“The most important thing in life is to remember the most important thing” Zen saying I recently spoke to a client who has been extremely successful professionally. “Bob” owns equity in over a dozen companies and will retire soon while being in his early 40s. He didn’t reach out to me to get advice on his investment portfolio, but because he was lacking something: peace of mind and enjoyment. Like several of my clients, Bob has developed an operating system geared towards efficiency, productivity and achievement. With admirable discipline he could set a goal, a timeline and reach it. Over and over again. I was impressed hearing his list of achievements and his focused effort towards financial success. Yet, he hardly ever enjoyed that journey. He just did what he was great at. Focus on a goal and achieve it. Whether that would take 80 hours a week and demanded deep sacrifices was secondary. Bob could reach pretty much reach every professional goal he wanted. Even though there is obvious value in setting goals, there is a danger in being too fixated on our goals or what leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith calls goal obsession. When we’re goal obsessed, we can loose perspective on what’s really important and we reduce our peripheral vision to see opportunities. So following the Zen saying above: What is the most important thing? Really? And are our actions and time allocation reflecting that? If you brush away that question right now, that maybe gives you the answer…. Now back to Bob. Together we figured out what actually matters to him. What is the most important thing? I asked him: What are moments in your day where you feel a sense of meaning and purpose? A simple exercise to explore this is to take a sheet of paper and write down: I feel a sense of meaning and purpose when…. Then start writing whatever arises. It might be when helping someone out in the supermarket or coaching your direct report towards a promotion. Maybe it’s when you send a gift to a sibling or write a blog post. I once did this exercise with a management team in Hong Kong and it was remarkable how the team members accessed that feeling of meaning and purpose from simple things that often have very little to do with their direct role description. Yet, when they share about it, they light up, get energized and inspire others. It’s important to unveil these moments because meaning and purpose are almost unlimited energy sources. Once you tap into them and do more of those things, you just feel energized and great. Check it for yourself. How do you feel after such moments? Now once Bob did this exercise, we realized that the financial gain did not make that list (anymore). It was ‘on the 2nd page of search results’ because he already created financial security for his family and it hadn’t really been a worry for years anymore. What came on top of his list was to help other entrepreneurs be successful, have fun and creating something in teams and spending time with his wife, son and dogs. Now his operating system wasn’t wired to allocate time to these three items. It was still wired for goal obsession and the pursuit of financial gains. But by a combination of conscious practices, bold business decisions and shifting priorities to his family, Bob made gradual and steady progress. And within a few months, he could redirect his success formula and discipline towards the things that really matter to him. It still requires mindfulness to shift his focus, but the more he practices, the easier it became. What’s your response to the Zen saying? What is your ‘most important thing’? And when do you feel moments of meaning and purpose. Do more of those and find out ways to follow that. Trust me. It’s worth it, because time is ticking…. Mindful regards, Gaston Gaston is co-founder of the TeamUp Triad Coaching Program, a 9-week mindful coaching program which helps you be better at the stuff that really matters. Check out our website! www.individuals.teamup.co
Since I became a father, there is one thing I learned: I need to let go of how things were before. It’s remarkable how much of my personality still would like the same amount of me-time, work time, doing multiple sports and the same amount of time to learn and take courses. And of course, the same amount of sleep as before! Any parent out there knows what I am talking about… One thing I realized: The more I hold onto how things were, the more I struggle. This is not just with parenthood. It’s with every aspect of our working and private life. Clinging to how things are or desperately holding on to particular feelings or situations will eventually create tension, frustration and discomfort. When I was climbing the other day, I realized a good metaphor for that: ropeburn! The discomfort of holding on to what is can be equated to the pain that comes from trying to hold on as the rope (of life) is inevitably pulled through our hands. And those sailors and climbers out there know: ropeburn hurts. And it doesn’t heal that fast! No matter what we do, the rope will be pulled through our hands. If we look deeply at everything around us, we realize that everything is constantly in flux. Everything changes. Even that seemingly solid rock changes all the time. Even your mother in law changes (perhaps in subtle ways and not always to your liking). I won’t even start about the market, politics and the economy. But also we change all the time. When you sit still and really observe, you can sense that there is constantly something happening at the bodily level all over your body. Hot and cold sensations, itching, throbbing, discomfort, sweating, tickling. Not