense to you. Maybe missing the meeting is the best thing that could happen. Who knows? 
 
You actually don’t know
Imagine the monk Fayan, deeply honest with himself, realizing he doesn't know why he is driven to seek. His directness was profound. Master Dizang recognized this and encouraged it, understanding how not-knowing would help him remain alert, curious, and open to possibility beyond his imaginings. 

Master Dizang encouraged not-knowing because when someone actively practices “don't know,” they get progressively closer to life as it actually is, not as we think it should be. From there, we develop a real sense of peace, because–well–we really don't know what all this is about, or where it is going, or how things will turn out, or what is actually bad, or what is actually good.

So we open up. We can open up because we don’t know. 

Not-knowing is power
This not-knowing is surprisingly powerful and, counter-intuitively, a source of great freedom. When things go wrong: don’t know. Win the lottery: don't know. When you fail: don’t know. When your loved one pisses you off: don’t know. When the meeting goes super well: don’t know. When the meeting doesn’t go well: don’t know.

Such is the intimacy, and the possibility, of not-knowing. And this is how not-knowing profoundly connects us to others, to our own life journey, and to ourselves. We become open to ideas about people and things that are beyond what we think we know. 
 
Not-knowing is requisite for proper meditation
Not-knowing is major tenet – a major value – of Buddhism. You cannot meditate, you cannot be mindful and fully aware, if you are stuck in “I know.” When you know, you are mountains and rivers away from right now, away from your life.
 
To be mindful is to not-know. Not-knowing is a (if not the) key to living in the present moment, the here and now.

“In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added.
 In the pursuit of wisdom, everyday something is dropped”
            -Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching


A Chinese Fable
There’s an old story of a man whose only son goes off in search of fame and riches, and doesn’t return. This was a devastating loss. The son was (and often still is) the source of pride, stability, and standing. His neighbors grieved for him, saying their how horribles and so sorries.

To this, the old man simply replied, “Don’t know.”
 
To everyone’s surprise, one day the son came back, and with him brought a pack of wild stallions. The old man was suddenly rich and, more, his son had returned. The neighbors rejoiced, “how wonderful!!”
 
The old man simply replied, “Don’t know.”
 
One day, while the son was trying to tame and ride one of the stallions, the horse bucked the son off his back. The son fell, breaking his leg. The neighbors cried, again, “How horrible!”
 
The old man simply replied, “Don’t know.”
 
The next day, the emperor declared war, and the conscription officers came to take all the able-bodied young men to the front lines, but – as he was injured – did not take the old man’s son. The neighbors, jealous that he got to keep his son, when theirs were sent to certain death, lamented “How lucky for you!
 
The old man replied, “Don’t know.” 
(shocker)
 

Traps of knowledge.
How often do we all fall into his neighbors’ traps of knowing what’s good or bad, right or wrong? How often do we conflate an occurrence with some greatness, or luck, or tragedy, or hell?

We do this with everything from medical diagnoses to green lights. But, when we do this, we’ve decided we know the fates, and then can’t be open to the myriad other possibilities available. We can't get close to life as it is; we're too caught up in our version of it.
 
Yet, when we don’t know, we live this ever-changing life with grace, composure, confidence, and peace. And with a real joy, no matter what this unpredictable existence brings next. Peace, even when you're pissed off. 
 
Requires Practice.
But, while such peace and joy sounds wonderful, the practice of not-knowing is not natural. Especially not in our western knowledge-based value system, where what you know is deeply tied to your worth and success.
 
It takes work. And trust. It takes a leap of faith to live in today's world from a place of not-knowing. So I encourage you: for 2019 shift into not-knowing just a bit. You don't need a major shift, it's enough to just open the door to not-knowing.

Practice for a few minutes each day being still & present, fully in the moment, not-knowing what the next moment will bring: 

  1. Sit up tall and firm. Pause.

  2. Notice your breath.

  3. Get still. Become more focused on right now.

  4. Stay anchored in your breath.

  5. Observe what arises, but don’t attach to anything.

  6. Meet everything that comes up (a thought, a pain, etc) with “don’t know”

  7. Go right back to the breath: back to the unknown, present moment

 
As you make time each day in 2019 to take a breath, catch your mind, and open to a world where you may not know what’s next, or the answers, or who your partner is, (or your mom, your bff, your hot neighbor, your annoying co-worker …), you’ll see how much more intimate you naturally become with others, and how much closer you can be with life.

You can do this. 
With practice, and encouragement, you can shift into not-knowing. Simply dedicate time to sit in still silence just three minutes each day. It can change your whole 2019. In more ways than you can know. As you do, you will shift into a real peace with life that few know, and even fewer live.
 

Wishing you an un-known, intimate, and truly peaceful 2019
-kirstin
 
PS: Even folks with the greatest intentions rarely find the time to sit each day, even if for just three minutes. If you need help building, or maintaining a practice, do reach out. It is the most important thing you can do for yourself. And the world.

Integrity & Achieving Your 2019 Goals

The most common thing my high-performing clients value is integrity. Personal integrity. More than anyone else’s, maintaining their own is paramount. It’s the ultimate source of pride and peace when kept; the ultimate source of suffering when broken.

And, it’s not just high-performers. Things that actually take any one down in life (failure, shame, bad mistakes, loss) are – when investigated closely enough – most always rooted in a loss of personal integrity.

Yet failure, even if publicly viewed as monstrous, does not hit that hard, if at all, if – along the way – a person maintained integrity. In fact, when integrity is maintained, a failure may not ravage you at all. And, it may even result in better long-term growth and gains.

Small things, though, if committed in a moment of greed, small-mindedness, or selfishness can occupy a person’s headspace for days on end, setting them into a larger downward spiral. And if small-mindedness resulted in a massive failure … the pain and suffering can be insurmountable. So, for 2019, focus on integrity first. Whatever happens from there is respectable.


Five Tips for Achievable 2019 Goals

1. SMARTI Goals

SMART is a “well-established tool … to plan and achieve goals.” SMART goals work. If you haven’t yet heard of SMART goals, look it up. The quick & dirty: SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Make your goals SMART, and you’ll achieve them.

