Inside out: 4 ways to lead positive change with self-awareness

Getting past speech impediment and low self-esteem didn’t happen overnight. As a teenager, I remember listening to the radio feeling puzzled by how people could enunciate words so well and be so easy and confident. How was their voice so clear and mine so muffled? The root of the struggle was that I held too many distractions and so I would easily get overwhelmed, and lengthy episodes of depression followed.

By quieting the mind through meditation, I learned to give up buggy beliefs and things began to clear up. A friend told me, “when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” It was a good look in the mirror and poetry was an outlet for me. It’s where I found my voice. I no longer felt the need to push against reality and its gifts opened up beautifully. I had to learn to lean in and just be with the quietness of the unknown.

I realized that we live in a noisy world and many people talk, yet few communicate. I grew to accept the gift of conversation which is at the heart of self-awareness. Acceptance means turning our insides out. The world is a conversation and positive change occurs through open and meaningful relationships.

It’s humbling to see how far I’ve come on this journey and yet how far there is to go. Tomorrow isn’t promised and I’m honored to be helping people lead positive change in their work and relationships. After years of teaching, coaching, consulting, and venturing, with success and failure along the way, a pattern began to emerge. Here are 4 guiding principles to wake up to our true potentials.

1. Mindfulness

Notice life through the senses here and now. Live in the moment and be fully present. It’s as simple as noticing the breath, the posture of your spine, or the way your shoulders hang on the sides as you sit. Research from Harvard and others are showing the positive effects of mindfulness on the brain and how it reduces stress and improves cognitive functions.

One study revealed 20 minutes of mindfulness practice for 8 weeks improved memory and actually developed neural tissue in the Hippocampus, the memory center of the brain.As we quiet the mind chatter, we grow open to what is and make decisions from a place of clarity. Buddha’s Brain and The Mindful Brain are great readings on how mindfulness can enhance focus and mental health. The skill here is observing.

2. EQ

Be an expert on your emotions. Life is constant change and with it comes uncertainty. The ability to read and regulate emotions is key to personal happiness and success. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is how we pay attention to things. In the world of emotion, 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4. As anyone who’s in a relationship knows, arguing with logic does not help. Rational thinking grabs at waves while EQ sails with the sea. In other words, feelings trump reason and the quicker you handle emotion the more nimbly you adapt to change.

The brain is a storytelling factory, weaving narratives around pleasure and pain and our emotions are nested in the stories we tell. Questions that arise are: what story do you tell most often? What emotions are present? What variations do you tell that story? What does that story mean to the people in it? The skill here is storytelling.

3. Purpose

Know what you honor. Why do you do what you do? What is your undying belief? When we look back at the great leaders of history, they all stood for something larger than themselves. There was a bigger picture that guided their mission, a belief that stood the test of time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that everyone deserves to be free and safe no matter the color of their skins. Nike honors great athletes. Pixar stands for telling a great story. Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs believed in thinking differently.

What do you hold true? The answer begins and ends at the most important word in the English language: “Why?” Design Thinkers and Lean software developers use the 5 why’s technique to solve complex problems. The idea is to methodically ask “why” to examine the root-cause, and not just react to symptoms on the surface. In other words, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture and asking, “what really matters here?” The skill here is questioning.

4. Trust

The difference between a group of people in a room and a connected team is trust. The fields are in our favor, at the speed of trust. Trusting people, trusting the process, and trusting ourselves to do the right thing. What’s the right thing? It depends on the purpose (see #3). The most important relationship is the one we hold with ourselves. Like the classic trust exercise, I must know my own stability in order to safely catch my partner’s fall. It takes empathy to know my strength when giving support. Empathy means stepping outside of ourselves to add value to someone else.

Trust is built when we repeatedly do the right thing and the right thing tends to make others feel safe. And of course, words don’t mean much if actions don’t match and the contradictions we can mend within ourselves. No body’s perfect and when we accept what is, we release resistance and trust has a chance. And all we can really do is give it chances. World renown executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, poses the following question when receiving feedback, “is it worth it to argue?” The skill here is Empathy.

Acceptance is the end-goal to recognize the journey as the treasure. It takes courage, patience, and optimism and the result is an everlasting pleasure with people. And change is natural when you’re hot on “why.” Imagine working with a team where people simply accept and trust each other. A team where people grow through a shared purpose and have each other’s backs. There’s no need to blame others because leadership starts within.


