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Calming the mind

Those of you living in the Northern Hemisphere will by now be really noticing the evenings drawing in, daylight hours getting shorter, the temperature falling, night-time frosts, morning mists, the leaves turning golden brown and falling too. This is a time when nature starts to draw within and close down while it regenerates itself. It’s very good time to meditate. But we humans tear around in a great hurry, being very busy. So let’s give some time to quietening the mind and going within.

At one time this blog had “meditations” in the title and you might have wondered what meditation actually had to do with it since much of it seems to be about thinking. Yet for me one beauty of meditation is that it is a time when I can notice my mental activity as a witness and not be attached to it, as I allow myself to centre myself in a state of inner calmness. While I have a clear spiritual objective in my meditations, I am very aware that I am also managing my mind. And I do have a very busy mind – bit like all those busy people. Meditation is a way of reminding me that there is more to me and my life that all this busy activity.

For me, my process is to settle into meditation, to breathe deeply initially, to relax and tune through my body releasing tensions and noticing what’s there for me – what my body is telling me – how I’m feeling. Then, as I become stiller I notice my mental activity. Sometimes I’m slow to do that, being absorbed in whatever in life is currently absorbing me. At some point I become aware of my mind. Thus I become detached from it, noticing it as a witness to my mind. “I am not just my mind, I am more than just my mind”. I might at this point repeat my mantra, although I think a lot of meditators focus on their breathing. I let go of my thinking, and although it may carry on with its meanderings, it’s more in the background, I’m not absorbed in it, caught up in it.

Now, for me this is great training in the use of the mind in everyday living. Another of the beauties of meditation is that what one learns in meditation, one applies in life. It takes time and regular meditation to discover that but I think it is true. Here, detaching myself from my mental activity, letting go, is a crucial skill. It is this way that I have learned to drop what is going on for me that isn’t serving me. Yes, literally drop it. I might be caught up in some pointless internal dialogue and I become aware of it and choose to let go, to drop it. Similarly it is possible to do that with some feeling or some internal drama, although more about that next time.

It’s very simple. Going within, stilling the mind, letting go, re-focusing on what is worthwhile, following the vision, getting back on track with what life is really about. Try it. It’s a practice, so you’ll need to persevere. Let me know how you get on, maybe by posting a comment.

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Envisioning plenty – especially when we don’t feel like we’ve got it

Let’s for a moment envision the very best outcome for our lives that we can imagine. Do you have a picture or thought about how you would ideally like your life to be?

Let’s take a moment to think about this. You could even write it down if you want. Just go for it, writing spontaneously. See what comes up:

Think about say 3 year’s time. Where are you? What are you doing? Look around at the scene. What does it look like? How do you feel? What are you thinking? What is going on in your life that’s positive? Who are you with? Describe that person or persons. Is that who you want in your life? What’s it doing for you? Also think about the various things that you have been doing? What’s so good about these things? And what are you about to do? What is it that makes this picture or description of your life now so right, so complete?

What you will have come up with can be very powerful. This is your vision, your objective, what you really want. Keeping that forefront from now on could transform your life. The key would be your ability to totally believe in it, to intend that it will come about. Of course, you might notice a doubting thought creeping in. It might be that it was there from the start, or you may not have really done this exercise but just read the words. One question might be, are you sceptical about visioning? Do you not believe in it? If so, you might just be missing out on one of our most powerful ways of manifesting what we want in our lives.

People do have goals in life. When I’ve explored this in my work with people, they often come up with things like: “Paying off the mortgage”. “Buying a better house”. “Time with the family”. “Being financially independent”. “Achieving a desired career goal”. “Getting off the corporate treadmill”. “A great relationship”. Continuing my theme from the recent postings, how many of these are financial or money-related? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My question is merely, does it serve you? Is it useful? Are you meeting your deepest needs, your highest aspirations, this way?

I’ve often found that people express their goals in life in money terms. As though their worth is measured in money terms. But, can they take money to the grave? In reality, people are looking for something greater.

When people are surveyed about the importance of financial rewards in their jobs, the evidence is steadily showing that other factors are more important. Employers are finding that throwing money at a person doesn’t fundamentally motivate them enduringly. People seek more from their work. It boils down to the meaning they find in their work, their sense of satisfaction, the pleasure they get from say doing a job well, serving others, making a difference, exercising their competence effectively, seeing a result from their efforts.

Of course you could be earning high bucks, if that is what you want. My question is, is it serving your true needs, your higher aspirations? What are those? My betting will be that that is what is nagging for attention underneath, like a child wanting some special treat. It’s a question of balance, of proportions, of motives, of values.