a single part of your physical body stays the same. Some cells regenerate faster than others, but we’re in a constant renewing process physically. It’s like a river flowing. The same accounts for our thoughts and emotions. They constantly change like a river as well. Did you ever have an emotion that lasted with the same qualities? They come and go. It’s wonderful when we feel great and happy, but the moment we desperately want that feeling to stay, we’ll quickly loose it again. Life simply includes both the joys and the sorrows, gains and losses and pleasures and pains. We cannot avoid that as I shared in “In pain? Don’ make it bigger than it is” before. Besides creating suffering, holding on also has another disadvantage, especially in a work setting. When we want to keep things as they are, we become less innovative, less creative and driven by fear. Several of my clients lost at some stage perspective on their business and strategy, because they were too occupied with clinging to the status quo. Their inability to ‘let go of the rope’ resulted in missed opportunity, outdated strategies and non-inspirational, fear-based leadership. We can intellectually grasp this fairly easily and even experience it. Yet, we often live our lives as if things are steady, permanent and unchanging. From living our lives as if we are immortal and our bodies won’t degenerate to assuming that our business will stay successful because it was in the past. Now sometimes, we may decide not to let go and we might have good reasons for that. We can just know that there is a cost to that. For example, I am fully conscious that I am developing a stronger attachment to my wife Laurence and Tao. I know at some stage that either I will need to leave them or vice-versa and will suffer deeply. I can choose to (try to) detach in order to protect me from that, but it’s not an option I want to pursue. And so I consciously go for attachment fully understanding the consequences. It’s a conscious choice. For other aspects of my life, I consciously let go. I am getting better at it, but it’s work in progress. Letting go can start with the next breath we take. If we can learn to allow that breath to unfold naturally, without needing to change or manipulate it, then we can gradually apply that to other experiences in our life. Another practice that helps me when I feel attached and contracted is to take a walk outside and with each left step, whisper ‘let’ and each right step, whisper ‘go’. Let…..go……let…..go. One thing is important in any letting-go practice: Letting go is a feeling, more than a thought. I have met many clients who have let go of stuff and ‘unfinished business’ at the intellectual level, but not yet at the feeling level. That is not enough. Allow your body to let go, your emotional system to let go. You’ll know when it happens. More lightness and ease arises. Now I am posting this blog and I am letting go….Breathing in….let….breathing out…..go. Mindful regards, Gaston Gaston is co-founder of the TeamUp Triad Coaching Program, a 9-week mindful coaching program which helps you be better at the stuff that really matters. Check out our website! www.individuals.teamup.co
Whenever I am choosing what movie to watch, what activity to do or what kind of conversation I am about to have with someone, I try to ask myself this question: If I go ahead with this, will this contribute to my happiness? It’s a very simple question, but if asked candidly to yourself, it can reveal a lot of insight. We can see our mind as a big garden with all kinds of seeds. Seeds of fear, insecurity, stress, anger, despair, joy, gratitude, happiness, love, mindfulness and many other seeds. As human beings we all get the same set of seeds, but it’s up to us how we take care of our garden. If we watch a horror movie, we might water the seed of fear. If we punish ourselves or somebody else, we might water the seed of anger. If we have a mindful cup of tea, we water the seed of mindfulness. Every thought, word or action will have an impact on the state of our garden. For some of us, the seeds of anger and resentment have been well watered throughout our lives. The same accounts for stress and anxiety. These seeds then become well-established and strong plants. Other seeds, such as gratitude and joy, might still be seeds waiting to be watered. Everything we do, affects the state of our garden. We can’t change our garden overnight from a dry and deprived place to a blooming flower garden. It takes time and practice. That’s why diligent practice is so crucial in mindfulness, especially if we want to have real effects on the neurobiology of our brain. I first learned to ask myself this happiness question in 2005 during my first meditation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. That year, I took on an intention to practice his five mindfulness trainings. These beautifully formulated invitations to apply mindfulness in everyday life have changed dramatically how I relate to work, family, friends, my emotions, and myself. The common thread in all of them seems to be the correlation with happiness. After 12 years of experimenting with these trainings, it became clear that when I do more of any of these, I feel happier. I am not referring to the superficial, pleasure-focused happiness, but the deeper level of happiness, understanding and peace of mind. So I decided long ago that my compass should be set for happiness. And these trainings would be my partners-in-crime. However, this turned out to not be easy. Most of the time my compass is still set for other well-conditioned directions in my brain. This includes a sense of duty, obligation, fear, avoiding insecurity and financial insecurity and other tendencies in my negativity bias. Or the compass is set for the directions that the media and environment determine for me, which can be summarized by: I need to have more, be more and buy more. So we need help if we’re serious about this practice. I learned that my triple C is my biggest source of support here: courage, commitment and community. 