But my work is about more than just achieving goals. Anyone can achieve goals. Long term success – meaning a solid sense of success and peace in life – takes more than completing to-do lists. And, surprising to most, achieving goals isn’t shown to add much long-term value, at least not as much as folks assume, or hope. It’s like winning the lottery: you get momentary bliss, followed by just another day (and, with lottery, sadly often followed by bankruptcy and depression). We don’t want such outcomes.

A life of integrity does add value. And, integrity is value that accumulates over time. And, even better, acting with integrity makes it easier to achieve goals, because you’re then working towards something bigger than just your small, ego-driven self.

So, I’m adding an “I” to the end of SMART for Integrity: SMARTI. Make your goals SMARTI goals, and you’ll not only achieve them, but you’ll be preparing yourself for long-term, sustainable success. And peace.

Peace? Inspiring others?
More peace - which means less anxiety, and better sleep - because when we act with integrity, we act from our larger sense of self, a larger sense of real connection. Which is the only way to peace, to freedom. When you do the right thing, you feel good. Doing the right thing is not about anyone else: it’s the way to sleep better at night.

And you always know the right thing to do. If you don’t, stop, get quiet, breathe a few breaths, and then listen. The right thing to do will become clear.

Doing the right thing brings us peace. And, if there is something our world needs right now it is peace. But it can only start with yourself, no one else. When we meet someone with integrity, with true peace, it inspires us to live with more integrity. Integrity is viral in the best sense. So, I encourage you to work for a 2019 based in integrity. Set SMARTI goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound, and tied deeply to your sense of integrity.

2. Only Five
(
aka how to make better lists and sleep better at night)

Possibly the most useful things I learned at Harvard was how to make an effective to-do list. I learned this from Professor Gordon Bloom, who learned this when he was a college student at Harvard from–if I remember the story correctly–one of the learned and prescient homeless men found around Harvard Square. The take away was make a list, but it should never include more than 5 items. Five things a day is achievable, doable and honorable.

More than five, and you’re likely to do few to none of the things on your list. I have found this to be true in my life. I can always get five things done. If it works in a day, it can work in a year.

Of course there are always more than five things to do each day. To handle this, I take a sheet of paper and divide it in two length-wise. On the far right side I list EVERYTHING I can possibly think of that needs to get done. Everything. I give myself some time for this. I intersperse meditation, working out, showering, etc, so that anything else that needs to arise has the chance.

Once I know my list is complete, I rank it.

Only the top five things, the five that are achievable that particular day, make the small list on the top left hand side of the page. Once, and only once, those 5 things are crossed off, can I even look back at the right side for new direction. If I do more than 5 things, gold star. Yay. If I don’t, no matter. I got my top 5 done.

At the end of the day, I revisit the right hand list and add to it anything new that came up. I can now rest well, knowing everything I need to take care of is written down and won’t be forgotten. And because I know I have a system that ensures I get done everything that needs to be done. (note: I can not remember if the right-to-left ranking of to-do’s is from Prof Gordon or not. No idea where that came from… ).

3. Five SMARTI Goals for 2019, plus a vision for 2020.

It’s like the extra candle mom put on your cake each year: the one for the future, for the beyond.

When creating my goals for each year, I also have a vision of things I’d like to create the following year in the back of my mind - something that I can’t do yet, but is an overarching vision of where I’d like to go. So, I have five goals, plus some future ideal that puts it all in perspective.

I use Professor Gordon’s daily list-making skills to create my year long-goals, and then set my mind towards five things I really want to do this year, with an extra on top. I print a few of the final product out, and put them where I can see them as gentle reminders of my ideals and goals for this year, and for life in general. Here’s a visual of what it looks like (note the dates - they must be time-bound to be SMARTI):

northscale_goals visual aid.jpg


4. Have a Goal, but have no achievement in sight.

Let the action be the achievement.

This admonition, along with seven others, are from the work-practice guidelines we chant prior to mopping floors, watering plants, or cleaning toilets at our little lay zen monastery in Flatiron. They were written by my teacher, Sensei Gregory Hosho Abels, of Still Mind Zendo.

Things change. Priorities shift. Someone gets sick. Failure can be a great gift. The real achievement is living your life - right here, right now. Have a goal, but don’t be held by it. You don’t know what the future holds, or where any of this may go. If you’re held too tightly to an idea, you may miss out on something bigger, better, or just happier and more peaceful.

Plus, you don’t know if – as Rumi said – the challenges, set backs, or failures are “clearing you out for some new delight” … so: have a goal, but have no achievement in sight. Let the action (right here, right now), be the achievement.

5. Develop your focus

Focus is a muscle. It can wax or wane depending on how well you train it. And, it can only be effectively trained one way that I know of: through mindfulness meditation. Other meditations are lovely, but if they’re taking you out of right here, right now, they may be helping you relax, but they’re not improving your focus. If you have to go somewhere else to be calm, how can you ever be calm in the midst of reality (which is rarely calm or perfect)?

Here’s a quick tutorial on how to meditate. Once you know how to do focused-based meditate properly, you must practice. And you must practice everyday. Once in a while is not enough. It’s like doing 5 push-ups today, and then again 10 days from now. That does little for you now, and nothing for you long-term. So start today, and commit to practicing at least 3 minutes every day. You have three minutes. You can do this. I know you can.

***

But, If you need help developing a daily practice, contact me. I can train anyone to develop and maintain a regular meditation practice, without the use of crutches or props (eg, apps).

If you want your whole team to have more focus in 2019, and reap the collective rewards of improved focus and productivity, we have an incredible in-house program for teams and groups that not only develops a self-sustaining meditation practice for your team, but also improves speaking and listening skills, and is an incredible team builder.

What more could you, or your team, do in 2019 if better focused and more at peace?


Wishing you a calm, focused and present 2019 - one that’s steeped in integrity,
-kirstin

Have more than enough?

Is altruism the way to happiness? Is giving the way to peace? 

With a favorite poem to illume the holidays below, and link to our holiday sale for a stronger 2019


Need, wanting, and the sublime
There’s an old saying: to be given everything, you must give everything up.* While inspiring, if living an ascetic life actually resulted in having it all, and set us free from all pain, and absolved all suffering, wouldn’t we all aspire to austerity? Wouldn’t we yearn for less?

And, if to be given everything, you must give everything up were actually true, why would we ever feel a sense of lack? Or of longing? Or of need?

