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What truly matters?

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

Looking at the end of the calendar year approaching, with a new year to start soon, often brings about the conscious or unconscious mental activity of reflecting on the past and preparing for the future. I have often discussed here how not being present in the present is the profound human disease causing so much trouble in our fast, modern age. Our body is in the present, always, but our mind can either be attached to or reject what has happened in the past and be anxious and excited about what may be coming. This tension of a mind living in the body and not living with the body can be the greatest challenge in self-observation work for an individual. But today (as almost an exception to the rule), I want to look back at what has served me this past year, what has not, and what are the foundations for the year to come in order to be even more present, even more attentive, even more compassionate, even more in the action of life in its beautiful truth and – ultimately – more happy. Yet, you’ll notice I’m not listing here to get “attached” with the past, “entangled” with what happened or what did not, or “troubled” with what could be or should be. Instead, this list is to serve as a reflection board, a kind of mental pin board to aid in our practice of self-observation.

“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.” Henry David Thoreau

When I talk about self-observation I am talking about the type of self-observation that really serves you - the kind that builds change from the inside out without change being the goal, the one that reveals the shadows we carry yet will only produce light. I refer to Red Hawk, and his life changing book Self-Observation. I will do a more detailed post about this next month, but, in short, what does Red Hawk tell us when it comes to self-observation? There are four qualities necessary to being effective, transformative and truth-revealing: The first is to observe without judgment, the second is to observe without wanting to change what is observed, the third is to observe with focusing the attention on the bodily sensation of a relaxed body, and the fourth is to observe with “ruthless self-honesty.”

So what to practice? What to self-observe? What truly matters? What is worth letting go? Where should we place our focus as we approach a new year?

1 – Gratefulness

There is a lot of research today that shows that by cultivating gratefulness we will be happier as it’s one of the main drivers of happiness. How do we practice this, though? What I like to do is to make a list in my head, when I go to bed, of the 3 grateful things that happened during the day. This way, I mindfully focus on the positive, regardless of how bad the day could have been. Research tells us that practicing gratefulness has proven to: help cope with anxiety and traumas, help build better social bonds, increase our self-esteem and self-worth, tame negative emotions, and develop a better sense of appreciation for life.

2 – Mindfulness

Mindfulness practices are – along with gratefulness – probably the other pillar in building a solid foundation for our inner happiness temple. Being mindful means being aware and fully present in what we are doing. It means that our mind is entirely focused and in the present. So when we eat, we don’t use our phone but focus on the food, its texture in our mouth, its smell, being mindful of those who grew our food and of the animal who gave its life to be on our plate. 100% present, 100% aware, 100% here and now. We can practice this at every moment of the day – when we take a shower, when we brush our teeth, when we talk to someone, when we write an email, when we walk in the street.

“It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Epictetus

Mindfulness also means being present in our body. Being aware of the physical sensations and signs our body is sending us. It is also being aware of our thoughts and emotions, but without judging them; just watching them and not adding any stories.

3 – Meditation

Meditation is one form of mindfulness practice. We bring back our mind, during meditation, to full presence in our body, usually focusing on our breath, a physical sensation or a mantra, a candle, or the voice of a teacher. Whichever form it takes, it is essentially a practice of true presence in the moment, of awareness of what is, without the adds-on of mental chatter. I do have a preference for Vipassana meditation (more here) and it is the technique I learn and teach mainly, mixed with a few other useful techniques.

The list of benefits of meditation is extremely long – it is probably the most rewarding practice you can bring into your life. It will help you at work, at home, and “inside”. Recent research is also now proving that a regular daily practice can influence our DNA, lengthen our chromosomes, and impact our life expectancy, even transmitting to our children, in our DNA, the changes that have happened to us while meditating! Read more about of those extraordinary studies here and here.

4 – Minimalism

I like to use the definition given by Joshua and Ryan in their awesome “The Minimalist” blog:

“Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”

There are many flavors of minimalism: a 20-year-old single guy’s minimalist lifestyle looks different from a 45-year-old mother’s minimalist life. Even though everyone embraces minimalism differently, each path leads to the same place: more time, more money, and more freedom to live a more meaningful life.

Getting started is as simple as asking yourself one question: How might your life be better if you owned fewer material possessions?”

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

So how did I do it in my life? How to reduce the clutter? Well, start with un-subscribing from one email or removing one object in your apartment, or one app from your phone. It can feel too hard to do a big cleaning but by starting with one little thing each day or each week, in a few months your life will become uncluttered, leaving more time, more money and more space for all the things that really matter. It’s quite extraordinary what a shift in consciousness this can cause in your life. Check those 8 TED Talks that will inspire you to be a minimalist!

5 – To-do’s and action plan

This is a big one. Seems simple but surely none of my big changes would have happened without perfecting the art of creating, managing, and working with a to-do list and action plan. I like to deconstruct each big task or achievement into multiple smaller tasks that are more easily achievable. If I don’t do this, I get easily discouraged or, worse, I just procrastinate and don’t get going. To-do lists have the power to make us accountable.