1. Courage to go against the stream, against the messages of the media and choose a higher path. Courage is also a seed in our garden and I am consciously nurturing my courage through meditation, yoga, climbing and regularly watching and listening to teachers that give me a sense of courage on the path. 2. Commitment for me is all about creating the right conditions to make my practice of happiness more systematic. This includes reminders, rituals and candid end-of-day or week assessments of my practice of happiness. I am committed to make every year of my life a bit happier than the former one. 3. Last, but not least, community. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized this a lot as do many other teachers for a reason. Even with courage and commitment, if we’re on our own, we’ll drift off at some stage. The community is not just to support our practice, but also an inherent part of our practice by giving us the opportunity to relate to others from an intention of mindfulness. My family, work, yoga, meditation and dance communities all help me to keep my compass being set towards happiness. I invite you to ask yourself: In my everyday life choices, what is my compass set towards? And is that actually working out for me and others around me? If yes, keep going! If not, set up an experiment and set your compass for the next week towards something else that has real importance to you. It doesn’t need to be happiness. It can be freedom or peace or another value that is important to you right now. Good luck and enjoy the practice! Mindful regards, Gaston Gaston is co-founder of the TeamUp Triad Coaching Program, a 9-week mindful coaching program which helps you be better at the stuff that really matters. Check out our new website! www.individuals.teamup.co
This photo made me smile. Sometimes I meet people with a wall full of certificates. It makes me wonder: How many certificates, knowledge and validation do we need to do something well and feel good about what we are doing? And do certificates actually matter to others? Earlier this year, I joined parts of the World Business Executive Coaching Summit (WBECS). It’s a great online event for Executive Coaches with some of the best executive coaches sharing their insight, tips and techniques. It is impressive what that team has put together over the last years. After most of the webinars and slideshows, my eager-to-learn mind always felt nurtured and excited. Yet, I realized that my body was in a contracted place some of the time. I didn’t understand why at first, but after some introspection I realized what it was. It has to do with a feeling that I don’t know enough yet as a coach or actually as a human being. Somehow all these slideshows, models and terminology let me believe that I might not be good enough yet and that I need to accumulate more knowledge and ‘add to me’. I notice I then go into a contracted state where I forcefully try to remember models, acronyms, bullet points and other content so I can reproduce them later. It’s like I am back at high school trying to remember to reproduce. I’ve learned that great coaching does not come from that place. I think many of us deal with the belief at times that we need more knowledge or insight in order to start practicing something. This idea of us lacking something is well played into by dozens of clever online programs out there that bombard us with some kind of variation of ‘you should know more’. This contracted feeling of needing more knowledge out of a place of lack is the exact opposite feeling I have when I leave a meditation retreat. In those moments, I realize that all the wisdom that I need is already inside. I just need to practice diligently myself, understand my own mind better and then create the right conditions for any wisdom to arise when I am with my clients. Practice is much more important to enable that than constantly adding new knowledge. In short: I need to trust in my intuition and insights I already gathered over the last decades. This doesn’t mean that we should stop learning or even getting certified in certain ways or forms. I have done several coach trainings and probably still read about 2-3 books per month on the area of leadership, personal development and mindfulness. However, I realized that the attitude towards that learning should not be from a place of lack or a need to validate myself or feel better about myself or prove myself. It should come from a place of curiosity to listen to things that resonate with an innate wisdom that I know is already true from my own experience. It it not an addictive hunger for more or to fill in a gap, but an invitation to explore and enrich. And after I sponged up new material, I purposefully aim to let it go at the end. I try not to hold on to it. I take a few deep breaths and go back to my own solidity and trust. I don’t try to remember as much as I can. I know it got stored somewhere in my subconscious mind and trust it will arise in the right moment when I am with clients or my Triad groups. Mindfulness can help us enjoy learning much more. It helps me be at ease when I don’t read books, keep track of the news or watch the latest TED talk. It helps me to review instead my