In a previous posting, I quoted from Lynne Twist, “The Soul of Money”. She stresses in her book that when we focus on what we want at this higher level, when we are being complete with who we aspire to be, who we truly are, when we are aligned with our highest values, money flows in and through us and out again, to support us in being this way, not necessarily to make us rich, but to make things complete, sufficient. Because we are enough.

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What you appreciate, appreciates

Recently helping someone to get their life back on track got me thinking about how much is possible when we deliberately focus on what we’ve got.

So, when you feel like it isn’t happening, that you haven’t got what you want, that things seem not to be turning out as you intended, try this.

Focus your attention on what you do have. Think about all the people in your life that you love, value and respect. Think of the things in your life that you value. Think of your positive attributes, of your skills and capabilities, of what you have accomplished. Think of places you’ve been to, seen on TV, read about, heard about. What’s around you that you value? Just look around at your world. What do you like about it? Then notice how you feel.

If you focus intentionally on what you have in your life that you value, you create new value. Focusing on these things grows them. It’s a bit like counting your blessings, often said but not often practised.

I’ve seen this many times when working with people whose jobs weren’t going well, had to find another job, were impacted by some organisational transition, had to up-skill or move on, or were not performing well. Their self-esteem had taken a knock and the downward spiral was self-reinforcing. Often this was being accompanied by things going on at home, a divorce, a bereavement, and so on. As a result of the coaching, they would focus on what was positive in their lives, in their skills and accomplishments, discover new possibilities and build a much bigger future for themselves. Their self-esteem would grow and they would discover new confidence and capabilities. The re-focusing of attention is extremely powerful.

And this is the power of the mind: as said in an earlier posting, “where the mind goes, the energy flows”. We are extremely creative, much more so than we realise. This positive, appreciative focus is supported by the research of Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman. It is also to be seen in the work of Appreciative Enquiry in management consulting.

Of course the trick is not to go off into the negative about these things. Left to its own devices, the mind will start to find fault. That’s what the ego likes to get up, because its job has been to look after you, to maintain the limited perspective because it had been proven in earlier life experiences that it’s safe there. Not so. Taking a larger perspective involves challenging the ego. Just notice what’s positive. Then watch it grow, supported by action on your behalf.

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Not enough money: a thought to let go of

Continuing the theme of money from my last posting, I was saying that our Western civilisation gets hung up around the subject of money and that our view of money says something about how we view ourselves.

For starters, you might ask yourself how many times in the day do you think about money? What is your predominant thought about money? Watch out over the next day and make a note of it. Look at what you come up with. Is it positive or negative?

From a personal growth point of view, it can be very useful to ask ourselves, “Is my attitude to money serving me?” (ie. Is it useful?) For myself, I can own that I have got very attached to “not having enough money”. I have often had the experience that, as a self-employed person, I have found myself attached to the thought that I don’t have enough, and all would be OK if only someone called me to ask me to do some work for them. I remember that sometimes this internal dialogue would go on for ages. And the flow of money would dry up. Yet my wife Akasha will firmly testify that many, many times, as soon as I let go of this thinking, the phone would ring. For ages, I didn’t notice it either, but it was true. And, we’ve also noted that somehow, somewhere, money has always turned up.

So, what was going on here? Firstly, there’s the thought that I don’t have “enough”. In itself, this is so potent with possibilities. As I noted in the last posting, we equate “not enough” money with being not enough. Something is lacking, is missing in us. This belief is for so many people a bottom-line negative belief. “I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy enough. I don’t come up to scratch. There’s something missing in me”. Who says? Well, we do of course, although this was often something we took on board from our early life experiences, such as from a scolding parent or teacher and gets reinforced over time. This belief gets projected on to money. “It isn’t enough”. And interestingly we then make it be all about things like survival.

By the way, this can be just as applicable to someone with plenty of it as to one with a deficit! It’s just to note what the driver is. That’s the point of awareness. And if we believe this about ourselves, we can also decide to change it. That’s the point of choice.

I also noted above that I needed to let go before the money would flow in again. Letting go is an art. It can be applied to all areas of our lives. But a simple way to look at it is to reflect on when you’ve stopped thinking about something and turned to something else, to notice later that you are no longer bothered by the previous matter. It has somehow energetically, emotionally and mentally left you. There’s a feeling of release, almost of relief.

So, have a think about times you’ve been caught up with something to do with money and then somehow it has resolved itself and you’ve been able to let go of it.

Poverty consciousness can pervade all corners of our lives if we let it – and we put this out into the world. Time for a change?

