Many business leaders are in a quagmire today. Markets are shifting quickly, their families are under stress, and business is ‘not as usual’ with all the pressures for cost reduction or enhanced performance.  In these situations, I notice that business leaders have very little time or capacity to gain wisdom and clarity; let alone rest and space for contemplation.

Each person has several layers – mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual – amongst many others that we cannot see with the human eye. Moreover, each cell in our body has consciousness, and it has been shown (through research by organizations such as Institute of HeartMath) that our heart has its’ own mind as well. On average, we have nearly 40,000 thoughts going through our heads each day, and our cognitive mind can only process less than 3% of all the information around us. This information is allowed to stream in, based on the filters and belief systems that are in place – almost like looking at the dark portions of a silhouette.

With all of this going on around us, how do we manage to stay focused, grounded and resilient? What role does self-awareness and personal mastery play in one’s ability to have clarity in vision, rally up momentum and decision-making power, and increase consciousness and awareness in the organization or at home? Einstein once quoted “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.  In a sense, when we are in the fog of war, seeing solutions or a path forward is difficult – and poor decisions impact your personal life and business in the long run.

Buddhist philosophy talks about the three poisons that create suffering – attachment, aversion and confusion or ignorance. I am personally very interested in the third – I believe that confusion is the root cause of much suffering in the world today. When we’re confused, and haven’t sorted through our emotions and feelings, have unrestrained thoughts floating through our head, or are facing inner conflict on a certain issue or personal value, then we react, or make decisions, based on the situation at hand, in an ineffective manner.

Leaders who have mastered their thoughts, feelings, words and actions are people who emanate trust, authenticity and integrity. They engender trust and connection with their family and colleagues, and display qualities such as compassion and wisdom. They also have a playful and expansive attitude to the situation at hand.  Sometimes, they seem like magicians or peaceful warriors, who wander peacefully through busy subways and crowded streets, seeing the world in a magical and fun way, and transforming the world around them with their tranquility and humor. Truly, to be connected to one’s inner self, is to be in a state of joy and equanimity, no matter how many chickens are falling from the sky.

How does one create the conditions for more self-mastery and awareness?

The first step to creating more self-awareness is to become grounded, and find time and space for yourself, even in micro-moments if needed.

Steps to being grounded

1.       Create an intention around opening up to self-awareness. Setting an intention, with heart, mind and soul aligned, begins to open your mind and body to opportunities for being grounded. It allows you to be open to changes in your perception of yourself and the world, and is, in a sense, a surrendering to the greater collective and universal wisdom not normally within reach during our everyday activities. “The moment you change your perception, is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body” – Dr. Bruce H. Lipton

Easy next step: Write down or state your intentions to yourself

2. Create a practice of gratitude in the morning. When you first wake up, begin to create a list of people and circumstances that help keep you happy and alive today. You can thank your parents, colleagues, company, health, financials, comfortable and safe home, the planet earth and all its inhabitants, your mentors and teachers, friends, and other things that sustain you. Even if you are going through a rough period in your life, try to think outside the box and remember what you can have gratitude for – even if it’s just running water, a toilet, and a bed. Spend around 10 minutes, just doing this, with full concentration, and even feeling in your heart, body and emotions.

Find other times to incorporate gratitude – before eating a meal, getting on a train on time, before getting in your car, or even while passing by beautiful art work or nature. I find these gathas (affirmations recited before or during certain activities) to be helpful reminders, that even the small things can be magical. There are so many things to be grateful for!

Easy next step: Spend 10 minutes in the morning, thinking and feeling what you are grateful for.

3. Practice ‘walking meditation’ wherever you go.  I used to think that meditation was something that older people and ascetics do, when they’re done partaking in worldly affairs. A few years ago, I found myself in the company of young professionals, who were incorporating it into their everyday life, in different ways. After spending some time at the Blue Cliff Monastery at a Young Adult’s retreat, I learned the magic of ‘walking meditation’. Every day after lunch, we would gather as a group, and walk, slowly, in silence, observing each step that we took, delicately observing the feeling of the earth against our feet (even through our shoes). We would walk in a single file, reciting with each step, “I have arrived, I am home”, and stop to look at prancing trees, playful birds, or a babbling brook. We would stare at the reflection of bugs and trees on a pond, watching ripples grow in concentric circles in a wave-like manner.  While it was hard for me in the beginning, as my mind would want to wander into the past or the future, over time, it proved to be grounding and therapeutic. This is now a practice I incorporate wherever I’m walking in New York City – even if I’m in a hurry!