inner TED talks and observations of how my mind and emotions work. Many times, these reveal more insight than a library of books. You might wonder: But don’t clients care about certificates and diplomas? Actually research shows that coaching clients care very little about certificates or coaching approaches. It’s one of the very last considerations, also in my own experience. Generally, they only want to know one thing: Can you help me? I am curious to hear your thoughts on his: How do you relate to gathering new knowledge and ideas around the job that you’re doing? How do you combine it with your inner wisdom that is already present? Mindful regards, Gaston Gaston is co-founder of the TeamUp Triad Coaching Program, a 9-week mindful coaching program which helps you be better at the stuff that really matters. Check out our new website! www.individuals.teamup.co
“Are you happy?” Recently, I asked my client this question on day 1 of our executive coaching retreat. He said: “yeah, I think I am quite happy.” I responded: “I am not interested how happy you think you are, but really how happy do you feel?” “Well, I feel pretty successful. I think I am contributing great things in this world and….” “No”, I interrupt him. I didn’t ask what you think you contributed. I asked: “Do you feel a sense of happiness? Do you have moments where you feel a deep level of contentment with how things are and how you are? That profound peace of mind where in that moment ‘nothing is really wrong or needs to be fixed’?” “Contentment? Hmmm, I have never thought of contentment. Doesn’t that mean that you stop growing and learning?” I have heard this argument many times before. Somehow there is a part inside of us that is scared of being content. Of just being happy with what we have, with who we are. It would make us passive and unproductive. Somehow happiness is not really top of mind for a lot of successful executives. In his latest book ‘Triggers’, leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith asked the Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, Dr. John Noseworthy, the president of the Mayo Clinic and the Dr. Raj Shah administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) one simple question: “Did you recently do your best to be happy?” All three smart, heavily credentialed men looked confused in silence when this question was asked. In separate conversations they all responded: “It never occurred to me to try to be happy”. Why does it seem that somehow happiness and success in our career often seem mutually exclusive? A lot of the executives that we coach at the Asian Leadership Institute do not exhibit the characteristics of happiness, although many say they are quite happy. How about practicing more moments of contentment? Sink into that state where you feel that actually everything is OK right now. You don’t need to be over-the-moon excited. Just be content with perhaps a soft smile. Yes, we have a million things that we can do and should do, but let us savour a bit of fulfilment right now for where we are right now. The photo above is actually a photo of a calligraphy that is above my bed. It reminds me every morning and evening that I have already so many conditions for happiness right here and now. Whether it’s the fact that I can walk, breathe, see this beautiful planet, the amazing sunset, have a family that is alive and have the opportunity to help other people. I certainly don’t touch this feeling every day, but the reminders help. Practicing happiness and contentment seems almost radical these days in some contexts. Many of us prefer victimhood or complaining about how much still needs to be done. Giving up temporarily the seeking and grasping mind is not common practice. And yes, there are benefits to that peace of mind that this practice creates, but I actually encourage you to not see this practice as a means to an end this time. Consider it ‘the end’ itself just like I wrote before around the practice of uselessness. I invite you to practice in-the-moment contentment for a week and see what it does. This is irrespective of how much challenge or drama is happening right now in your life. Just connect with the elements and conditions that you have already to be happy and content about. You can even start writing down all the conditions and you’ll see the list is long once you focus your attention on it. Then after practicing contentment, ask yourself: Am I getting really less productive? Am I growing and learning less? Give it a try. Set up an experiment and assess with candor afterwards. Mindful regards Gaston Gaston is co-founder of the TeamUp Triad Coaching Program, a 9-week mindful coaching program help you be better at the stuff that really matters. Check out our new website! www.individuals.teamup.co
Yesterday I saw this strong back of my wife and the soft front of my son. It reminded me again how important both of these qualities are in both coaching and life. “Strong back, soft front”. These words kept sticking in my mind since I attended the Wisdom 2.0 conference in Singapore. At the time, I attended a guided meditation by Roshi Joan Halifax, who runs the Upaya meditation centre. Strong back, soft front, she explains, “is about the relationship between equanimity and compassion. ‘Strong back’ is equanimity and your capacity to really uphold yourself. ‘Soft front’ is opening to things as they are.” She further explains: “All too often our so-called strength comes from fear not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet – strong back and soft front – is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.” A year since I did her