Without a head

The first night I fell with a high fever, vomiting through trembling teeth. My head was caved in from the high altitude I could feel death looming in and out of my veins. The next morning, I stayed in bed while the others wandered the town. I was extremely glad to have a comfortable bed with the hostel manager looking after me. He was lighthearted and I didn’t have the energy to say much. His Chinese name translated to “without a head”. His WeChat id had the tagline “always stay naive.”

It was Spring and the three of us had taken a 13hour bus ride to Seda for a taste of Tibetan culture. Seda, also known as Sertar, is a Tibetan county west of Sichuan in China. At nearly 4,000 meters elevation, Seda Monastery is the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist school and houses up to 40,000 monks and nuns in dorms stacked across in a valley. The tiny lit windows spread a colorful mosaic that blends into the starry night sky.

The next morning, I was about 60% and decided to roam with the others. At dawn, we hiked up the mountain for a view of the valley where the monastery laid. Morning prayer was in order and clouds of incense smoke covered the valley. Fingertips freezing, the sun slowly peeked over the mountains and shadows began to stretch. We goofed around a bit then sat quietly with the sunrise. There was a cold stream in my belly.

We then made our way toward the monastery. I was woozy and grumpy while the other two chatted with the locals. Everyone was dressed in different variations of a brown and red cloak with a softness in their face. I spotted a cozy corner by the temple’s entrance and dropped for an overdue nap deep into my beanie and jacket. The cold air, fever, trembling body. I hated everything and somehow content. I had given up the will to change anything and had no regrets.

Next day we took a shuttle to the sky burial where vultures feast on the dead. It’s customary funeral for Tibetans, a morbid fascination for tourists. Six bodies had been laid and prepared in a pit for dozens of vultures to digest. Slowly birds swarmed in and tore away at the limbs. The thick smell of carcass waved around the funeral site while the birds frenzied in the pit; some flying overhead with wings blanketing the sun. Some were playing tug-o-war with the skin that wouldn’t tear. Near the end, a man with a butchers’ outfit walks to each skull with a knife and strikes a pounding blow at the base, cracks an opening and tosses them to the birds. They beaked into the brain as the jaw bone loosely opened and closed. I couldn’t help but see myself as an anonymous skull in that pit.

Same sun new day, head fevered and knees were trembling after a lengthy walk around town. We spotted a café and claimed a dim empty room with couches all around. We each took a full sofa and crashed from sheer exhaustion. Alina was cold and quiet. The window behind her was open with cool breeze coming in. Just as I got up to close it for her, Ree dashes for the window and slides it shut. She then falls dead on the couch. I drop my head and quietly start crying. I was drained and didn’t need a reason survey my tears but I felt relief. Maybe it was the emptiness inside and the kindness near. It’s like letting it stream down your face and grabbing at no wave because the ocean moves through us.

Why Forward

The sun was out after a stretch of stormy days in Chengdu, China. I was working at the English center and had a small group of high school students. We were discussing core values. As a warm-up I asked, “what do you look forward to this week, this year?” One student had a shine in his eye and described his plans to travel to Russia with his friends. Another was keen on joining a potluck at a friend’s house that week. One student, Jeff, was sitting in the back of the class with his head slouched in his phone. When I called on him he sincerely replied, “I don’t look forward to anything.”

I reminded them, “we live in a noisy world and many people talk, yet few communicate and communication is an expression of our values.” I walked them through a “why” analysis which basically asks, “what do you honor? What is your undying belief?” I shared my story and gave examples of people and companies who have demonstrated strong why’s. Jeff was being lazy with his answers and passively agreed with other students. I told him, “I want to know what YOU think. Everyone of us has a unique story, that’s what makes the world interesting.” As a reflective exercise, I provided various story prompts and highlighted the importance of hobbies and power routines that energize vitality. Jeff was beginning to open up.

I asked them, “What’s your dream job?” And they chimed, “travel journalist,” “a doctor without borders,” Jeff spoke with a glint of conviction, “biologist.” Finally, I asked them to look inward and come up with a mantra that captures their core value. One said, “be useful,” “be true to yourself,” another “no regrets,” and Jeff said, “know myself.”

A good look in the mirror

“Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.”
– Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

For many years I struggled with social anxiety, speech impediment, and depression because I held too many distractions. It’s a classic self-shame story: I used to suck and now I suck less. Eventually, I realized that we live in a noisy world and many people talk, yet few communicate. What I grew to accept and love was the gift of conversation. It became clear that deep connections are not based on take or blame, they are full of joy and empathy.