Easy next step: Walk slowly and mindfully, and observe each of your steps, as you’re walking to and from work each day.

4. Experiment with contemplative eating. We have a tendency of distracting ourselves during meals, especially when we’re at our desks, eating lunch. It’s normal to pull up a news website, and feel like you’re being productive while eating, or when you’re at home, to watch your favorite gratifying TV show. Try to find a meal each day, in which you are eating in silence, maybe even with your eyes closed, tasting each bite of your food slowly, with deep contemplation. Where did this food come from, what kinds of textures and flavors do you taste? What happens when you take a small bite, versus a big one? At what point do you really get full? This can actually be a joyful exercise, as, in our modern day life, we ‘live to eat’ – almost everything we do is to actually eat delicious food and live in a comfortable home! Why not enjoy it completely during those 30 minutes? This was also a practice we learned at Blue Cliff Monastery – what drew me to the philosophy in the first place. Sure, if you’re on a trading floor and doing this during lunch, you might look weird at first, but who knows, you may start a trend!

Easy next step:  Choose a meal in your day, in which you can eat in silence, and pure awareness, joy and concentration.

5. Strip away your distractions. Given that there are thousands of thoughts swarming around our heads, how do we begin to think our own thoughts, derived from our own wisdom?  For starters, begin to remove anything that fills your mind with extraneous information or entertainment that provides little to no value in your life.

Check out this post on 5 habits that you want to kick.

Easy next step:  List things that distract you from having time to yourself, deplete you, or from focusing on what really matters –stop doing them, one by one, but without feeling like you are depriving yourself of course!

6. Nourish your mind and soul with healthy books, websites, magazines and other content. Websites that I love to explore, to keep me in tune with the finer things in life, include Daily Good, wisdom readings on Awakin, Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits, or even a favorite Zen Buddhist teacher’s talks such as the recordings on the Insight Meditation Center in California.  You’re invited to define your own ‘feel good’ stash of information and entertainment!

Easy next step:  Find books, websites or blogs that you would find helpful to your personal growth and inner peace, and spend a half an hour a day reading them.

7. Connect with nature. Somewhat as an extension of the point above on ‘walking meditation’, try to spend some time, just being in nature, even if it’s a local park. Plants and animals are vibrating at a higher frequency than are, and they just ‘go with the flow’. Nature is propelled by compassion – each plant, animal or insect is symbiotically connected, and there is a natural caring that exists between them. Observe, and allow yourself to feel one with this state of compassion. Feel free to be ‘just you’, and know that it’s enough, just like the daffodil blooming, the squirrel scurrying, or dogs being playful with each other. You can find time to do this before or after work, or sometime during the weekend. Even if it’s cold outside, observe how certain plants remain green, or birds remain vibrant! We are a part of nature, and we secretly yearn for this reconnection – allow your body, mind and soul the time to do this, either privately, or with a good friend.

Easy next step: Find time during breaks to hang out by the river or in a park, by yourself. No books needed!

8. Find a group of noble friends. The more I go down my self-awareness journey, the more I recognize the importance of having friends that care about being better people. Do you have a single friend, or a group, with whom you can regularly connect with, maybe even meditate, sit in silence, or talk about the more important things in life, like life purpose, relationships, vitality and personal growth? Jim Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  Who are those people that you would want to know better, to emulate, learn from, to mentor you or help you discover new facets about yourself? You can find such groups everywhere, from meditation circles, programs like Landmark, Course in Miracles study groups, Lean In circles, spiritual centers, or any other group that is dedicated to personal growth (just check out – there are groups of almost every kind!). Or, be brave enough to start one of your own!

Easy next step: Reach out to a friend or mentor that you may be able to build a deep relationship with, and with whom you share similar values, and begin meeting or talking to them weekly.

