Taking my Place

I began teaching a new mindfulness workshop this week. As I took my place at the head of the large room I gazed with satisfaction over a sea of expectant faces and felt a nagging question form in the back of my mind. Is satisfaction an appropriate attitude? Isn’t that a bit like unseemly pride? Am I not supposed to be motivated by pure altruism? Even if I were—which I’m not—how could I even make such a claim?

Setting oneself up as a teacher is quite a move for someone long haunted by the demon of self-doubt. My overt credential is that I was a fully ordained Buddhist monk and received in-depth instruction from a dozen or two Tibetan Buddhist masters, just as their oft-recited credential was their lineage connection back to the Buddha himself. A more tangible qualification though, is that I’ve tried as best I could to use what I learned while living the intervening years of prosperity and failure, joy and tragedy, marriage and parenting.

I postponed my teaching career for two and a half decades precisely because all I had to go on back in the 1980s was book learning and a bit of meditation in remote retreat centres. I may have felt as spiritual and otherworldly as can be, but was entirely cut off from the everyday realities of the people I wanted to teach. What finally qualified me in my own eyes was the fact that I’d grown more balanced over the years, and have built the inner resources to reformulate what I learned from experience—not just in Buddhist jargon but from the inside out.

Daily life has challenged my practice in ways I never imagined when I lived the privileged life of a monk. The people behind all those faces that gaze at me expectantly must deal with those challenges too, but without the advantage I had of being exposed in depth, at a young age, to an extraordinary system of thought and practice. Having all that under my belt during the ups and downs of the intervening years has given my life all the purpose I ever hoped for.

I’m not all that altruistic, but wouldn’t it be great? I’m not an enlightened being, though I am a lot more alert to my own limitations and illusions than I used to be. I’m comfortable teaching mindful reflection because I’ve been practicing it for thirty-five years, not because I’ve mastered the art of concentration or left behind negativity once and for all. I don’t even believe that’s possible. I don’t see past lives; I often have trouble keeping this one in focus. I struggle, just like everyone else.

Some of the students to whom I’ve explained this have groaned in disbelief, demanding to know how, if I’m still struggling after thirty-five years, they can ever hope to master their own minds. Mastery of your mind is not the point. The important thing is to continually adjust your course. Like a ship at sea, life and its stresses don’t come to a dead stop and abruptly take a new direction. It takes a while to swing the whole thing around and point it to a new horizon. What’s important is to keep checking your course.

My blog is a record of my hand on the tiller. It documents my failures as well as my successes. It’s an example of mindful reflection in action, and may give you some first-hand evidence to help you decide whether or not it’s for you.

The Mystery of Life Coaching, Practically Revealed

Many people are curious about what’s involved in the process of life coaching. Perhaps you are, too.

Maybe you have a colleague, friend or family member who has shared their experiences – and wonder if life coaching would benefit you.

Let me unlock the mystery of life coaching for you by explaining some of the tools. Actually, the process is not mysterious at all, but incredibly practical. As I tell my clients, success in coaching takes teamwork. As long as you are willing to talk openly, we can go places.

Life coaching also takes a light touch, sensitivity and openness − on both sides.

Helping you get out of the vicious cycle of shoulds and shouldn’ts

First thing you should know about life coaching: We don’t just sit around talking.

I use customized tools designed especially for you, to help you see your present situation with new clarity.

We all get stuck when we’re limited by one way of seeing. That tunnel vision determines our way of dealing with a situation. And leads to a sinkhole of shoulds and shouldn’ts. It’s a vicious cycle.

We try to solve our problems through rational thinking, but this sort of analysis doesn’t help much.

For example: Many of us overeat. We know we should stop, that we shouldn’t take a second helping, but that logic doesn’t always work. In fact it often leads to guilt, adding another layer to the cycle.

Shoulds and shouldn’ts are mere rationalizations. We think our intellect is our greatest asset, when in reality, it’s often our greatest obstacle. There’s so much more to ‘who we are’ and what influences our perceptions, emotions and actions.

Seeing yourself and the world more objectively, having more choices

The whole point of life coaching is to find other ways of seeing and doing, to broaden your perspective in ways that wouldn’t occur to you by yourself.