But, at the same time, why does it feel so great to give? Why does it feel so sublime when we’re kind, generous? And how come we feel a powerful tinge of something bigger than ourselves when we see Scrooge transform into a kindly, giving soul on the big screen, say nothing for the boundless happiness we feel when we witness random acts of kindness in real life?

As we embark on the season of giving, and also on Q4 – that most important quarter that ascertains success solely by growth and increased sales – I come back to things I’ve questioned deeply most of my life: what do we need to actually be happy? What does it take to feel truly free? How do we design our lives to remain consistently content, and thoroughly at peace? How do we reconcile our needs for more, with our needs for less? What — if anything — do we need to give up to find freedom? When, and how, can we know that we what we already have, is more than enough?

We’ve got it wrong?
After 20 years of zen practice, and being with gain and loss over and over again, I believe the wisdom in that old saying is 100% true, but the problem is that most people get it grossly wrong. 

(fwiw: zen is not some blissful la-la land. it’s acute attention to right now, sitting in absolute still silence, eyes open (but cast down), and anchored to your body, and the present moment, by your breath, not moving, yet complete aware, for long periods of time)


“To be given everything, you must give everything up”
is most always misunderstood as self-sacrifice. Misunderstood because, unfortunately, modern self-sacrifice is seen as self-abdication. And self-abdication ultimately leads to an even more intense sense of suffering, as we loose connection to ourselves in search for connection elsewhere, to the other. Whether that other is to a person, an ideal, or a even god, any self-renunciation inevitably results in imprisonment to the very things we try to give up, or give out.

Worse, “giving everything up” often manifests as false charity, or false humility, or at extremes of someone giving up all worldly things in an attempt at some theoretical “higher” connection.

By false humility or false charity, I mean that there’s still ego involved: there’s still some subtle (or more often overt) sense of goodness or rightness or morality or giving to the act. 

By “theoretical” higher connection: they’re searching in all the wrong places. You can’t disconnect from something you already are. It’s like water going on pilgrimage to the desert to find wetness. It’s already is wet. It doesn’t need to go anywhere to find it. It just needs to look a bit closer and pay better attention. (Just like you are completely connected: don’t go looking elsewhere, it’s no where else to be found than right here. Or, go and try to see what you can find everywhere and anywhere else, but I hope you come back to yourself after you’ve sought outside of yourself for long enough). 

Real giving?
True humility or charity means there is no one who’s giving, and no one receiving. The “you” that gives has completely dissolved, and — equally — the someone who receives your humility or charity is just, to quote Stephen Mitchell, an empty boat.

Ha. Easier said than done.
 
The “everything” this phrase urges us to give up, the everything that we must give up in order to be truly charitable or humble, much less to have it all, is the giving up of yourself. This is not self-sacrifice. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s deep connection to your self, a profound intimacy with your self, which — when done with integrity and determination––inevitably leads to a falling off of the small, ego-bound self. 

So, in a way, it is losing yourself. But it’s losing the small self that’s tethered to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure. Those ideas are not the full, whole self. The whole self, paradoxically, includes all the polarities of existence, including greed and sloth and slander. 

But, to lose this small self identified with our successes and achievements and senses of morality, for all of us, is to lose what we think is our everything. I mean, really: what more is there in this life than your idea of yourself? Who are you without your idea of who you are? 

Well, you’re everything. Counterintuitively, the small idea of yourself is the “everything” that must be given up in order to find real peace, and actually experience the everything you are. 

The work
At its heart, the work is the the letting go of the self that thinks there is something to gain, or something to lose, it’s letting our small-selves die off.

This work we need to do this is constantly, repeatedly giving up our idea of who we think we are: it’s the letting up of our small identity, and working to see through our constantly-changing needs and desires. 

Again, this is easier said than done. More, it is the work of a lifetime. And, as lofty as all this may sound, it’s shockingly practical. And based solidly in science.

It’s only when we let our small self die that we can see and feel our big, fully-connected self. This big self is the whole that we naturally are, that we can never be separate from, just as water can never be separate from wet. This isn’t airy-fairy spiritualism: as Carl Sagan repeatedly said, we are all star stuff. We cannot be separate from the whole that is the universe, the earth, and everything else. We ARE it.

When we realize this in our bones (you may get this intellectually, but this understanding will not help you when you feel abandoned or insecure; it takes time to get the idea from your mind into your bones), then you realize that nothing is ever lacking, and that you always have more than enough. In giving up everything (i.e., giving up your small, ego-bound self), then you really do get everything. You get the all the universes among universes. 

But be careful, as our small self is necessary. It enables our survival as individuals and as a species. The problem occurs when we conflate our identity with this small, needy self. When that happens, we can never have enough. When our ego and identity become everything that we think we are, we become disconnected from the whole that we actually are (remember Carl Sagan? We are all star stuff), and then we think we need more. Then we seek externally for security, love, recognition, connection, esteem and value. And then, we suffer. We need more. And more. Because it feels far away. But it’s right under your nose. 

When your small self eventually falls off through dedicated practice (mindfulness meditation), you come to know that even in suffering, in loss, betrayal, hunger, pain and, ultimately, in death, that you have really do have more than enough. You realize that you already have more than all the security, love, recognition, connection, esteem, and value that you could ever need or want. 

Impossible
It sounds impossible, but it’s not. I’ve seen it. And, 2,500 years of teachers before me have lived it. You too can live this way.

You’ve felt it before: it’s why you feel noble when you’re kind, or even just see kindness: you’ve momentarily re-connected to the higher self that you are, to the you that you always have been, and always will be. Your small mind got out of the way for a moment, and you connected to the big you, the whole you, the you that includes both the giver and the receiver. 

The work then becomes extending that feeling to all the other moments of your life, especially those moments of profound lack and disconnect (again, this big self connection is a feeling, not a knowing: astrophysicists know this, but rarely live in peace among the vicissitudes of the world). You can know this intellectually, but it’s only when you sit in still quiet with this notion for long periods of time can you begin to feel it. 

You can’t do this
Counter-intuitively, to let our small self die is not an active endeavor. You cannot smash, eliminate, or kill your small, ego-bound self. Trying to do so will only make it worse. The only way to see through the small self (and the only way to realize your big self) is to sit in still silence, being present to your small, ego-bound self. 

And again, this work is continual work. It’s a constant dying, again and again. As each new idea of an achievement, of a failure, a goodness, or a badness arises, you sit with it. You allow it. You watch it with a sense of detachment, curiosity, and non-knowing. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is a great inspiration here: even he had to practice this until the day he died. 
 