9. Spend time in meditation (and prayer, if you’re even somewhat spiritual). As a busy professional in the City, I never had time for meditation, even though it formed a part of my intention after I did a ten day Vipassana silent meditation course back in 2008. I got wrapped up in day to day life, and spending time on meditation seemed like I was on the train to nowhere! Now, after practicing for a few years, I can now say that all my work, food and activities are so that I can get more time on the cushion!

What is meditation, people ask? There is this powerful analogy that’s used – imagine a glass jar filled with dirty water. When you shake the glass, it looks dark and muddy;  yet, when you set the jar down, over time, the dirt starts to settle down to the bottom. That’s what happens during meditation – our thoughts, judgments, feelings, start to settle down. When you’re sitting, just observing the inhale and exhale of your breath, you will notice many thoughts passing by, like clouds in the sky – rather than getting engaged in them, and allowing your reactions to start taking over, just observe these thoughts, and see what happens. Many of them disappear! You may even experience one or two minute periods of no-thought – spaces in between thoughts, which are like silence – pure spaces of potentiality. These are the magical moments, in which your inner (and true) state of bliss can be touched.

There are many sources of guided meditations – whether you look for weekly meditation circles in your city, CDs, or online resources such as the 21 day meditation challenges by Deepak Chopra and Oprah.  Look for centers in your city that offer classes – for example, the Insight Meditation Center, amongst others. One of the best ways to learn is to do a weekend or week-long retreat – it will feel like a spa for your mind!

How much time should one meditate? While an hour a day would be ideal, doing even 30 minutes in the morning is sufficient – and you can even do it on the subway ride to work.

Easy next step: After your practice of gratitude, sit for 30 minutes in silence; or do it on your commute to work, just observing your breath. Smile, relax and enjoy the ‘you’ time.

10. Join an activity that nourishes your mind, body and soul. Buddha once said, “You yourself as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection”. Activities such as martial arts and yoga are not only physical, but also have mental and emotional components to them. They allow you to connect more deeply to yourself. Of course, some people also view running and working with weights to have the same impact. Whatever it is, know that your body needs you as much as your friends, family and workplace do. You cannot serve others, if you’re body, mind and soul aren’t feeling whole and nourished.

Quick next step: Find time to work out everyday, and even join a yoga or martial arts class, that meets once a week.

11. Write in a journal. After you’re done meditating, spend 10 minutes or more in the morning writing your thoughts, feelings, and observations in a journal. It is your private journal, for no one to look at, validate or critique. It must be honest and true – as this is the time for your self-reflection and experiments in truth. It can be a hand-written one, or somewhere on the internet – just don’t post it on Facebook!

12. Eat enough (nutritious) and grounding food. This is a really important aspect to feeling happy, healthy and grounded. During the winter, our body craves for certain seasonal varieties of foods such as root vegetables (potatoes, turnips, yams) and squash. Try to eat in season, and stay away from meats, processed foods and sugar which would have your mind and heart racing, due to all the energy being used in digesting unnatural and unhealthy food. While eating, begin to observe why you’re eating certain foods – is it to fill a void? For entertainment, or to feel good? What foods really energize you, make you feel lighter and stronger, and keep you content? Feeling vital is an important part of one’s contemplative practice.

13. Rest Well. Even if you’re a busy person with multiple responsibilities, work to create a balanced lifestyle where you get time to rest. Some people are able to stay energized with eight hours of sleep at night, and others, with five. Try to be compassionate and realistic with what your needs are, and be strong in creating a plan to meet them. Once you change your diet, begin doing some meditation and yoga, and keeping guard of your mind from negative thinking, you may find that you need less and less rest over time.

By following these practices, you will start to feel more grounded, and have more clarity on your purpose, and your business. You may start to feel more mindful, empathetic, compassionate, joyful and wise. The energy that you will bring to yourself and others will have a calm, healing and tranquil quality about it, and perhaps you will be able to connect with yourself and others on a deeper level. These are some of the experiments in leading a more contemplative life that I have adopted, and I invite you to investigate and test your own practices!

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