It’s like having your lenses adjusted. You’re still looking at the world through your own eyes, but your field of vision has been widened and your choices have increased. And you are able to see yourself more objectively.

Continuing with this example, a life coach may ask the client to record the foods they consume over a specific period of time to become more aware of their eating habits. Then ask targeted questions that help make connections with what’s going on behind those eating habits, for example a link between eating and loneliness. Their work follows new directions and new insight. Nothing is more empowering than to come to new realizations as a result of greater self awareness.

Metaphors are other tools a life coach will use to help you to acknowledge and honor your present situation, and to recognize its limitations.

Less judgmental thinking combined with new perspectives, enables you bring out other positive qualities, like confidence, assertiveness, strength and courage, and apply them to that particular situation.

You may be a lion at work, but a pussycat at home with your teenager. The metaphors become a part of you, maintaining your familiar old way while enriching it with the new. It’s nuanced, it’s subtle. It’s you.

How life coaching differs from traditional therapy

You can reach your goal in as few as six meetings with your life coach. This is quite unlike traditional therapy, which is an ongoing process and is much less targeted.

How is this possible? You’re working on your topic every day, in between meetings. By the time you complete your work with your life coach, you will have achieved a stronger, more balanced foundation on which to face new challenges.

Life coaching doesn’t change who you are. Life coaching gives you deeper access to your own inner resources. This process takes on a life of its own that continues beyond the coaching relationship.

My clients actually grow before my eyes. It’s a very beautiful process to experience. It’s why I am a life coach.

A first step

When you catch yourself in a cycle of frustrating thoughts, maybe in the car or in the middle of the night, take a deep breath and pay attention to how you’re feeling in that moment.

This will strengthen your ‘muscle’ of self-awareness. Applying this tool is your first step towards a wiser and more insightful you.

Caroline Courey is founder of New Way Life Coaching and co-founder of Quiet Mind Seminars. To learn more about Life Coaching and Caroline’s services, visit www.courey.com.

How Buddhists Celebrate Christmas: Prayer for a Turkey

Exchanging gifts is one of the highlights of the Christmas season – not to be confused with shopping for them, which is another experience altogether.

As children, our first impression of this holiday is that it’s when we get stuff. Later, assuming our parents have made a decent job of raising us, we discover other things even better – notably, the joy of giving.

Unfortunately, the season has also come to be associated with expectation – expecting good cheer, expecting to get the gift we asked for and, most elusive of all, expecting that when we get just what we ask for, it’ll make us happy.

These are treacherous expectations; is there any other kind? It’s fine to be humble, but even humility needs its fair share of timing, discernment and skill.

One Christmas long, long ago (1984 if my memory serves) I sat down to Christmas lunch with my brother and his family in British Columbia. The snow was piled high, our mother was in from England for the holidays, the house was festive with lights, delicious fragrances wafted through the house and I was getting used to life on the outside.

No, I hadn’t been in jail; I’d recently returned from my life as a Buddhist monk.

At first, I’d been a bit of an embarrassment to my family. What would you say to friends who ask, “So, how’s young Stephen then? What line of business is he in?”

Mum, ever the diplomat, found ways to explain me away while exhibiting her proper motherly pride; my brother, however, never did know how to place me in the scheme of things – or perhaps he was just too polite to express it.

Blessing what you ask for

As we sat down to eat, my young nephew and niece plied me with questions about my formerly exotic life, and the question came up of how Buddhists celebrate Christmas.

“Well, they don’t,” I explained. “They’re not Christians.”

“Not Christians?” My niece was baffled. “Don’t they believe in God then?”

“Actually no,” I answered, “Although, that’s a different thing.”

“What do you mean?” asked David, my nephew.

I was perfectly happy to explain my past, as well as the belief system of my old Tibetan teachers – a people not very different from us, as I’d discovered over eight years – but my brother seemed to think it best to pre-empt these foreign topics, and interjected with a question of his own.

We were just gathering around the table – its centrepiece a large roasted turkey – and he asked, “Well since you know so much about the Tibetans, perhaps you could say grace, and bless our meal.”

“Alright,” I assented, and chanted a short prayer I’d learned years before – not so much a blessing as a hopeful wish, and added a note of my own.

“So what did all that mean?” my mother asked me cheerfully.