Getting Intimate
When you spend time in still silence paying acute attention to your self (anchored, of course, to your breath), you naturally become progressively more intimate with that small, ego-bound, self. As you do, you get to know that small, ego-bound self really well. And, as you get to know it better, you can’t help but get distance from it. Because, as you become more intimate with your small self, you realize — more and more — that the small, ego-driven you is not permanent.

You see that your idea of your self – your supposed identity – is constantly changing: changing its mind, vacillating from one extreme to another, never solid, never steady. As you realize this impermanence of your small self, you realize there is no fixed, permanent self. You realize that the you–the small you who you think you are–doesn’t actually exist.† And this is life changing.
 
When you realize that your idea of yourself is just that, an idea, you can’t help but also realize that you are also the whole thing. As the small, disconnected self drops off, the connection to the bigger self becomes more and more apparent. You realize that, just like a wave on the ocean comes from the ocean, returns to the ocean, and can never separate from the ocean, you too are from, and returning, and never separate from the whole of everything.

This is how you “get everything” when you give everything up. It’s not self-sacrifice, it’s self-intimacy. With practice and determination you get — in your bones — that you are not separate and, therefore, you get that you actually are everything. You become intimate with yourself. Once you feel that you are that whole thing that Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson spoke of, you can’t help but know that you don’t lack anything, and never have, and never will. 
 
The Ugly, Mean, and Loving
But, this realization on the deepest levels only comes from decades of sitting still and being present to yourself — your whole self. This includes the good, bad, loving, ugly, mean, generous, greedy self that you are. It’s a big concept, and it cannot be understood with the thinking mind. It can only be felt in deep still, silent connection to the ever-changing now. This is why mindfulness is such a big thing: it naturally leads to a deeper self connection. 

But the peace it promises only comes with determined, regular, and extended practice of sitting with your self, and the everything that it includes.

Most of those figures history considers “masters” spent 40, 50 years or more in determined still, silent practice. It took 15 years on the mat for me to even begin to honestly hear these words, and another five to then begin to live them. You don’t have to go that far. But you do have to start. 5 minutes, even one minute, each day, is all you need. Again, every astrophysicist can attest to the veracity of the claim that you — that we all — are the whole and not separate from it. But very few, if any, are at peace with that reality. Very few know in their bones that there is nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. Those few are those that regularly sit with themselves. 

So, to be at peace, you must sit. You must sit with yourself. That’s all it takes. Start today. Start with five minutes. Start now. 

Determination
I work on it everyday. I sit still, even when my mind is racing. In times of great stress or upheaval or emotional heavy, I sit with even more determination. And, when a sense of lack or need or want inevitably rears its ugly head, and the entrapments of this world seem like some sort of answer or way to higher peace, I look to the wise masters of the past to remind myself why I do this work of letting go of my self, and then I sit some more. 

I write this to encourage you to make the time each day to sit in stillness and silence so that you, too, can find real peace. You don’t have to join a monastery or sit for hours on end, but you do need to start. Five minutes a day is great. If I can do this, you can do this.

If I can be of help to you in this journey, reach out. I know many great organizations and teachers (I am highly biased to the incredible teachers at Still Mind Zendo in NYC), but for the corporate or executive set, who want to start 2019 more centered and mentally strong, I have a limited number of team trainings available at 50% off for the holiday, and a few one-on-one coaching packages left as well. I mention these because, for many, the idea of meditation is a great one, but actually doing it — regularly and with determination––remains a great idea, but never an actual daily practice. If you can do it on your own, you don’t need me. Just sit. That’s all this takes. It is the most important practice. But if you need accountability and support, reach out. 

It can save a life. 

To illume all this with words graceful beyond my capacity, I share with you one of my all-time favorite poems, written by Zen Master Shih-tou in the 8th century:

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in — covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present, 
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.

A shining window below the green pines — 
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.

If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.

  — Shih-t’ou (700–790), Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage


Wishing you a calm, peaceful, and fully connected holiday season.
-kirstin


* Adapted from chapter 22 of the Tao Te Ching.
† Paraphrasing the work of 13th century Zen Master Dogen Zenji


Our Cold Wars

In a private facebook discussion with a few friends over whether there was any merit to Nicholas Kristof’s recent NYTimes opinion piece Forget Excuses. What Counts Is Winning Elections, my dear friend Brian said something that got me thinking about the stark parallels between the personal and collective conflicts we see in our world.

I’ll include a segment of Brian’s comment for full context: 

“[We] are not going to always like the direction our leaders take us in. However both sides have to find a way to have leaders who support unifying the country, who require accountability, and who respect each other’s political differences and values. Otherwise I worry we’re headed for civil war. We need a moderate, inclusive and charismatic leader to run in 2020. I am not sure who that is yet, but if we keep acting like elections are war, war is what we’re going to get. We are basically in the midst of an internal Cold War with ourselves.” 

That last line.

I found it a brilliantly poignant way to look at things, as I do believe we are in “the midst of an internal Cold War,” but that cold war isn’t only between ourselves, it’s also within ourselves.

Brian is a humanitarian who has spent most of the last decade working in conflict zones, and is also ex-military. As such, has many friends on both sides of the political divide in the USA and uses his platform to engage openly with all political views. He does this stunningly, maintaining respect for all points of view, while holding his own. In itself, it’s a tribute to open dialogue, and the power of having some distance from your own ideas.

After first reading his comment, I immediately compared it to what I’ve see in my personal life, and in my work with individuals. Re-reading Brian’s remarks from a personal perspective, the parallels become all the more apparent. We don’t always like the direction our life may take us, much less where our mind may take us, or even often our actions (ie, our actions that seem out of our control, especially when we do things we hate or wish we didn’t do, or say). But we have to find a way to lead ourselves, and unify ourselves from within – to unify what we love about ourselves with what we hate about ourselves, finding neither better or worse than the other. We need self-accountability, and must respect ourselves in the midst of our own internal conflicts and differences.

“What lurks within all of us is a deep internal self-war, one that is often unconscious, driving seeming protective behaviors that are ultimately self-destructive.”