A friend once told me, “Time flies when the senses are full.” Leading an inspired path means doing what makes you come alive. And it is the way we live in the present moment that shapes character, relationships, and the quality of our work.
Knowing our purpose is an affair with self-awareness. It’s what makes you light up amid uncertainty. It’s that thing you live for that overshadows everything else, even the fluctuations of money. Know it from within, set boundaries, set goals, and watch the groove unfold. A state of flow arises when we uproot the splinter of self-delusion.

For a short while I drove part-time for Uber. Once I picked up a passenger and I had ambient music playing in the car. He sat in and asked how I was doing. I replied, “Just cruising with the music.” He paused for a moment and said,

“There is something to be said about living like the music never gets interrupted.”

Once we quiet the distractions the gift of conversation reveals itself. We come face-to-face with what is simple and true. Rather than insist on what should be, one surrenders to a living relationship with what is. And feedback is fluid whether soft or brutal. There is no glorified “me” to enforce so emotions move freely, and we bear witness to something unforgettable: a real conversation.

Emotional intelligence is a function of how we pay attention. When we’re grateful we’re not overloaded with expectations. We rejoice in what is. When intimately connected with our source of vitality, we don’t worry about not having enough. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Vitality never takes.” Upon taking a close look in the mirror with vitality first, there is no need to harbor self-delusions. We shed old identities and inhabit a larger part of who we are.

ownership leadership self-awareness purpose

Moving with a purpose

Here’s a review I wrote for Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.

Extreme Ownership is a good look in the mirror to live and lead at the highest level. It contains war stories with leadership lessons and I have newfound respect for U.S. Navy SEALs. It checks off on what I count as a good book: vivid imagery, some humor, raises goosebumps, brings tears, and practical for livelihood. On the final analysis, it’s not written by a Hemingway but it does come from the heat of experience. It works because it’s real.

The book harps the tune “it’s all about the mission”. You got to know why you’re in it to begin with, believe in it fully, and continually execute on it. That’s what a leader does. There are many books that stress this point of “moving with a purpose” and Extreme Ownership just does it in a raw fashion within the context of war. On the battle field, making the right decision moment by moment is highly crucial. One is constantly flirting with defeat and running the risk of losing life or limb. Time is of the essence. Navy SEALs blend a deep brotherhood with creative and methodical action which enabled them to accomplish their intense missions in Iraq.

“Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not.” A leader is the true believer of the team’s mission while trusting the troops to deliver on their parts. Micromanaging takes focus way from the bigger picture, which the leader is trusted to keep and communicate. The book presses the leader to simply maintain the strategic vision which enables others to take ownership of their parts and swiftly act on what is immediate. In short, ownership is the absence of blame. When everyone in a team practices it, trust forms and speed quickens. With markets in flux, jobs at risk, and competitions near, trust is paramount to stay nimble and efficient.

This book is written with a sense of urgency, applying the principles of combat to organizational issues. The process invites us to lay it all on the table and examine what is mission critical and what is not. The ensuing plan may change but the purpose remains constant.

Lavender trust

Lulu just lost her job and with it a messy break up. It’s like a sinking ship in her gut and exploding rocks in her chest. She faces a new chapter in her life. She feels terrible uncertainty and self-doubt. She decides to go on an adventure and winds up in a forest. It’s dark and she finds a hut by the river. She steps in and an own is sitting there with books and a lit candle scented like Lavender Trust.

The owl welcomes her in as though expecting her. Lulu tells him of her lousy state and the owl says, “Get super clear about yourself and how you want to grow. It’s not that you have to overcome uncertainty, but to examine the negative beliefs you’ve attach to it. Trust your senses and rejoice in the mystery that accompanies you. I’ll tell you what my teacher once told me.” Blows out the one candle and says with a grounding voice, “courage is a lover affair with the unknown.”

Lulu realizes she’s smelling like some lavender blend and can’t see a thing, with an owl. She darts out the hut screaming in her breath, part terror part gratitude. She hurdles into the river and swims to the other side, takes a deep breath and dries herself with leaves. Now feeling cleansed and reborn … in a dark forest.

Podcast: Waking up to what is with Eric Kaufmann

Seeing Potential Podcast aims to form dialogue with creatives and entrepreneurs at the crossroads of change, exploring the concepts of mindfulness, creativity, and leadership.