“Well,” I explained, “I apologised to the turkey for taking its life and thanked it for donating its body to our Christmas table. Then I offered a wish for it to be reborn as a human being and the hope that it would live a long and generous life.”

Half way through my brief explanation, my brother had jumped up to cover the ears of his daughter as if I’d been detailing the medieval method of garrotting a condemned prisoner.

My mother was shaking her head and nervously repeating, “Oh dear. Oh dear,” and my sister-in-law was shaking her head in disbelief, muttering, “Good God!”

David was grinning from ear to ear.

I sat back and watched this reaction in equal disbelief. Only then did I realise that I’d been expected to entertain them, like a performing Buddhist monk.

The heart of listening

To think of all my years, all my effort and all my good intentions being reduced to nothing more than a show, was insulting indeed. I’d never suspected such condescension, even from my own family, and had taken my brother’s request at face value.

We didn’t talk much that Christmas, but we did all learn a lesson about speaking at cross purposes.

In time, I realised that there’s far more to understanding people than listening to what they say. Getting a clear sense of what’s in another person’s heart takes real listening skills. Acquiring those skills is a lifetime’s work.

In fact, there’s no greater gift you can give another person than a truly open ear.

What do you want for Christmas?


“You’re … quite normal though, aren’t you?”

Who was asking me this? My mother, believe it or not. Despite the interrogation mark, it was no question. She was trying to steer the conversation away from any possible discomfort.

I shook my head in exasperation.

She took a sip of wine, turned to my sister and said, “He may seem peculiar to us, but he’s not really crazy … is he? My sister joined in the laughter, making it quite clear that this didn’t need to be taken seriously.

I’d just told Mum that I was seeing a psychologist.

She’d been a loving mother; if not for her I’d probably lack what empathy I have. That day, however, she was definitely more concerned about her reputation as a good parent than my emotional stability.

Mum’s generation saw mental therapy very differently from dental, chiropodical or optical doctoring. It wasn’t the least bit unrespectable to have rotten teeth, flat feet or bad eyesight, but emotional issues were just not on. I’d grown up with a short fuse — on that everyone agreed; however, why I’d turned out that way was my problem; I had to deal with it on my own — and I’d better be discreet about it too. Suggesting that it had anything to do with family dynamics was both indelicate and further proof of my belligerence.

Attitudes have moved forward a bit a since those days – but only so far. Outright avoidance of the issue has been replaced by the ubiquitous ‘shrink’ joke, and even those who’ve devoted their lives to self-improvement are often seen to squirm: “I don’t need a therapist — my spouse/partner/soulmate and I talk about everything.”

That’s hardly the point. People who charge a fee to see you may or may not have their own issues, but their relationship with you simply isn’t as emotionally charged as a friend’s — let alone a soulmate’s. Of course, the trial and error of finding a suitable, compatible and competent therapist is no joke. Several therapists did me harm before I settled down with one.

That’s not to say that sitting with a therapist is necessarily comfortable. Assuming that he/she has insight into human behaviour, the job is to get under your defences and deliver awkward truths in a way that you can actually digest. It’s not pleasant, but then neither is dentistry.

Last week my trusted therapist confronted me with something that, in my middle-age, I really didn’t want to hear. The ghost of my father — actually, the ghost of my relationship with my father — still has the power to lead me down destructive pathways. Jeez! I thought we’d been through all that.

I sat in the comfy chair and felt my resistance grow. He didn’t back down, but every word was delivered with unmistakable friendship. My defences were primed to spring into action — itching at the trigger — but they didn’t.

“Hah!” you might say. “He got ya good!” But no — put away that cynicism and consider. Paying for his caring attitude doesn’t make it phony; it takes the personal stakes out of the conversation so it’s lightweight enough to get through. By the time I walked out of his office, something that had been subconsciously buried for far too long was now in the forefront of my mind, where it could be dealt with. Of course, it’s not magic; the work remains to be done.

This is where I’m grateful for my training in mindful reflection. I’ve learned to watch my mind during everyday interactions. Bringing this skill to bear on my newfound old issue benefits me and those who have to put up with me. If I’m diligent, it will bring insight — not flattering or flowery, but healing, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

A Personal Life Coach Interviewed

This interview with Caroline appeared in our local newspaper recently, and generated a lot of interest, I think because it clarifies so succinctly the difference between a personal life coach and traditional counsellors and therapists. Here it is in its entirety:

How did you come to be a coach?