Our collective cold wars so closely mirror the cold wars we wage within. No matter what folks show us on the outside­, no matter how perfect or powerful people appear, inside is always a different story. It’s may be unconscious, and it’s often grossly suppressed under achievement or adventure or the doing to the 10,000 things. But as I described in my last article on Power, this internal cold war betrays itself in bursts of anger against inanimate objects, sleepless nights, addictive behaviors, or – more simply – harsh feelings against the view points of those on the other side of the aisle.

These darks sides are what I work to uncover when I work one-on-one with individuals, as uncovering these barriers are key to peace, and to better performance. What lurks within all of us is a deep internal self-war, one that is often unconscious, driving seeming protective behaviors that are ultimately self-destructive.

I didn’t realize the confluence of our personal and collective cold wars until I read Brian’s remarks. And clearly, ours is not the only nation in this plight. We see our entire humanity acting out internal wars in the collective. I personally believe (perhaps biased because of my work, or perhaps because it’s true) that until we come to peace with ourselves – peace with our own hates, angers, and fears – that we’ll collectively keep destroying ourselves.

And here, again, Brian’s statements rings true and parallel:

“[We] are not going to always like the direction our leaders take us in.”
As above: we’re not always going to like the direction our mind, our actions, our life - ourselves - take us in.

“However both sides have to find a way to have leaders who support unifying the country, who require accountability, and who respect each other’s political differences and values.”
This is the crux of the work I do with my clients. We don’t banish or suppress or ignore the things we don’t’ like about ourselves, our lives, our families, our jobs, or anything else. Nor do we paint them in rose colors, or put a smiling face on them. Both are attempts to overpower them, and – like what we see brewing in the collective – only internal war and suffering can arise from attempts to push out or overpower the things we don’t like.

Otherwise I worry we’re headed for civil war.”
To find any peace, we must acknowledge and allow our angers, fears, hatreds, sorrows, mistakes, and failures without judgment. We must avoid trying to analyze, fix, solve or make sense of them. Just as the other side doesn’t want to be analyzed, neither do your fears and hatreds. They’ll revolt against it. Like a child begging for our attention, our hates, fears, angers, etc., just need to be acknowledged and allowed. Not analyzed. And definitely not fixed. Who wants to be fixed? The same goes for your dark side.

Like a child, your dark side doesn’t have a why. Because, ultimately, there is no absolute why. Why is always subjective, changing, and hence empty. Why is not real. You can make it up, but it can’t hold water. But the feeling is real. It may be temporary, or masquerading as another (fear as anger, or anger as fear, for examples). It’s a signal to be paid attention to. And, as we be with whatever it is (to be with is the literal translation of compassion), it will unveil itself to us, in all it’s transforming depths. We don’t know where the signal is leading, but if we can be quiet and listen for long enough, it will reveal itself.  And then it will change.

The art, and the work, is to allow and embrace whatever arises, and let it be there as long as it needs to without judging it as good or bad, without grasping it or pushing it away, or justifying or rationalizing it (important note: allowing something is not the same as acting on something). If you do this, if you pay attention and let it be, let it come and go, it will work itself out, on it’s own and in it’s own time. It always does. Sometimes this can take a very long time. This is where we need support and patience in our practice.

“We need a moderate, inclusive and charismatic leader to run in 2020. I am not sure who that is yet, but if we keep acting like elections are war, war is what we’re going to get.”
In this case, I know exactly who that moderate, inclusive and charismatic leader it: it is–and can only ever be–yourself.

You have to be inclusive and allowing of all that you are, including your hates and desires and fears and everything else. As my dharma brother and fellow therapist Akiva Youan, calls it, “all the good stuff.”

And then you must be moderate with it. Moderate and inclusive. Always astutely balancing between the mental extremes of right, wrong, good, bad, success, failure. Remember that all of these, from right to failure, are subjective ideas that we put on top of things: these values are not inherent in the thing itself. So we must continually check ourselves and question our minds in order to maintain a balance, careful not to fall into any extreme of mental judgment. 

The good news is that you can absolutely build and maintain such internal leadership within yourself. You can live a life open and non-judging and inclusive of you at your worst (and equally non-judging of you at your best: neither bad, nor good).  When you practice this consistently (it is a practice, it is never perfected, but you can live it consistently), over time, with practice you can meet – and love – those you meet as they are, not as you’d like them to be. You can do this because you meet and love yourself as you actually are, and are not caught in some ideal of who you could, should or might be. And there lies peace.

And that is leadership.

And it also leader to charisma. Real, human charisma. The person we can all see ourselves in, because that person is ultimately comfortable in their own skin, comfortable and at peace with everything about themselves. They don’t need to prove themselves, or be a certain way, or achieve anything, to get your approval because they already approve of themselves. And hence, they are at peace.

Now, all this sounds lovely and wonderful. But in reality, when you’re in the midst of pain, anger, hate, or fear, you cannot distance yourself from yourself unless you’ve spent significant, regular time sitting with yourself in still and quiet, anchored to the ever-changing present by your breath. It takes work and determination.

So, have you sat yet today? Have you spent time with yourself? Can you do it now? If even just for three breaths?

If you want peace, if you want to lead, if you want to be charismatic, then you must sit. Sit now. And have present, focused and inclusive day.

Power. And who actually has it.

It’s not who you may think.

Power, and the abuse of power, keeps coming up in conversations. Given the work I do, these conversations–whether with old friends or new acquaintances–tend to run a bit deeper, be a bit more intimate, and often lead to very personal tales of cruelty and exploitation. It’s worth noting that these stories come equally from men and women, both too often finding themselves in abusive power dynamics.

“It’s worth thoroughly analyzing, because it’s the source of the demise of our western culture.”

While this abuse often takes place at work, it’s just as often with parents, siblings or other family members. It’s equally in love and intimate relationships as it is within communities and neighborhoods. I’ve even heard stories of it creeping within deep friendships. And these stories aren’t from prototypical powerless people. They are leaders, CEOs, many of them Ivy League graduates, all in power positions of their own.

In intimate conversation, as people talk through finding themselves at another’s mercy (and they do tend to find themselves in these situations, not having noticed the subtle creep of manipulation until it’s too late to shift the dynamic), the conversation often moves into a deliberation over what drives the abusers. What is it that drives people–people who already have power–to need more and more of it? What impels them to abuse their position at another’s expense? And, then, the conversations often move to deeply questioning what keeps folks (themselves) in seemingly powerless positions.