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Wanting money: scarcity or sufficiency?

When it comes to money, do you believe there is enough for you or not enough? Does money easily and effortlessly flow into your life or do you often find it something of a struggle. Our thinking about money, and especially our limiting beliefs, tell us a lot about how we live our lives in general.

I’m reading a book called “The Soul of Money” by Lynne Twist and just lighted on a chapter on scarcity and sufficiency thinking. Much of her work has been with charitable work tackling world hunger. She tells about when she travelled into the interior of Senegal, into the desert to a tribe who were running out of water. After being welcomed with song and dance, she spoke with the men and then separately with the women – they were Muslim – about a solution the women had to the problem, which was to dig down to what their instinct told them was an underground lake. Lynne was asked to get the men to agree, which she did. Subsequently the hole was dug and the water was found. Then the fortunes of the tribe turned around. What, however, struck Lynne most was how clear and focused this tribe was, not in lamenting lack, but in seeking out solutions and in believing that water could be found. She says that these people had a “sufficiency” not a “scarcity” mentality. She concludes, when “we let go of the mind-set of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency…It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough and that we are enough” (bold is mine).

She also tells about a talk she gave to senior women executives at Microsoft in 1998. What she noticed was that these very successful women were in their mid-thirties and had very high salaries, small children and a very good standard of living. Yet they said goodbye to their children, left early for work and started on their PC’s at 8.00am, returning home at 9.00 or 10.00pm, to tuck their children up in bed and say goodnight. Then they’d be back on their PC’s till 1.00am. Periodically they would have guilt flings about getting a life, but that would be quickly replaced by the next business task. As Lynne talked about how much of the rest of the world especially the hungry ones were living, and as she stressed how in the midst of such things people like the Senegalese kept up their spirits and their positivity, the room went palpably quiet. Her points were striking a chord. These women were driven by the desire for more, more money, more possessions, a higher life-style, but they weren’t really enjoying the fruits of it. It hadn’t altered their experience of life and there was an unaddressed hole. Subsequently she heard that for several women, her talk had had life-changing results.

Recent happiness surveys have been showing that as our society in the West gets more prosperous, happiness levels are falling. We may speculate about the various causes. The happiness gurus tell us that happiness is stronger where people have a disposition to positivity and pleasurable experiences, have close supportive relationships and have a sense of meaning to their lives. Material prosperity has little to do with it, once basic conditions are satisfied. Yet, we live in a society and in a mental framework of more, bigger, better – the function of desire – something that is inherently unfulfilling. Once I’ve got this, I want more: the desire is only temporarily satisfied. I remember running a workshop once in a factory where the operatives, at a point where we were discussing values, said in a loud chorus, “we want more!” According to motivation theory, if you have “away from” motivation, where you are motivated to avert something seen as undesirable, you will work till it is satisfied and then you ease up subconsciously till the problem returns. Then the cycle begins again.

Where it gets even more interesting is where our beliefs about money spill over into life itself. What does this say about what we think about our own personal worth and value?

So, as for yourself, what is your relationship with money? Are you motivated by “lack”? Do you believe that things are basically scarce – or are they enough? Do you think in terms of things being “not enough” or are they plentiful? And how much of your life is taken up with this?

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Being right

How often have you had a disagreement with somebody where you have felt sure you were right? Or how often have you been faced with a choice over what to do, and you’ve asked yourself what the right course of action should be? And how often have people told you what the right thing to do is?

This is worth thinking about. After all, humans have a long history of fighting over who is right. Apparently it was right, according to the British Prime Minister, to invade Iraq: “I am right”, he said. We are not so sure now.

I have often in the past found myself telling myself, in the heat of a conflict, that “I’m right”, and felt the full force of righteous indignation and blame towards another whom I perceived to be wrong. And all the time, it was not worth all the negative energy. It was more powerful, and served me better, to let go of the need to be “right” so as to open up a space where both needs could be met, or a different, healing solution could emerge. “Being right” hid that space from view. The still space between thoughts, where there is no anger, no thought, is the space of true creativity. Meditators know this. That is why they focus on the space between breaths. When we pause and let go, something else can take the place of conflict and “being right”.

In a previous life I worked for a headteacher whose favourite maxim was, “Get it right”. And that might have been said when someone, somewhere had definitely not got it right. When a team of professional people, say, are closely aligned, they probably have a very clear idea of what that might mean. We certainly did in that school. There were the very clearly articulated and agreed principles for action by which we made decisions about the good education of our students. So, in this respect, being right may be about living by an agreed set of ethical principles.

