Questions I Ask Myself
I wrote in my last newsletter that I learnt what listening is from Tara Brach’s podcast on the sacred art of listening. It was a good lesson on listening to others but I think learning to be a good listener to oneself must come first. Why do I believe this? I believe we are far more similar to each other than we are different. The scientist Riccardo Sabatini, in a 2016 TED presentation showed that a human genome printed will consist of 3 billion DNA letters and will fill up 262,000 pages; Only 500 out of these pages makes each individual different from another, other than that we are identical. Thus, if I can listen to myself, I can listen to others. But how does one sort through all of the noise in one’s mind in order to really listen? We know that the mind is not easily amenable hence why so many of us go through life somewhat strangers to ourselves.
My early 30s was a very tough period of my life. I moved to China and was trying to navigate through what was then a very foreign society. At the same time I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life since I had abandoned my old life (gave up my job, partner, and home) in search of a new one. The uncertainties were overwhelming and I needed help. I sought the counsel and support of friends, I went to therapy, and I took up meditation. All these helped to some extent but didn’t give me the answers and solutions I craved. My therapist recommended I write down my thoughts in between our sessions to record how I was feeling. I thought it was a terrible idea, it was painful enough that I had to voice my feelings and thoughts out loud to her. Now she was suggesting I record them on paper or screen. I would have to see the mess going on in my mind immortalized in words that I could easily refer back to. Quite frankly, I was paying my therapist so I didn’t have to listen to myself. But I had to accept that there was a limit to what 45 minutes weekly therapy sessions could do for me at that stage in my life. Reluctantly, I started typing out words to my feelings. In my attempt to give structure to the word dump I was producing, I started asking myself questions. I discovered that my mind is highly responsive to questions I put to it. It always came up with answers even if sometimes it could take days and even weeks. The more I did this, the more I could hear myself. I noticed that I became better at hearing and seeing others too. Since then I have continued with this practice of self-questioning whenever I need to listen to myself. The only thing that has changed is I now use mind mapping to drive greater clarity.
You are probably wondering what type of questions do I use? Honestly, nothing complicated, just simple questions centered on the interrogative pronouns: what, why, who, when and how. These questions have come to guide my decisions, actions and perspective on life. Here are some examples of these questions.
‘What do I want?’ ‘What do I want to do with my life?’
These are questions I ask myself frequently. I find answers to these questions by asking ‘What motivates me?’ ‘What really matters to me?’
My motivation and what matters to me are the same thing––I want to create and add value for others and have the space to live my life as I wish. What do I mean by add value? My actions have a positive impact on those I interact with, that I am the best human being I can be and that I use my talents and experiences for the betterment of the world. This is what motivated me to start my company. I realized that I have the skills and experiences to help innovators perform better. Being an entrepreneur allows me to choose what I work on, with whom and where, hence live the life I want.
As a child one of my favorite words, or at least most used, was ‘why?’. And it drove my mother and older siblings crazy. I haven’t grown out of it. What has changed though is that I now ask myself ‘why’ as well as asking it of others. I find there is enormous power in knowing the why. The WHY is like the no-nonsense boss or mother that doesn’t allow me to slack or accept excuses. It keeps me focused, it pushes me to work, and not to give up when the going gets tough and even guilt trips me when required. Knowing the ‘why’ is the reason I have been doing my job for over a decade and still find it engaging and see new possibilities.
‘How do I get things done?’, ‘How do I do my best by my clients and loved ones?’, ‘How do I become the best human being I can be?’ ‘How do I get up in the morning?’
I’ve come to realize that the ‘how’ isn’t about project management, and to-do lists, it is about having the mental, emotional and physical strength to pursue goals and face life’s challenges. I build strength through:
When people ask me why I exercise every day I reply: “If I can be bothered to exercise every day I can be bothered to do anything”. It is true, my daily workout routine trains me to be disciplined––I do it regardless of the weather, how busy I am or wherever I find myself in the world. To keep boredom at bay I do a variety of exercises––swimming, weights, yoga, power walking and the occasional Zumba class––and each type provides different benefits. Swimming is the only time I can truly disconnect from ‘stuff’ as I only feel and think about the strokes as I float through the water. Lifting weights makes me feel physically strong; Yoga makes me ache less; Walking allows me to spend time in nature, I tend to walk in parks, hiking trails or in the mountains. Being surrounded by nature, trees especially, grounds me, I’m reminded that I am a tiny part of this vast universe. When I’m in the presence of trees I feel that all is well. I make a point of hugging or patting a tree or two to express my gratitude.
