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My Daily Musings


N reached out to me because he wanted to continue to grow in his well-established tech career. He worked for a prestigious Bay Area tech company and wanted to get promoted to the next level.

Our work immediately started off in a problem-solving fashion: during our calls, N would create a detailed table to analyze his projects and identify practical steps to advance his career. Many people can indeed benefit from simply being more intentional — nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I did feel a bit insecure because I wasn’t sure if this format would allow N and I to form a real relationship and deepen the conversation.

N’s disappointment

After several weeks, N was less enthusiastic about planning his next steps at work. He shared that while his work was giving him much of what he needed, it often did not fulfill his needs for intellectual stimulation and creativity. Hence, he wanted to work on some personal projects to fill that gap. Thus, our conversations focused on different projects but kept the same format as before.

However, a few weeks later, N was frustrated: neither work nor his personal projects were giving him energy at the moment, and he did not feel like he was making progress. He wondered if coaching was even working: he had hoped that a coach would hold him accountable and help him be more persistent in his interests, but that was not happening.

Of course, I was curious about N’s expectations: why did he want me to push him to do things he didn’t feel like doing?

N found it hard to commit to one interest for a long time. He felt that his interests were too fleeting. As an example, he mentioned how he decided not to build a career in philosophy, which he had studied in college, and pivoted to technology. And now, he continued, he couldn’t stick with one project long enough. These tendencies (which some would find quite normal) led N to question whether he was dysfunctional in some way. Although he had a successful career, a thriving social life, and a happy marriage, he saw the fleetingness of his interests as a problem.

Every time he lost interest in something, he disappointed himself. Perhaps that disappointment now transferred to me. I did not fulfill N’s expectations of himself.

Working through

N and I analyzed why it was important for him to hold himself accountable for goals that had lost meaning. It was essential to be productive (i.e., create artifacts representing him and his interests) and be recognized for his work. If N was just interested in something, explored it to satisfy his curiosity, but did not create anything, he felt unsettled (“as if neither his interest nor he ever existed,” I thought, but kept it to myself, as it felt like a step too far).

N associated this need for productivity with his upbringing (an Indian family where education and professional achievement were paramount) and his educational and professional peer groups, which prized high achievement and status. He said, “That is just who I am as a person.” Of course, there is a whole world to explore behind this statement, and it would have been helpful for N to see what framed his view of himself, recognize it as non-absolute, and gain the freedom to change it. But at that moment, I took it to mean that he didn’t want to explore the history behind it yet. I accepted it.

Instead, I highlighted N’s current view of himself as a factory: he seemingly views himself as a factory that exists to produce goods; when it is not producing, it’s nothing but a bad factory. Nobody cares about the factory’s feelings and desires. This interpretation appeared to have some resonance.

Testing insights against reality

For the subsequent few sessions, N seemed to be less preoccupied with the idea of accountability, and we were able to discuss what work and hobbies gave to him - as opposed to how he served them.

Of course, it would be false to claim that N was changed forever. No. Coaching is not magic, and fundamental views of the world never change in an instant. People test new insights against reality and cautiously integrate them more and more over time.

In this process of integration, old views, and stories came up in sessions, inviting re-examination. Thus, in some of these sessions, we discussed N’s supposed dysfunction and how it interferes with productivity. We also discovered that for N, being truly productive meant creating something that touched many people’s lives (even if only tangentially) and that it somehow felt more meaningful than touching a few lives profoundly. N’s idea of productivity was also associated with the realization of his potential; this connection allowed us to explore what his potential truly was. I am not giving answers to these questions here – N’s openness to explore these questions mattered more than the answers we found. As David Bell (the psychoanalyst, not the football player) said in one of his lectures, “The answer is the disease of the question.”

At the end of our coaching engagement, which lasted about eight months, N was more fluid in the topics that he would bring to sessions. Some of these topics were about relationships with specific people, some were about work, some about hobbies. What was significant was that N did not see that as a problem anymore. He appeared to be on the path of accepting himself as a living person and not a machine: a person whose life is about the process of living instead of a quota of produced goods.