I posit that the same thing drives both sides of the power equation, and that “thing” is ultimate powerlessness.

For some this may seem obvious. But for most of us, in the midst of our own internal power dynamics, it’s not exactly clear what underlies these power plays. And, even for those for whom it seems obvious, the currents run much deeper than they have likely analyzed. And it’s worth thoroughly analyzing, because it’s the source of the demise of our western culture.

The powerlessness I speak of is not small powerlessness. It’s a deep undercurrent of powerlessness over life, death, love, happiness, meaning, and purpose. The big stuff. We don’t tend to rigorously examine these core concepts–core concepts we believe are the heart of our humanity. And it’s to our detriment. Without thoroughly examining how we see life and death, love and success, good and bad, we remain at the mercy of drives for impermanent feelings of power, peace, happiness, or safety. And then we inevitably need more when the feeling inevitably fleets.

“dominance and influence masquerading as confidence and mastery are nothing new”

As I hope is obvious, the plays at getting or maintaining power we see on the national stage are not displays of real power. They are desperate attempts to feel power. Such dominance and influence masquerading as confidence and mastery are nothing new. But, recently it seems … louder.
 
What can be misleading is that these false displays of power are technically powerful. They have profound effects on others and the world. But the outward expressions of false power are in direct contrast to the deep fears, longings, and unconscious scripts that underlie its desperation. Even if you understand this ostensibly, it’s necessary to investigate this more deeply within yourself if you want to affect the power plays operating within yourself, and especially if you want to affect the power plays operating in our world. You must do this if you ever want real peace in this world of continual change and impermanence. 
 
Inherently (and again hopefully obviously) if you need power–or control, dominance, perfection, or safety–you don’t have power. Power has you. If you think you have power, or mastery, or influence, yet need more of it, you don’t have power. Power has you.
 
Power becomes the driver, and you its puppet. Those who live at the mercy of their needs, fears, desires, and longings very often come across as powerful, as their needs drive them to amass outward displays of power in order to feel a more stable form of safety or peace. But this safety is built on inherently impermanent, unstable things. As such, they are fundamentally powerless to their outward manifestations. When the things they’ve built inevitably fall apart or don’t act according to their will, they cannot live. They cannot be kind. Or generous. Or happy. And they definitely cannot be at peace.

This is all of us, by the way. Neither you nor I are immune here. Hence, again, the necessity to investigate this deeply, and to understand the unique way power plays out in each of us.

Power — real power — is the center of all my work. Power is usually associated with competence, control, mastery, authority, influence, or strength. It is often related to notions of force and dominance. But few of these are real power. At best, mastery can convey what I believe is the true essence of power, but not in a way most may think (I am not talking about self-power. That’s fake power too).

“Drowning out big things like suffering, emptiness, or death with constant doing and achieving is the standard form by which most of us attempt to have power over that which we ultimately have no control.”

Any inner sense of powerlessness inevitably leads to outward grabs at false power. And, the wielding of power is a direct demonstration of inner powerlessness. These are usually subtle and unconscious. You likely do not know your inner senses of powerlessness. The more deep-rooted the inner fear, pain, or sense of lack we harbor, the more critical and desperate the need for outer power and control. The degree to which one needs to show it, or have it, or wield it is the degree to which they feel ultimately powerless to the larger world.

Again, this powerlessness is often unknown to the one wielding power, but they can feel it lurking and it’s terrifying. It hides deep beneath the surface, often tucked away in the subconscious or unconscious, easily triggered by any inkling of attack, danger, lack, longing, or fear (but, it is also easily revealed in a safe environment via a few thought provoking questions and, with work and dedication, can be seen through and dealt with).

This powerlessness can manifest as overtly as sexual harassment or physically harming another, or as subtly as controlling the image others have of us. It can be seen in attempts to control outcomes in order to preempt suffering, loss of control, or perceived negative exposure (think of the seventh grader who breaks up with the guy she likes out of fear he will break up with her, or a man paying off someone he abused or had an affair with before she might speak out).
 
Conversely, false power can–and often does–manifest as power over oneself. Outward self-control or self-mastery is almost always fake mastery, and is belied by the pain, self-hatred, or sleeplessness every perfectionist faces. This perfection can be physical perfection, professional perfection, familial perfection, or even perfection of the world.
 
Last, false power can manifest as attempts to drown out the pains of life via some addiction. This of course can be addiction to drugs or pleasure-seeking behaviors. But it can also be addiction to happiness, love, or — for far too many of us — addiction to accomplishment. Drowning out big things like suffering, emptiness, or death with constant doing and achieving is the standard form by which most of us attempt to have power over that which we ultimately have no control.
 
False power shows its true colors in the hurt, anger, sorrow, or defensiveness that arises when we, inevitably, lose the very thing that seemed to give us power, control, happiness, or safety in the first place. If we suffer when we lose what we think we need, or when we lose what we think is at the core of who we are, then we do not have real power. If we can’t be in peace, if we can’t thrive, or we can’t live when reality doesn’t conform to how we imagine it should or could be, then we are powerless.

“Most of us unconsciously live at the mercy of our own power-seeking drivers.”

And, when we’re powerless, we either let others have power over us, or we seek power over others–both vain attempts to feel some form of safety and have some sort of control in this uncontrollable world.

If we don’t investigate this and understand the emptiness* of our deepest fears and needs, then we’ll continually seek more destructive power or control over life, usually unconsciously. The irony here is that our power seeking behaviors are usually completely out of our own control. Most of us unconsciously live at the mercy of our own power-seeking drivers, never knowing why we do what we do, love what we love, and fear what we fear.

We can see this in public figures like Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein, whose power-seeking first led to great success, but eventually led to their great un-doing. It’s also seen in more painful figures like Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain, where a deep disconnect and consummate inability to find any real purpose or meaning in life left them ultimately powerless.

You cannot blame others for their power seeking behaviors. You cannot blame another for hurting someone, or for staying in a situation where they are being hurt. It’s get no one anywhere in the long term. You’ll only elicit more false power-seeking behaviors on their part. All you can actually do is get at what is driving your source of power. Because it’s only when you understand yourself, and go through the deep, and often painful, work of unmasking your drivers, getting distance from them, and being at peace with them, that you can even begin to meet another, much less be empathetic to their relationship with power.