I took up meditation shortly after I started questioning myself. I had read it was good for managing anxiety and emotional pain. I had little expectation as I had tried it before with Transcendental Meditation but the requirement of same time, twice daily practice didn’t fit my lifestyle so I gave it up. The second time round I tried a less cumbersome approach, monitoring my breathing while I listened to sound waves from the Immrama Institute, and I practiced it once a day. This time I managed to stick to it because I started seeing a difference after about 4 weeks. I noticed that I had some detachment from the pain I was in. I could stand back and observe what was going on with me. This is what meditation has done for me, it has given me the ability to observe myself, and see how much less control I have over myself than I thought I had––I struggle to concentrate consistently on my breathing for more than 15 seconds before stuff takes over. I’m often reminded that I am flawed and not in control. I hope it has made me more empathetic towards others.
I make a habit of saying “thank you” to the universe every day for all that I’m given. For example, I have access to so much food that I can be a ‘picky’ (my friends’ description of choice) eater of a Paleo diet! I find listing the things I have to be thankful for daily stops me from complaining and dwelling on how unfair life can be. I get to see abundance which gives me hope and faith.
‘Who do I want to work with?’, ‘Who do I want to connect with?’ ‘Who do I turn to?’.
Very early on in my self-questioning process I realized that every job that I’ve loved and excelled at has been because I provided some form of service to others and worked with purpose driven people. My current job (training innovators) gives me the opportunity to work with really smart people who are driven to solve problems that affect many around the world. Their drive and intelligence are infectious. I learn a lot from them and this makes me strive to do and be better.
Having lived in a few places and traveled a fair bit, I’ve found that one of the best places to make fast friends is at the gym. After about three visits you start seeing familiar faces and the adrenaline rush makes them open to striking up a conversation while you wait for equipment. After a workout, full of endorphins there is an invitation to get coffee or a bite to eat. Your new gym buddy then proceeds to give you the low-down on local survival knowledge and introduce you to people you should meet. Before I know it, I feel settled in.
My current gym (when there isn’t a lockdown) is in a building that could do with more than a lick of paint and has equipment often in dire need of repair, but I love it because I get to train and interact with people from all walks of life. There is the 70-something year old Vietnamese man whose exercise regimen of weight lifting and rowing machine makes me and other younger gym goers watch him in awe and feel lazy. If I make it to the gym before 9am I will bump into the office workers: the wind power entrepreneur, the architect, the social worker, the software developer etc… But I usually go after 9am to avoid the rush which means I meet some local market stall holders working out on non-market days, shift workers, and housewives who have dropped off their kids at school and come in groups to offer each other moral support––even if they talk more than they exercise.
I like to joke “who needs a therapist when you have friends?” There is some truth to this. If you are lucky enough to have real and honest friends they can help you navigate adult life. Of course your friends can’t fulfill the role of a therapist but they can tell you when it is time to seek the help of one, as was the case when I was having a meltdown many years ago. Yep, friends will listen, question, opine and call out your bullshit. I feel really blessed to have friends, some of whom have been part of my life for over three decades.
Kindness of Strangers:
I’ve been traveling alone around the world since I was 19. My first trip was to Italy. I wanted to visit the home of my favorite designer at the time, Gianni Versace. I had done barely any research other than picking Milan and a couple of cities I wanted to visit. I flew into Milan and was going to make my way to Rome. I had no accommodation booked, didn’t know how to get around and I spoke no Italian. This was pre-TripAdvisor and Expedia days. The only hardship or upset I experienced during this trip was the fact that Italian shoe shops didn’t cater for women like me with size 41 feet. Strangers I met went out of their way to help me find accommodation, buy train tickets and even invited me to their homes for dinner. That trip gave me the impetus to explore the world further as a young woman alone with the confidence that I can rely on the kindness of strangers.
‘When do I start?’, ‘When do I finish?’, ‘When to quit?’, ‘When will I get there?’
I’m delusional about time hence why I’m always running late. I always think I have more time than I really do, or I can walk faster than my legs can take me or that everything and everyone including me will work like “clock work”. This is rarely the case. Buses and trains will break down; A hamstring injury will slow down my walk; An important meeting will get canceled at the last minute. A pandemic will derail an entire year’s plans. So for me the ‘when’ is ‘now’–I start now, I finish now, and I get there now. The only ‘when’ I can be certain of that will happen is when 2020 ends and 2021 starts.