In this episode I sat down with Eric Kaufmann to discuss what it means to be awake and the skills to develop as a leader.

Eric Kaufmann is the president and founder of Sagatica, where he guides leaders to make better decisions and achieve better results. His book The Four Virtues of a Leader, shares practical ideas and tools that deepen a leader’s ability to be efficient, effective and deliberate; a leader whom people are drawn to follow. The crucible of Eric’s journey contains 16 years of leadership consulting, management at Fortune 100 firms, degrees in business and psychology a quarter century of Zen practice, living in Israel and South Africa, teaching as a Master Scuba Diving instructor, and working as a certified hypnotherapist. Learn more about Sagatica at

Celebrating what is

It has been said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time, and still be able to function. For example, one would recognize the absence of hope and still be grateful to be alive. Rather than insist on what should be, one surrenders to a living relationship with what is. There is no glorified “me” to enforce so emotions move freely, and we get to bear witness to nature’s unfolding.

Throughout the day, there are chores one must accept and celebrations we get to relish. A life that overflows with vitality tends to net more celebrations, and gratitude is the groovy tune as language tangos with emotion. For example, consider how our attention is colored by “I get to,” “I better,” and “I have to”. “I better wash the dishes” produces a slightly different emotion than “I have to wash the dishes.” Same activity, different emotional trail. “I have to meet with my team” is much different than “I get to meet with my team.” It is a practice of thought and each directs our attention to a different set of details. Emotional intelligence is a function of how we pay attention.

Being authentic means being true to what inspires you and what turns you on about the world. Mustering up the best version of ourselves means maintaining a level of appreciation throughout a single day. There’s no substitute for this level of self-awareness and it is easy to know what lights you up. When we’re grateful we’re not overloaded with misfit expectations. We rejoice in what is. When intimately connected with our source of vitality, we don’t worry about not having enough. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Vitality never takes.”

Crushing Uncertainty: Using Mindfulness to Inspire Creativity and Leadership

“Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.”
– Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher 12

The human mind is a sea of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. In one’s quest for meaning and wisdom, uncertainty is bound to arise. While rational thinking shields the unknown and races for quick answers, a poetic mindset befriends the present in its vastness. When the world gets complex and unclear, the mind can get stressed and overwhelmed. Yet when approached with acceptance and curiosity, complexity becomes a resource as the body’s aliveness guides the way to mindfully channel our emotions. This poetic way of mindfulness enables insight to deepen the connection with ourselves and others.

Unveiling aliveness

Each moment offers an opportunity to experience a symphony of feelings and sensations that carouse throughout our bodies: sensations subtle and strong, in streams and glows, raking along the spine, extending to the finger tips. There’s the looseness of your neck and shoulders, the cushiony warmth around the joints, or the hot fire in the belly before a presentation.

The Greek term for this inner noticing is soma, the body as perceived from within. In 1906, neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington introduced terms like interoception to chart the somatic nervous system. Interoception is knowing through a physiological sense of the entire body.4 In his pioneering work in somatic experiencing, Peter Levine borrows the term felt-sense which nicely represents the phenomenon.7

The modern-day parlance for this inward practice is mindfulness, which highlights the quality of one’s attention. Not its content, but its quality. As drawn from Buddhist origins, mindfulness is an awareness practice that consists of two parts: 1. noticing mental activity and 2. tracking sensations within the body: weight of the breath, beating of the heart, posture and heat flow along the spine – moods can be noticed and visited rather than ignored.9 While mental chatter may linger with guards and primed alarms, the fragrance of awareness itself gently hums.

The practice is not to justify one state over another but to continually rendezvous with the living presence of the body which in turn calms emotional pathways in the brain and regulates attention. 9

It’s like the noise of a ceiling fan that has been on for so long that only when turning it off do we realize it is there. Mindfulness is an invitation to diligently step back and notice the noise and possibly rejoice in relief. But the goal is not relief. The goal is to rest expectations and simply stay alert. As we continually observe our internal and external worlds, we notice the mind-body complex wheeling away without needing to react.