Your sense of power (and therefore your source of powerlessness) almost always begins with how you identify yourself. So, I encourage you to stop and take a sincere look at how you identify yourself. Look at what makes you proud of yourself. Then, look at what you attempt to escape from. Then, look for what makes you hate yourself. Look to the ways you attempt to eliminate, control, or avoid things you don’t like, agree with, or that terrify you (an easy exercise here is to look at your feelings towards the views of the opposing political party). There’s your work. Start there.
 
Whatever the sources of your identity, control, pride, and hate in life, they’re usually unconscious masks for power-seeking behaviors. Do not fret this. The things that make us proud of ourselves can be our best teachers. On one hand they can be incredible gifts. They can be incredible drivers to all sorts of great things, as long as we’re not attached to any set outcome (this goes for the things we hate about ourselves as well). And, if we can pay attention to them, they can alert us to what may eventually be the source of our own great undoing, helping us avert hurting ourselves, and others, as we live out the manifestations of our gifts.
 
This is the most important work, I believe. We must look deeply into ourselves, into our identity, into who and what we think we are, name them, and then work to see through them. 
 
An identity based on being perfect, successful, funny, or altruistic can possibly be a great gift. Being successful or perfect or funny, in themselves, are not harmful. It’s a warning, though, if failing or being boring or angry or burdensome destroys your sense of peace. It’s then you know that the perfection, success, laughter, or love you seek is just a cover for a deep sense of powerlessness.
 
 Again, this is all of us. This is a reality of human nature. This doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done. There is a way through, and it is open to everyone. 
 
The mastery at the heart of the real power I speak of is mastery over your own mind. I do not mean controlling your mind. That is more false power. Rather, I refer to the ability to remain at peace in the midst of a mind that one minute tells you you’re great and powerful, the next minute harangues you for yet again failing, or being angry, or saying something stupid.

“the work is not controlling your mind. Rather, it’s witnessing your mind, then seeing through it.”

Real power is the ability to see through your own thoughts. It is not controlling or changing or eliminating said thoughts. Your thoughts are allowed to be there. They are there. They are possibly telling you something you should listen to. But you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go. Thoughts change. They are not solid, and they are always subjective.
 
Be careful: the work is not controlling your mind. Rather, it’s witnessing your mind, then seeing through it.
 
Investigate this deeply. Sit still, quietly, for long periods of time. Can you allow your own ideas and concepts to be here, and at the same time have distance from them? Can you not-know, in the midst of your knowing? That is the essence of the real power I speak of. It’s an astute balancing act that requires constant and acute attention and presence.
 
This is doable. If I can live this, you can. It just takes practice. That practice is sitting in focused-based silent meditation, anchored by your breath to the present moment. That’s it.
 
Power is the internal peace, no matter outside circumstance, that comes from regularly being still and quiet for long periods of time. Slowly, you’ll be able to see through all things, and though your mind, and then things can come and go, all while you remain at peace. This is true power.
 
Power is an ability to not be attached to things, ideas, or outcomes. Power is having things, yet not needing them. It is loving and losing, yet not fretting. Power is ultimately found in the things that can be taken away from you.Could you lose you home, your love, your career, your image, your income, your family, your country, your ideas of right or wrong, and still be ok? Still be kind? Still be at peace? If so, then you are no longer at the mercy of your own ideas. If so, then you are truly free. Truly powerful.

No matter the strife, failure, success or joy, power is your ability to stay gracefully centered. 
 
But please be careful. Trying to live what I’m calling a truly powerful existence is also an idea and ideal of some perfect mind. Wanting to achieve such a powerful state of mind is just getting back on the wheel of false power. You’re again stuck in desire. But, it’s not a zero-sum game. Ideals can lead to peace if used correctly. They can guide us, if we can maintain distance from them. I know this from my own experience. It’s a constant practice. It’s a consistent noticing and re-balancing. But do not take my word for it. Find out for yourself.
 
You can begin cultivating this power right now by simply noticing your breath, by just noticing yourself as you are. Spend quiet time alone with your thoughts and fears and desires. Practice witnessing them, then seeing how those fears and desires are not you. See how they come and go. See how they are not solid, not constant. Over time, you will get more and more distance from them. And, with more time, you will progressively be more and more able to use them, as opposed to them using you. 
 
 A final word of warning: again, this is not a static state you achieve. It is a consciousness you cultivate. This is life work. It does not end. There are continual thoughts and fears and longings that arise. As my teacher says, practice being with each of them. One goes, another comes. What develops over time is an openness, an allowing, a presence. This is not some ideal openness, but real concrete presence to what is. This is what you’re cultivating. It’s a patience and kindness with your wants and fears. And, in that, you can eventually be patient and kind with the desires and fears of others.
 
That’s real power.

*emptiness is a big concept, and is tied deeply to the reality of impermanence. Be patient with these concepts: it can take years of work to understand them, much less come to real peace and freedom within them.

Want Peace?

PEOPLE SAY THAT WALKING ON WATER IS A MIRACLE, BUT TO ME, WALKING PEACEFULLY ON THE EARTH IS THE REAL MIRACLE.
— THICH NHAT HANH

Are you at peace? 
Do you walk in peace? With peace? 
Do you carry peace in your body – in each step? 

It's easier than you think. It just takes practice. Regular practice. 
And, the practice couldn't be simpler.

It’s enough to sit still, and focus on your breath.
Make just one moment still. And quiet.
Just with yourself.

That is where peace is.

* * *

Then, carry that same still into your walking.
Then, carry it into every moment of your life. 
The anchor to your peace is your breath: it's always right under your nose.

Then, when you're at peace, each person you meet will feel your grounded presence.
Then, they will have a moment of peace themselves.
This is how the historical buddha said we save the world: the peace starts with you.
And ends with you. It's all about you.

But, most of us don't make the time to practice each day. But, peace is a muscle memory. If we don't practice peace, we can't have it, or maintain it. So the peace we seek – that could so simply be here, right now – alludes us.