But what about when there’s disagreement? Who is right? It may be an issue of fact: “I’m right because the facts say this”. The trouble with facts is that there is no universal agreement even on facts. Scientists tend to prefer the word “probability” to “fact”. We all agree to call something a bus and we all agree that that is what it looks like. But as we learn more about the mind and how it works, the more it appears that what is really happening is that we are actually applying a joint perception that something is as it is. So, in that case who is right?

The trouble is, people treat “being right” as some universal rule, when in fact it is their opinion.

Then there is the whole world of the social consensus. What is deemed “right” is actually the rules of social consensus. We apply rules to our society and judge people’s behaviour accordingly. Yes, we might need it to be like that so that the society can function. Except that, as we evolve to become higher order beings, even those rules become less necessary as we become more autonomous, self-responsible, totally respecting beings no longer needing external rules to guide us. We have our own.

So, when we react to someone who says, “That’s not right”, it is worth appreciating how much we’ve become self-responsible beings who more and more wish to make our own decisions. Because we are more and more connected with one another, what we decide is also totally appropriate for the other as it is for us. Or we can listen to others and discuss it with them, and agree together what is needed. In this emerging paradigm, managers no longer instruct their direct reports. It doesn’t motivate them. Instead they find it works better to agree it with them after seeking their involvement in the decision.

“Being right” smacks of parentalism, someone older, better (who says?), wiser, more knowledgeable. In that paradigm, you are told what you “should” or “should not” do. Right away this slips into a right/wrong polarity of thinking, with judgement and blame not far behind. In the new paradigm, we seek to step above judgement. Here, each makes his or her own choices. As connected beings we are at once totally respecting of our need to make our own choices in life, and to respect the choices of others.

“Being right” can take us into the thinking of fundamentalism, where one belief system is deemed right and all others relegated to eternal damnation. It is fascinating for me how many of us today are having a problem with this world-view. This is probably one of the most powerful inheritances from our common past, embedded deep in our consciousness from past ages, where religious and social systems enforced principles of behaviour on a God-fearing population. According to Spiral Dynamics, we are evolving fast away from that thinking and are poised to move en-masse to a far more respectful and inclusive, world-centric way of seeing things.

So, it is always worth pausing when you come across the word “right”. It can be useful, as in human rights, but it can also be an inheritance from a paternalistic age which no longer serves us. And you may be outgrowing it yourself. What would be a more growthful way of seeing the situation? Right/wrong thinking may also no longer serve you as an individual. Consider asking yourself instead, “Is this what I am choosing right now?” “Is this what I want right now?” “Will this serve me right now?” “Is this what I am seeking to create right now?” Here you can step into a far more empowering way of perceiving.

And, when you react to a perceived transgression by someone else, you can instead of leaping to judgement become aware of your feelings, take responsibility for them, let them go and see what other more creative possibility may exist.

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To be clear who you are, know your Shadow

Over the summer break, sitting in the garden of our home in South-West France, I was reading Ken Wilber’s recent book, “Integral Spirituality”. It is not easy reading, unless you are familiar with his ideas, but it offers a truly great new perspective of integrating Western scientific materialism with spirituality that gives hope for us all. In it, there is in my view an outstanding chapter on “The Shadow and the Disowned Self”.

The Shadow is a term derived from Carl Jung and it is the idea that there are parts of ourselves that we are not aware of, which we have disowned and usually projected on to other people. These parts may be negative or positive. For example, I might present myself to others as Mr Nice Guy, as in truth I once did. In reality I might not think I’m nice at all, but I don’t want to go there so I make a big effort to “be nice”, as instructed originally by my parents perhaps. However, out there are lots of nasty, angry people, whom I find myself repeatedly in conflict with. This causes me a lot of stress. Until eventually something big happens and I have a wake-up call, obliging me to take a good hard look at myself. The learning of this self-enquiry is that those angry people are projections of mine. What is then needed is an acknowledgement of the disowned part of me and an integration of that part into me, probably by being angry more, but not at others’ expense – or mine. I then do not meet so many angry people and feel more at peace. And I start liking myself, warts and all.

This is a simple way of presenting the shadow, but it is a major feature of our make-up. And if we don’t become aware of and acknowledge our shadow, it can play havoc in our lives, particularly in our relationships with other people. This has a point for those who follow eastern spiritual practices. Wilber says that however much meditation you do, you are not going to get to reach your Shadow. The discovery of the shadow was one of the most important contributions of Western psychology to human consciousness. It means that the process of self-enquiry is very important. “Know thyself” was the famous phrase over the entrance to the Oracle at ancient Delphi in Greece. It is still relevant.