A mindful response

“We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them. One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean, the ins and outs of it, its interiors. Like a veil thrown over the skin to secure its modesty, the screen partially removes from the mind the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day.” 4
– Antonio Damasio, Neuroscientist

Emotion is the unseen current that shapes human behavior, and it can enrich or stifle mental health. Even in simple activities like when using your smartphone, the mind sets off an array of emotions, including anticipation, insecurity, aggression, and amusement. As we habituate such moods, they can become compulsive and feed a circuit of addiction due to the brain’s release of dopamine, a chemical assigned to short-term pleasures. When driving, one might feel rush, rage, or calm. Emotions are always there in one form or another, being aware of them is another matter entirely. Emotional intelligence is a function of how we pay attention.4

Meet Ken. He’s driving to work and puts on some good music to relax during the freeway ride. A red sedan roars passed and cuts him off closely. This interrupts his state of flow and naturally arouses anger and irritation. He notices a tightening of his fist over the steering wheel and the clenching of his jaw. He pauses, drawing his awareness into his arm and hand. He softly scans the tension, slowly makes a fist, rolls out his palm, and unfolds an image of an angry hog on ice skates, slipping-and-sliding without control.

Just as he chuckles at himself Ken realizes the exit is fast approaching. Swift and watchful, he weaves through the traffic. A car behind him notices and slows down to let him pass. This brings Ken tremendous relief and gratitude as he takes the opening to his exit.

Anger begins as a physiological reflex and it is not necessarily a negative encounter. By untangling the reflex from the emotion, we can contain our primal shimmers.7 Had Ken been mindless, he might have reacted with rage and fixated compulsively, allowing it to color his mind and then carried it forward.

Thankfully Ken was attuned to an inner compass and unconfined by a fleeting emotion.
With a lightness of mood, ability to pause, and a fluid imagination, he readily shifts his focus onward. Moving through anger may not always be so simplistic, but mindfulness is the harvesting of this non-reactive yet ready state of attention, a way of processing our internal worlds and responding consciously.

Everyday mindfulness

While the practice of being present can be honed with yoga and seated meditation, mindfulness can be paired with any activity. Take coffee. When brewing it in the morning, you experience the beans onto your palm, the ensuing hot slow pour, and with the cup in hand there is a warmth that consumes you. Then taking the first sip that slightly burns the tongue, like tiny alligators in the mouth. It is glorious and for a moment our senses are full. For some of us it’s a daily ritual and so rich with poetic imagery.

The same kind of attention can be applied to dish washing. Adam Hanley at Florida State University found that engaging in mindful dishwashing can inspire positive emotions. His team gathered participants into two groups: the control group was asked to read a descriptive passage about dish washing prior to the wash, and the experimental group read a passage about the sense-experience of washing, including the smell of the soap, warmth of the water, textures of the plate, and so forth. After the activity, the mindful group reported a more positive state of mind (for example, being less anxious and more mentally inspired).1

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will…an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”10
– William James, American Psychologist

UCLA’s Neurologist and mindfulness researcher Daniel Siegel teaches mindfulness as a state of being (as opposed to doing), a capacity to voluntarily notice emotional affairs as mental activity, not absolute reality. This level of discernment allows one to objectively monitor internal states rather than be defined by them, an attentive quality Siegel calls Mindsight.10

There is a Sufi saying, “the body is the shore on the ocean of being.”7 With an alert presence, we can become more attuned to the tides and ride the waves with a sheer aliveness.

The Irish poet David Whyte writes, “alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.”13 The process of turning our attention inward unveils the body as a living organism that is continually shoring up new thoughts, sensations, and emotions. What we discover within is a field of voluntary and involuntary events throughout the nervous system. And as we quietly appreciate the primal reflexes that are out of conscious control, we grow to be less overwhelmed by their presence. Paradoxically, the result is a greater capacity for choice and self-control.

Self-awareness and emotional states

Emotional intelligence, the ability to read and regulate emotions, occurs through the body’s intuition which offers a window into our primal states. As this field of awareness widens within, we grow to accept whatever emotions arise and swiftly move through varied states. Self-mastery is this adaptive trait of flow and flexibility that shapes our emotional landscapes and mental health.5

When faced with pressure or uncertainty, mindlessness stays frozen or reacts prematurely, whereas mindfulness confronts the emotional needs of the present. In a stressful argument for example, self-control arises with a variation of the following steps:

1. Take a deep breath: Let the airflow touch the floor of your lungs, oxygenate the brain.
2. Label the emotion: Labeling adds in the brain’s language center to help contain the heat. Acknowledge, “I feel upset” versus “I am upset.” The first label provides a cushion between you, the perciever, and the emotion. Where we were once consumed by the feeling, now we can notice it from a manageable distance. It is like tending to a candle and watching the wick burn, rather than getting lost in the crackling of the flame. The default label does not need to be negative or overwhelming, it can be a choice. And just like training a muscle, our capacity to choose grows stronger with practice. During a heated argument to determine who is right, a window of pause opens up, and now you might ask yourself, “Is it worth it to argue?” Advice from leadership expert and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith.3
3. Check in: Take a break and come inward to a felt-sense of the body in its wholeness. Gently scan what it’s like to have a body that beats and breathes. What tells that you’re upset? Throat? Gut? Is it tight or hot? Stay patiently with the raw sensations with an “OK-ness” and a soothing begins to blanket the stress.7 Breathe in the environment and become present.
4. Give thanks: Self-awareness means appreciating what you have. It is the foundation. Life gives endlessly and with a strong base, your gift joyfully overflows to share with others. Complaining and being ungrateful is like a cup with no base, it takes and takes with nothing to offer. What am I grateful for? What do I hold true in my innermost being? Where do I begin and end? Does a drop in the ocean need a map to get home?

From an initial state of agitation, gradually a window opens to move into choice and gratitude. This quiet process might seem boring and even difficult at times, but it works. It teaches discernment so that we become experts of our emotions by reflectively stepping back instead of being swallowed by a momentary feeling.5

As the shapers of our mental landscapes, we befriend the mind-body complex and self-organization naturally follows. What was once a struggle against overwhelming chaos becomes a conscious surrender to a living relationship with our primal senses.

Appreciating complexity

”Courage is a love affair with the unknown.”
– Osho, Indian philosopher

Among the emotions we encounter, confusion is perhaps most prone to weigh on a person’s ego, denting the idealized self-image. Say you have a strategy meeting with your team to layout a six-month plan in a rapidly changing market. If your goal is to be the smartest person in the room, which is not uncommon, then admitting confusion might disrupt your mood. The natural reflex might be to defend some arbitrary stance or disengage entirely. Neither is useful. The productive option is to mindfully engage the process in an intentional manner. Uncertainty is a fact of life and one’s true character is revealed in the way we contain chaos and respond attentively.

Tao is a Chinese philosophy that means the way. It operates on the principle of wu-wei, which translates to non-action. It’s not apathy or avoidance. It’s a broadening of perspective and trusting the process to let things occur naturally. The only burden is the mind’s armor. The founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu writes, “If you correct the mind, the rest of life falls into place.” 12

A rational-centered mindset deals in duality: good and bad, light and dark, fat and skinny, past and future. In Tao De Ching, truth and duality are written as follows, “The subtle truth emphasizes neither and includes both. All truth is in tai chi: to cultivate the mind, body, or spirit, simply balance the polarities.”12

While rational thought applies willful effort under pre-ordained beliefs, Tao is built upon unconditional action through a beginner’s mind. The wilderness stretches out forever, so rich, subtle, and complex. And to a quiet mind the world yields.

The real labor is in letting go of restful conclusions so to advance our innermost inquiries. The fruit of the work is “the bigger picture”, a quest-oriented mindset that gushes with an undying sense of purpose and reflective curiosity.

The idea of embracing complexity streams through the work of French Philosopher Jaques Derrida, who popularized the literary concepts of free play and think differently. Derrida points to the Greek term apolia, or impasse, a state of puzzlement. Whatever the inquiry, the answer may not be an absolute “yes” or “no.” It could be “yes and no” or maybe the answer is a different question altogether.

For Derrida, pleading “I don’t know” is not a blow to the ego but a sign of maturity. It invites us to step back, ask questions, defer judgment, and reframe our narratives. Otherwise we run the risk of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek evidence that supports what we already believe which leads to asking the wrong questions and ultimately blocking inspiration and insight.

Say one day you find a 6, and everyone tells you it’s “the number six.” Every day you tell yourself it’s a “six” and gradually you don’t even question it anymore. Everyone raves about six. It’s the talk of the town, until one day you accidentally drop your 6, and someone says, ”It’s a nine.”

“Oh, the cries of the rationalist,”2
– Gaston Bachelard, French Philosopher

Harvard’s Social Psychologist and mindfulness researcher, Ellen Langer marks two types of uncertainties. Personal uncertainty is tied to “I” and personal circumstances (ex. will I get the promotion?). The second is universal uncertainty, the inevitable mystery that binds us (ex. facing our impermanence on that final breath). We can plan the next year to the grain, but the reality is that tomorrow is never promised. There remains a margin of uncertainty that nobody can predict, and that can be scary.