So practice. Right now, with this breath. 
And then, carry that peace with you with each step you take:

  • Take a slow, deep breath
  • Slowly exhale, and let the morning, the day ahead, the week, and the month go
  • Sit up straight, then breathe
  • Notice your body
  • Breathe three long, slow breaths
  • Let the exhale be longer than the inhale
  • Let each breath be a little slower, a little still-er, a little longer, than the one before
  • Carry this slow, still breath with you throughout the day

To maintain and expand your peace, design your life to maintain a small practice: 

  • Set an hourly timer (on the hour, half past, whatever)
  • Each time it goes off - no matter what you're doing: notice your breath
  • Then take three long, slow, still breaths


That's it. Easy. The great thing is that you can take these three breaths anywhere, doing anything. 

It doesn't matter where the timer goes off. You can take three breaths in a meeting, on the phone, while giving a presentation, while listening to the screaming person. As you do this, you'll come to welcome the little alarm that reminds you to breathe – to be present to yourself.

After a few alarms, you'll notice you come into your body a bit more, get out of your head and into your feet - into the world - a bit more. You'll let yourself be a bit more slow and deliberate (i.e., a bit more peaceful).

Practice this throughout the day, and you'll begin to find peace and presence in your breath - no matter what else is going on. 

And THAT peace, that presence, will carry, thereby bringing peace to everything you touch, and everyone you meet.  No matter what angst, worry, fear, or dread might cross your path, you can walk peacefully. You can carry peace.

You can. 

Unplug from your phone while you travel today, and listen - watch - notice. Pay attention to (i.e., notice) the life around you, and come back to your breath. Let your breath center and ground you.

And, of course, do your five minutes of sitting with your breath as well (smile).

I wish you a day, week, and life of peaceful walking, and living,
 -kirstin

(the above article was originally sent on February 1st 2017 to recipients of NorthScale's Weekly Encouragement email. You can sign up here: http://www.north-scale.com/weekly-encouragement/

 

Train your mind the way you train your body

 

"[A] calm heart and self control are necessary if one is to obtain good results."     
          -  Thich Nhat Hanh, on work

"You should know how to breathe to maintain mindfulness. ...Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of yourself again."     
          -  Thich Nhat Hanh, on the breath

"[K]eep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation that may arise – this is mindfulness."       
          
-  Thich Nhat Hanh, on work


Great. This all sounds great, until you're in the middle of work nightmare, or a family catastrophe. When that random 'thing' come at you some random Tuesday afternoon: under severe stress, your ability to maintain calm, focused awareness will hinge on muscle memory.

If you have trained – regularly, everyday –  to focus your mind using your breath, when calamity strikes you will naturally come back to your breath, be calm and focused, and able to handle whatever comes at you.

If you haven't practiced regularly, you'll naturally revert to old methods of handling stress - getting mad, angry, frustrated, sad, ...

If you don't regularly train your brain to focus, it will take all your might to come back to your breath. Actually, unless you randomly remember this note, or someone says something, you're stuck in old, ineffective methods. 

So, start training. Now. And then, you'll have the muscle memory to handle whatever life brings your way. For just 5 minutes (Why not right now? When else will you do it?):

  • Stop. Sit up straight. Take a slow, deep breath.
  • Exhale slowly and fully, notice your body - release tension held in your shoulders, jaw, hips. Take another slow, deep, calm breath. 
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes, then put the phone down (and off).
  • Focus all your attention on your breath - watch and feel the inhale, then watch and feel the exhale.
  • That's it.

When your mind wanders (not if - it will wander) , simply come back to the breath as soon as you've realized it. Do this 'returning to the breath' over and over again, till time is up. 

If you can (and, you can): do this at least 5 minutes each day upon awaking. Use this practice as often as you can: on the subway, while walking on the street, while eating, when listening to someone else speak. 

There. You've begun to rewire your brain to think and act more calmly under stress. 

Wishing you a calm, focused and stress-free week,

Are you awake?

people walking looking at phones.jpg

(originally published Dec 31, 2015 on LinkedIn)

Where are your feet right now?
Seriously. Check in. 

How is your back is postured as you read this? Are your shoulders hunched (even a little bit) forward, so you’re collapsing in on your lungs (restricting your ability to breathe)? Your jaw? Is it clenched at all (a sign of tension, even when we think we are relaxed)?

Until I started writing this, I had no concept of my own body.  I wasn't awake.   
Like most of us – most of the time these days – I was in a haze of social media.

How often can you say you are really awake?

If we’re rarely aware of our physical presence – of our bodies – how aware can we be of our own emotions? And, what about the thoughts constantly going through our heads? The devils that one moment tell us how great we are, the next berate us for some random mistake we made? How aware are we of them? 

If being aware of our emotional and social cues is a key to effective leadership (another is being aware of others' emotional and social cues, but one step at a time– no carts before horses), how can we be leaders if we’re not aware of how we’re holding our shoulders (much less our pain)?

The key is surprisingly simple, but exceedingly
difficult in that simplicity: it’s practice. 
Just regular (daily) practice.

Just as a key to building arm strength is regularly doing push-ups, the key to being mentally awake and aware is regularly practicing mindfulness, also known as meditating. Mindfulness being awake and alive to right now, as it is, not as we think it should be. Meditation is the practice of being awake.

Mindfulness sounds great, but few people I ask seem to have a actual concept of what mindfulness is, or how to do it. Earlier, while waiting on a fax to go through (because there are still places that require faxes in 2015), I asked the gentleman at the UPS office about mindfulness.

He said it's focus.
True
Then I asked him how he practiced focus. 
He said relaxing and listening to music.
False

Relaxing and listening to music are not focus. Relaxing is not awareness. It might help you calm down, but it's not creating any mental strength. Like any other muscle, your mind takes actual work to make it strong. Otherwise, you might as well watch ShaunT do Insanitywhile you sit on the couch.

Mindfulness is actually quite simple.  Here's how:  Right now, sit up straight, feet flat on the floor. Set a timer for 5 minutes (or 3 minutes, or 1 minute). Now, just notice your breath.

That's it. 

If you’re not doing anything, you’re still breathing. In fact, breathing is all you are doing.  The breath is your anchor. It's there for you to focus on. 

Mindfulness is awareness, built by focusing regularly on the breath. Nothing else. 

That’s it. When your mind begins to wander (not if, when), just come back to the breath. That’s all it takes. Do this 5 minutes a day, and you’ll be on your way to being more awake, more of the time.

As we come into 2016, the key to every other resolution’s success is continual awareness: a commitment to being awake.  (It’s also the key to life – life is being awake to each moment we get to be alive.)

Happy New Year. 
I wish for you a very awake AND aware 2016