This interview with Caroline appeared in our local newspaper recently, and generated a lot of interest, I think because it clarifies so succinctly the difference between a personal life coach and traditional counsellors and therapists. Here it is in its entirety:

How did you come to be a coach?

I studied psychology at McGill and wanted to be a therapist, but also a stay at home mother; that came first. Years later as my children began to leave the nest I read in the Montreal Gazette about coaching, and realised it was an even better fit. After some research, I found the school where I was subsequently trained.

My life has been one of introspection and self-examination.  I was a divorced mother with four children and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I dealt with those challenges by writing a book and leading a workshop for MS sufferers.  Nine years ago I co-founded  Quiet Mind Seminars with my husband. These therapeutic tools were not just for others but for me too, and a catalyst for my personal growth.

My work with Quiet Mind Seminars is fundamental to my coaching practice. Mindful reflection, self-awareness, and personal growth bring richness and quality to the method I learned. Being a part of the workshops and the community that’s formed around them has given me even broader insight into the daily stresses of life. Everyone has a story; everyone experiences tragedy; everyone gets stuck. We all need a support system.

What sort of people come to a coach?

People who are aware of their frustration — of their inability to get to where they want to be; they recognize they can’t do it alone, and that their strategies to date haven’t worked. That’s our starting point.

Those who contact me  find something in my website that makes real change seem doable; they come motivated to participate in a working relationship. Instead of the judgement, advice and counselling most people associate with therapy, they’re looking for the confidence and inner strength they need to act on their own self-knowledge.

Like counselling and therapy, the coach-client relationship is critical to the outcome. Above all, a coach listens and reflects, helping you discover and invest in qualities you already have. With exercises custom-designed for your personality and situation, I bring buried abilities to the surface. Those exercises are painstakingly constructed — in fact, most of my work takes place between meetings as I consider what I’ve heard and felt. For clients, the process is one of discovery, moving forward through active reflection. They witness change for themselves, and that makes it real and enduring.

How does change happen?

Change happens by first of all indentifying just how you’re stuck in a particular situation — such as a relationship at work or at home. I dig up forgotten or ignored perspectives so you can deal with it in a new way. This widening vision is profoundly simple, but hard to find without the reflective feedback of a trained coach. Then, brief daily exercises shape that change for clearer awareness, new attitudes and greater meaning.

Bringing out neglected aspects of yourself recharges your self-image, clarifies what you want and changes the way you deal with others. The defining quality of such natural change has nothing to do with me or my opinions but with who you are. The new directions are part of you, not some new idea introduced by someone else. My job is to hear, understand, interpret and reflect what the client says.

My training enables me to resist the impulse to think I know what’s best; I help clients see all possibilities, not to advise them. That way, the process of change is genuinely their own.

Describe the process

Coaching starts with a goal or a wish to achieve something. Often, the goal is not fully formed and we work to define it more clearly. It may be as simple as, “to change careers,” or “to have a better relationship with my spouse.”

Clients participate actively at every step. For ten or fifteen minutes a day they’re asked to step outside of familiar patterns and practice their custom techniques. Subsequently, they look back upon them with greater awareness of not just who they are but also who they can be. It’s a holistic perspective. In coaching you’re doing something every day, pursuing change in small increments. It’s less of an intellectual exercise than a physical, emotional, intuitive one. Stopping smoking, for example, is always a good  idea — and yet it’s hard. Why? Because it’s not the thinking brain that initiates change. We change though continual practice, like learning to ride a bike. It’s a gentle but strong process. A good coach sees resistance and adjusts the exercises as things progress.

What has your coaching career taught you about people?

That when they realise that they have what they need already inside them, and that the change is coming from them and not someone else, they find courage and strength. To this day I get goose bumps whenever I see that realisation; it’s tremendously exciting. The coach is a catalyst of change, not the initiator, so in many ways I’m an onlooker — but a friendly one.

For more information, visit www.courey.com or call NEW WAY life coaching  450-853-0616.

It’s all Connected

After a childhood spent unsuccessfully trying to believe in an invisible God who decides what happens in the world, I’ve settled into the notion that we — the actors in life’s drama —are the only ones responsible for what happens to us. We’re not just protagonists, but producers, writers and directors too. Far fetched? I don’t think so.