But what if we did not have to insist on a selfhood to feel abundantly alive? In Sufism, there’s a term fana that means an absence of mind, an emptiness of selfhood.8 It is a deep state of acceptance, trust, and bewilderment with what is. The Sufi poet Rumi calls it an astounding lucid confusion.3 When self is boundless, poetry blooms.

Artfully present

Mindfulness is a psychological state that affords curiosity and activates the senses. It is a bottom-up process, meaning it begins with physical sensation, not mental abstractions. And the two states can co-exist. The problem is when we neglect our primal senses and commit to arbitrary self-delusions.
Freud’s great revelation in psychoanalysis was that the subconscious resides below the radar of rational thought. The undercurrents are misty and chaotic, and a psychologist serves to help navigate the uncharted and uncover emotions that are reflexively hidden beneath.

Free association is a commonly used top-down technique that begins with the level of thought to arouse dormant emotions lodged within. It is believed that by loosening rational narratives, unconscious memories can surface and be dealt with. It’s the classic image of an ice berg with conscious attention as the visible tip and the supermassive subconscious hidden from sight under the water. This submerging process in psychoanalysis is geared to retrace the childhood origins of one’s memories.6

As psychotherapy evolved in the 20th century, Expressive Arts (ExA) emerged as a creative, bottom-up approach to healing and mental health.3 Rather than treat emotions through a rational framework swayed by the past, ExA is a body-oriented method that confronts the present and nurtures the imagination.4 Whether through expressive writing, drawing, or role play, ExA provides an alternative model to decenter from the stuck narrative and mindfully channel emotions with a poetic range.

“Poetic form emerges out of a chaos which seeks its own shape.” 6
– Stephen Levine, American Philosopher

ExA is a therapy practice partnered with applications in social change. It is founded on a way of seeing called poiesis, Greek for knowing through making, where truth reveals itself through the shaping of something. Rather than reducing our worldviews to the tailcoat of past assumptions, poiesis is a discipline of the senses which celebrates an abundance of images and the formation of perspective.6 With a limitless imagination, we can engage our narratives mindfully rather than reactively.

Poiesis is not a motivational concept but points to the nonmotive of truth that comes forth seamlessly. For example, to understand our true strengths and talents we can examine the inner substance of our core identity. Instead of wrapping ourselves in a neat personality, we can throw our imagination forward and let it speak its own language. It’s not an act of ambition, but an inborn curiosity to discover what true potential lives through a fresh lens. The process can include the past, but it is not confined to it.

I grew up shy and timid, often struggled with social anxiety and speech impediment. Maybe mom leaving at the age of three had something to do with it. I had the fat fortune that she returned five years later and flew me from Iran to California.

I began to muse with writing as a teen because the written word was a way to freely reflect and connect with myself. It was not forced or contrived, and it did not matter what I was writing. I simply enjoyed the feeling that came forth, whatever it happened to be. I learned that the satisfaction comes in the way language is handled. Over the years, the inward quest led me to study various forms of meditation. These contemplative practices delivered me to the moment and inspired my relationships and career goals. And it is an ongoing process with a stubborn uncertainty.

Although mindfulness is grounded in an aware presence, it is not necessarily about making anything or applying the imagination. It is simply about being with the vast and confronting qualities of silence within ourselves. When we savor the pause between thoughts, we realize that self-sufficiency and healthy relationships exist in the here-and-now.

Expressive Arts promotes the added element of making to see things differently; and to mindfully engage the creative process with a range of play. Poetry is any form of self-expression that has emotional substance and invites the imagination. Whether writing, speaking, or brewing coffee, when the mind is present there’s potential for poetry. The form and range may vary depending on preference but it is the raw presence that makes a work poetic and emotionally moving. Consider a poem by Rumi:

No better love than love with no object,
No sweeter work than work with no purpose,
If you could give up tricks and cleverness,
That would be the cleverest trick. 3

Shaping a vision

In team settings, poiesis can inspire confidence to tango with uncertainty and to mindfully shape a shared vision. ExA lives at the interplay between participation and the work itself. Selfhood is unessential. Being authentic means leading a path that inspires you and others, so let us do what makes us come alive without hinging on fixed outcomes. And rather than dismissing our connection with emotion as touchy feely, we blend it as a broader intuition and curiosity. Voice, for example, contains a range of emotional signals and coincides with the art of listening and storytelling.