So what’s my secret sauce recipe?

Make the To-Do list simple; don’t include big tasks that can be divided in smaller ones.Write your To-Do list every evening based on the past day’s achievement and tomorrow’s priorities.Classify your To-Do in the order of importance, not in the order of easiness, there is NO too small To-Do.When you wake up and start your day, get going on your first To-Do immediately. I like to book this as a fixed appointment in my agenda (it’s when your brain is fresh!).If a To-Do keeps being pushed down the list every day reassess how important it is and break it down in smaller To-Do’s.

6 – Learning

Where did I get all these tips and all this good stuff coming into my life? By learning from some extraordinarily talented people who helped me when I was stuck, believed in me when I did not, taught me when I was asking questions, and shared their knowledge with others on their blog or in their classes. So I wanted to acknowledge all of them here and add a link to them (where relevant) so you can explore more if you wish to: my parents, Rudrani, Goenka, Arnaud, Fleet, Joshua, Jessica, Altaf, Hila, Nicolas, Shahzad, Yolanda, Dorothee, and many more…

Recognizing our teachers, either during our mindfulness or gratefulness practices, or when we teach to others, is very transformative and uplifting. It keeps us in the state of mind of “students” - a place of eternal growth.

7 – Serving and giving

Consider the findings of the 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey of 4,500 American adults. Forty-one percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. Of those who volunteered, 68 percent reported that it made them feel physically healthier; 89 percent that it “has improved my sense of well-being” (i.e., happiness) and 73 percent that it “lowered my stress levels.” So yes, the science proves it, you can read more details about this here.

We do not need to have cash or time to give. We can choose what to give based on our resources and availability. We all can give our time, our knowledge, our talent, or our cash. I like to dedicate 10% of my time to giving, this being either free coaching of entrepreneurs, free healing sessions, or helping some of my favorite NGOs like The Bowery Mission.

If you are on a spiritual path, whatever your faith, giving and service are always a part of it, a sacred act, and, in fact, the true foundation of spiritual transformation and growth.

8 – Empathy

Psychology today gives this great definition of empathy: Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase pro-social (helping) behaviors. While American culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathetic, research has uncovered the existence of "mirror neurons," which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them. So our brain is wired naturally for empathy. It’s our true nature. It is also the condition to access compassion; it starts with empathy. In fact, one of the best compasses for judging your path towards happiness, your growth, on any spiritual path, is to look at empathy as one of the cardinal points (vulnerability, compassion, and mindfulness being the others – all to be explored, all to be mastered).

If you want to dive more, here is a great article about why it is so essential to awake to our interconnectedness.

9 – Inner leadership

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.” - Henry David Thoreau

Henry said it all… As we look at what really matters, it all comes back to inner leadership. Self-observation, self-inquiry, personal growth; all this leads to us being better today than we were yesterday. We are not trying to be better than others, nor to be masters or gurus.

We are all seeking to be better employees, bosses, leaders, dads, moms, husbands, etc., but none of this will happen until we take charge of our inner world. As Carl Jung said, “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will rule our life and we will call it fate.” That’s what a real leader is, someone who is the master of his or her inner world.

10 – Vulnerability and embracing imperfections

I cannot talk about vulnerability without quoting Brené Brown:

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” 

Is vulnerability the same as weakness?

“In our culture,” teaches Dr. Brené Brown, “we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”

In her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brené Brown offers us an invitation and a promise—that when we dare to drop the armor that protects us from feeling vulnerable, we open ourselves to the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.

In the corporate sector, and our western culture, to reduce our feelings of vulnerability, we wake up every morning, put on our armor, and rarely take it off – especially in our work lives. We use invulnerability as a shield to protect us from discomfort, anxiety, and self-doubt.

In the leadership series for the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, Brené Brown also tells us why vulnerability is a key to authentic leadership: Leadership is all about relationships and to be in a relationship (with anyone) is to be vulnerable. Every single day, leaders are called to navigate uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure – the only choice is to do it consciously or unconsciously, to lean into the vulnerability or to push it away. Across the private and public sector, in schools and in our communities, we are hungry for authentic leadership – we want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire and be inspired. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement.

When leaders choose self-protection over transparency, when money and metrics are more valued than relationships and values, and when our self-worth is attached to what we produce, learning and work becomes dehumanized.  People disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs: their talent, their ideas, and their passion.

Thats also why I chooses to talk about my vulnerabilities in public at event like "Stand Up For Passion" (clic on the image to watch it)

So that’s my last post for 2014. What truly matters?

None of the above has been written in a specific order, nor do I pretend to have written the perfect and final list, but all those keys do matter I believe, all have their difficulties to live by at every moment, all are worth using as a guide or life compass.

They ultimately lead us towards our true self, liberate us from the suffering of the Ego and our apparent separation from others, lead us to become a true leader in all aspects of our life, to shine our light in the brightest way possible, and to inspire all to live a more happy life with ourselves and others.

Enjoy the holiday, be mindful, be grateful, be present, be happy!



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