meditation in Singapore, the message still resonates, also in my coaching and entrepreuneurial work. I did find different applications of “strong back – soft front” that I want to share with you so you get inspired to find your own. First of all, I practice strong back- soft front in many physical practices. It’s not just a metaphor for me. From rock-climbing to yoga and the way I sit at my desk. Whether it’s in yoga postures or even how I run or sit in my meditation, I realized that I need to balance strength with flexibility, solidity with fluidity, uprighting my back while softening my heart. Secondly, ‘strong back- soft front’ also represents for me the balance between our own self-confidence and our own vulnerability. While I am coaching I am sometimes firm and provocative with my clients while at other times I am soft and vulnerable about my own struggles. I notice that if I only have the ‘strong back’, I become less human. In the worst case scenario, I can be perceived as cold. I realized that I need to make the empathic connection at all times and when my client is challenged, I need to touch that same place of pain, hurt or struggle inside of me. I might choose not to share my own challenge in that moment, but the mere action of touching it inside of me is enough to let me next few words come from the right place, from the ‘soft front’. Finally, ‘strong back- soft front’ also relates to my own mindfulness meditation practice. For a few months I was really diligent in concentration-based meditation. Every day I sharpened my mind and strengthened my equanimity using various lasered-concentration techniques. It cleared my mind, strengthened my sense of solidity in my body and I could maintain longer periods of concentration than ever before. However, I realized my heart was not as open as it was before. My ability to see others and myself through the eyes of compassion and genuine care was reduced. I remember one particular coaching conversation after which I realized that I maybe was sharp and insightful, but not connected at the heart level enough. It was like I cared a bit less about my client and became less forgiving. It’s not the way I want to coach and I am not at my best in those moments. So I made it my practice to make sure my soft front gets as much attention as my strong back. I added more loving-kindness meditation, gratitude and have my 10-month old son sit in front of me during some meditations. Nothing beats that heart-opener! In sum, strong back allows us to create the solidity and strength to uphold ourselves in the midsts of any condition. It helps us to be confident and sharp. Soft front allows us to recognize people’s suffering as well as our own and keep our heart open and tender in the midst of it all. Once the two start informing each other and they ‘team-up’, we can look at the world with wise understanding and heart-felt compassion. A magic mix for both our coaching and our lives in general. In the next few weeks, whenever you need a bit more of one, whisper gently ‘strong back, soft front’ to yourself to remember. We can support each other’s practice in this. Mindful regards Gaston Gaston is co-founder of the TeamUp Triad Coaching Program, a 9-week mindful coaching program help you be better at the stuff that really matters. Check out our new website! www.individuals.teamup.co
Last week I had a tough day at work. Meetings didn’t flow. I wasn’t sharp with that coaching client and a submitted proposal wasn’t accepted by a company. On my way back home, my mind started its occasional game of providing arguments why I am maybe not that good of a coach, leader or even person. Then I will catch myself and provide some arguments back why I am a good coach, leader or person. Some are really clever and I try to outsmart my mind with some great arguments. Look at what I achieved here or look at what I contributed there etc. It goes back and forth like a chess game. When I took a step back and observed this process, I realized it’s such a ridiculous and energy-consuming mind game! So I decided to unpack that pattern with some mindful investigation.
I am about to step into this freezing alpine lake in the mountains of East-Kyrgyzstan. A group of Russians are watching. I have no other choice then to do a few strokes in this glacier pond. In my head I am thinking: Why did I commit to jumping into this lake! I hate cold water! I don’t want to feel this. I contract my muscles and my jaw tightens. This is going to be horrible! Then I remember: Gaston, it’s just a physical sensation! Don’t make it bigger than it is through your mental stories. I take a deep breath and step into the icy lake. And suddenly the experience was cold and unpleasant but bearable. Once I let go of the mental drama, it wasn’t too bad really….
I often make as assessment at the end of my day. How productive was today? Did I add value enough? How did I contribute? One of my strongest personality patterns is an incessant need to be productive. It dominates most of my thoughts and actions. This tendency has brought me a lot of progress and the ability to make an impact in the world that I feel content with. However, it also so often draws me away from the direct and rich in-the-moment experience of life.
I sit in Zurich airport. It’s 10pm. My plane is delayed, my smartphone’s battery is dead, I finished my book and need to wait another 2 hours for my plane. I watch the people around me and my mind falls back in one of its favorite activities: judging others… If there is one thing that I have observed my mind doing systematically, it’s judging. Either positive or negative, but it’s still judging.