In team building workshops, I look to draw out the authentic voice that’s already there. In one exercise, I ask people to imagine that their company’s success has been featured in a column in Fortune Magazine. They are invited to write a page showing what that would look like and to sketch a drawing that illustrates the significance. I suggest, “The aim is not to be perfect or artistic, but to be playful and authentic. Do not make it about you, but what does the story want to reveal? How are customers and the community at large benefiting?”

In pairs, they are then asked to share the story in two rounds. First round, the listener pays attention normally to the words of the storyteller. In the second round, the storyteller shares the same story but this time the listener only hones in on the soundscape of the teller’s voice (pace, expression of emotion, pause, volume, high points, low points). Mindful listening is less concerned with the motives of speech. Instead, we offer the gift of acceptance and nonjudgmental curiosity, a foundation for trust-based communication.

Often it is said that the second round offers a more nuanced version of the story with more to build on. They then combine their stories and present it to the group, encouraged to be creative. Trust arises when the senses are full and a meaningful vision can strengthen it. The insight gathered from this exercise goes on to inform processes for implementation and feedback.

Art making can be defined as ways of expressing oneself through the senses, which brings us to the present moment. Mindful listening is a selfless activity that enables trust, empathy, and a maker’s mindset to flourish. To drive innovation, David Kelly, designer and founder of IDEO, calls on a bias toward action which is less interested in skill than a sensitivity with the process.11 In other words, an artist is simply one who devotes himself to the contemplative practice of making. Uncertainty is a beloved companion and a true professional may quietly deem himself an artist in his or her craft.


Poetics of being is a paradox in that it’s a creative process of non-activity, continually responding with a beginner’s mind. The poet Mary Oliver writes:

When I walk out into the world, I take no thoughts with me. That’s not easy, but you can learn to do it. An empty mind is hungry, so you can look at everything longer, and closer. Don’t hum! When you listen with empty ears, you hear more. And this is the core of the secret: Attention is the beginning of devotion.” 9

Alertness is a quality of mind that carouses through the body. It’s not so much about controlling the thought-emotion-sensation complex but containing it with a mindful presence and poetic range. Expressive Arts draws on this mind-body partnership to cultivate self-mastery and creative insight. It may not always be easy but like the Irish say, “you don’t just lick it off a rock.” With devoted practice an emotional maturity ripens and it begins with silence in mind.


Arya Salehi is a people developer and author of the book Threads: Turning Discomfort into Joy. He lives in San Diego, California.


1. Adam W. Hanley, Alia R. Warner, Vincent M. Dehili, Angela I. Canto, Eric L. Garland. Washing Dishes to Wash the Dishes: Brief Instruction in an Informal Mindfulness Practice. Mindfulness, 2014; 6 (5): 1095 DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0360-9
2. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press. 1994.
3. Barks, Coleman. The essential Rumi.
4. Ceunen, Erik; Vlaeyen, Yohan W. S.; Van Diest, Lise. The origin of Interoception. Frontiers of Psychology. 2016; 7: 743.
5. Goldsmith, Marshall. Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It. 2010. Hatchette Books.
6. Knill, Paolo; Levine, Ellen; Levine, Stephen. Principles and practices
7. Levine, Peter. In an unspoken voice.
8. Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1991.
9. Oliver, Mary. Blue Iris
10. Siegel, Daniel. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam. 2010.
11. Sims, Peter. Little Bets. Simon Schuster. 2013
12. Tzu, Lao; Tao De Ching
13. Whyte, David. Everything is Waiting for You. Many Rivers Press. 2003

When are your moments of magic?

When I ask people this question, they chuckle and really take time to reflect. One respondent, a professional boxer, said, “The question stirs something in you.” For whatever reason, people don’t picture a rabbit in a hat. There is a moment of pause where people step back and visit an inner affair. From upward of fifty or so responses, people describe their magic moments as positive states of connection and courage.

For the boxer, it’s when he steps into the ring. For the office worker, it’s when she connects with a stranger. For the gay man, when he decides to come out of the closet. For a writer, when the pen touches the pad. For the entrepreneur, when she conquers the fear of public speaking. It’s those moments we feel alive and emotionally present.

More to come on the developments of this research.