Often my wife and I meet people in our work who have not done this enquiry. We meet it a lot I’m afraid to say in fellow professionals, who do close work with others and yet lack self-awareness. We meet it in business people who lead teams and work in high-profile situations. Around them are casualties and conflict. Others see it in them but they don’t get it. Often they get to positions of power and still don’t get it. Till some big event happens and they hit a crisis that forces them to look at themselves.

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Enjoying your work

Why is it so important for me to choose work that I enjoy?

Recently I have been talking with someone about why I do what I do and why it is important to enjoy it. We had been talking about whether one could ever be genuinely altruistic or whether there is always an element of self-interest in what we do for others. For my colleague, he felt there were times when one can be selfless but was aware that he worked to help others because he enjoyed it.

This got me thinking about how important it was to get some satisfaction from what I do, even though I am also clear that I work ethically, as an act of service to others. As coaches, we often talk about putting the ego on one side in the service of others. That makes big sense to me. This links up with an approach to life that I hold dear. This is where I seek as far as is possible in any moment to not get caught up in my “sweaty ego”, my small self, where I do not serve myself well. This refers to getting caught up in my old patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving where I might get stuck. I was trained to be aware of and “bracket off” any ego stuff.

Yet there is still an element of personal involvement in helping others that I think is vitally important. And it goes like this:

I think it is very important to enjoy helping others. One, it is a great activity, which I find hugely rewarding in an intrinsic way, for its own sake. When as a result someone achieves something they really want in their life, I get a buzz. Second, the act of helping is a giving of oneself, done in my case because I care. I feel strongly about it. I’ve made a big commitment to it. This is not just something ethical, and that plays a big part. It is also an opening of the heart in the cause of one’s fellow humans.

My take on this is that service to another is also service to oneself, not the “sweaty little ego”, but the true Self of all. Here I am referring to something nobler within us, not just in me but also in that person I work with. This where potentially we are one. This is where helping others is done in the purest of motives.

This is a way of living, not just in helping others. Enjoying what I do is en-joying, connecting with my own inner joy, my essence, and being present with that as I go about my life. Some call it “being centred” or “in the zone”.

Many of us have got into work to earn a living, support a family, pay a mortgage, fund a standard of living, and finance a lifestyle. Then something happens to them, some change occurs, they loose their job, they suddenly – literally sometimes – get sick of their job or the stress and then they start to question why they are doing what they are doing and wonder how they can have something different. A great start is with the question: what would you love to do?

Do you do work that doesn’t interest you, or which you’ve grown tired of. Do you want to change it for something that holds an interest for you, which you could enjoy doing, which could enable you to be who you really are?

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Where the mind goes, the energy flows

These last few days I’ve been delivering some workshops in London, which involved a short tube journey from my accommodation to the venue. The last morning I came downstairs for breakfast at the agreed time to find that the breakfast room was in darkness, with the shutters closed and nothing laid out. I waited some minutes and noticed my agitation rising. “This will delay me”, I thought. Eventually I went and called up the people in charge and got my breakfast.

Then, when I got to the tube station, the train was delayed. Again I noticed my state of mind and this time found I was thinking that the longer I waited the more the station would fill up, the more crowded the train would be and the later I would get to my destination. Eventually I got a train on another route and then found myself thinking the change I’d need to make would lead to more crowded trains and so on.

At some point in this internal dialogue I began to get a grip. “Stop”, I told myself. “My train will have plenty of room, there is plenty of time and I will get there in time. I am flowing calmly, easily and effortlessly through the mass of people”. And so it was, even to getting there 10 minutes earlier than before!

This process is one I am familiar with. I find that what I think comes about, provided my intention is clear, I sustain the intention and my on-going thoughts are supportive of that intention. And provided that I let go of being attached to it happening, eg. letting go of worrying that it won’t happen. If, by contrast I get embroiled in some negative self-talk, events follow in train with that internal conversation.

It’s not an easy process and requires will and effort to sustain. But training the mind has great benefits. What is crucial is to stop the negative flow. Almost literally to drop them. Learning to drop them takes practice, as does re-framing the thoughts so as to fufill the desired outcome.

We have that power. Studies of the brain have shown that changing thought patterns lead to the old neural pathways withering away, while new ones become established in their place. The power of the mind is hugely creative.

So what do you find happens to your mind if you let it “do its own thing”? How easy do you find it to shift your thinking into something preferable? How do you feel about changing your thinking and letting a positive energy flow through your life?