I live very happily in a modest house with my wife Caroline and Faith, our daughter. One way I contribute to that happiness is to work outside the home. Even though I could manage perfectly well in the basement, I’ve learned from experience that saving pennies that way blurs the line between work and home, and comes at a high interpersonal cost. Locking up the office and making my way home throws a psychological switch that outweighs the cost of rent and utilities by changing my mood each and every workday evening.

I hate traditional office space with florescent lights and sterile rooms, and rent a small apartment. It’s about ten minutes away and, with all the familiarity of home, gives me great personal space in which I can work, think and reflect at my own pace.

People who visit me there see the dense bookshelves and Persian rug—a gift from my dear cousin-in law Peter—and complement me on my comfortable workspace. To me too, it’s perfect place to spend my workdays. However, pry away the veneer and you’ll find a rickety old building with paper-thin walls, ancient plumbing and wiring and a completely out-of date kitchen and bathroom. It’s not a place I’d want to lay my head each night.

The owner’s an investment landlord who’s acquired many rental properties over the years. Some call him rich; I call him stressed. Other tenants tend to see him as a profiteer. I’m more sympathetic, perhaps because I’ve known so many wealthy people whose lives are unenviable; most worry about money far more than those from whom they profit.

I wouldn’t call him a slum landlord but, as you’d expect, he tries to maximize his income and minimize his expenses, principally by delaying repairs until absolutely necessary and finding the cheapest contractor for the job. Three years ago he reluctantly conceded that the roof needed replacing and hired Reg—a man with a quick smile, fast tongue and endless promises. This past weekend Reg finally picked up his stuff and drove away. It took three years, but the roof’s finally done.

Why it languished for so long is something I only found out this summer—not that I really wanted to know. For reasons I can’t fathom, the landlord and the contractor by turns opened their hearts to me with their grievances, apparently hoping I’d take sides and be sympathetic. I can’t help being sympathetic to misery, simply because as a fellow human being I know what it’s like. But it must be something of real consequence for me to take sides.

In all these heartfelt disclosures and undignified supplications for pity, I witnessed two men creating a reality that neither wished for. The landlord, anxious to protect his investment, browbeat the contractor into naming a price that left him with no room for maneuver and lots to resent. The contractor in turn hired the cheapest possible employees who stole his tools leaving him with a net loss before the work had even begun. He had no motivation to complete the job, and turned up only intermittently, each time after the landlord went to great lengths to twist his arm. The landlord, of course, was also under pressure from his tenants to get the job done, put an end to the roof leaks and clear up the endless debris around the property. Knowing what was going on, I didn’t add to this pressure; it wouldn’t have helped.

If, on the rare occasions that the contractor actually showed up, I was unlucky enough to bump into him, he’d talk my ear off explaining what an exemplary job he was doing and waiving away any suggestion that he might check the flashing, vents and eaves, none of which had seen the light of day in forty years. There was no end to his defensiveness and ingratiating smiles.

Periodically, the landlord too would pass by, weary and frustrated, looking upward worriedly, telling me how hard it was to make ends meet what with rising property taxes and such poor workmanship as this. The man has far more money that I’ll ever make, though I dare say that if it’s all tied up in sub-standard property like this, his headaches must be never-ending.

It all reminds me why I renounced such indiscriminate pursuit of money years ago. Even though I’m no longer living the high life of a monk and have to plunge my hands daily into chores and gainful pursuits, money itself is just a means to an end, something to be strategically balanced with the health and psychological wellbeing of my family; that includes me.

Everyone agrees that you can’t take it with you, but look around and you’ll see people everywhere acting as if they can, as if a big house is more comfortable than a small one, or that high prestige adds more to your happiness than to your stress. It’s a sickness recorded in the oldest annals of human history. It’s not cured by simply knowing better, and it can’t be fixed just by reversing your values — remaining poor is no solution either. In this sad and mundane scenario, the rich man and the poor man, each blaming the other for a situation they created together, suffer equally. It takes balance and wisdom to live the good life; it rarely happens by itself, and never by just assuming that since everyone else is chasing the almighty dollar, you should too. All it takes is a little reflection; why is that so hard to find?