My reflection

To me, N’s story is about reconnecting with one’s subjective inner experience - as opposed to judging oneself from the point of view of an objective observer. We live our lives from within and have nowhere to escape from our subjective experience. External objective achievements — no matter how good they look on a tombstone — do not have any correlation with an enjoyable life. They fade away as soon as they are attained, making us pile up new ones to maintain the feeling that our life has meaning.

James Bugental unpacked these ideas better than I even can.

A strong, subtle influence making us less sensitive to our inner life is a Western society’s long affair with the objective. We have come to think that subjective is an adjective with flavor rather closely akin to overly sentimental, undependable, or inconsiderate. As a result, we try to rid ourselves of the taint of being who we are — inwardly experiencing persons — and set about treating ourselves as products of some Detroit assembly line, largely interchangeable and having little value in whatever uniqueness slipped the inspection.

In our short journey together, N moved one step closer to making his choices based on his subjective experience: being driven by what was interesting to him at the time (no matter how fleeting it was) rather than creating some representation of his talents and his being. If, in earlier conversations, N was afraid that when left to his own devices, he would just eat ice cream, at the end of our engagement, he started to trust that while sometimes he may want ice cream, at other times he just as genuinely wants to read, learn, build, etc. He started to trust the living part in himself.

And I cannot resist to quote Bugental again:

If I allow my identity to become bound up with objective thing-ness, then I am exceedingly vulnerable to circumstances and contingencies. Identity based on what I have done, how I have been seen, and what others think of me, is past-bound identity. It can lead to staleness and repetitiousness in living. Only true process identity is alive at the moment and free to change and evolve with the flow of my life.

My coaching engagement with N lasted for about eight months. Quite short for bringing about a lasting change. Was coaching successful? I think it was a small step in the direction of harmony. There will likely be further setbacks, doubts, and re-examinations. Moreover, I am not even sure N sees our journey and its results the same way I do. That is just the nature of the job.

Written and published with the client's permission.

Ashtanga is a style of yoga that consists of a long series of poses that progressively become harder and more acrobatic. The series is so long and challenging that only a few people in the world can do the entire thing. Most practitioners do about one-sixth of the whole sequence, and that takes about 1.5 hours.

On top of that, this practice involves a few other "quirks." First, it is practiced without music, with the sound of one's own breath. Second, every pose is accompanied by a specific direction of the gaze. Third, everyone practices individually, with the teacher only giving adjustments. Finally, the teacher gives a new pose to a student only after the student mastered the previous one. In a word, it is not at all your usual "Inhale love, exhale compassion" mild exercise routine. It's fucked up.

Why would anybody do it? I can't speak for everybody, but here is my reason.

Yoga offers more than just a physical practice — as everybody knows. To me, the key insight that it offers is the fact that you get nowhere by trying too hard. Get too obsessed with the acrobatics and the desire to make progress, and you will hate the practice and drop it. I did that before. Find enough joy in the practice to show up on the mat more or less regularly, and the acrobatics and progress will come on their own.

Practicing only when my body wants to and not setting any goals, I get further in my practice than when I pushed myself to do it six times a week and compared myself to others in terms of form and progress.

Here comes space for a deep philosophical conclusion that you will make on your own.

(My own next place to apply it is to learn to do less in my coaching sessions. Trying too hard is detrimental to my clients' progress.)

Everyone loves Buddhism. Being spiritual, trendy, and successful all at once — who wouldn't like that? This somehow became the image associated with Buddhist practices. Yet, when combined with the promise of effectiveness and success, the practice of self-compassion turned into a practice of self-violence.

The confusion is understandable. Buddhists explain that if you let yourself feel your emotions and take the time to look at them close up, they will lose their power. Highly effective people striving for successful success hear "meditation is the way to get rid of inconvenient feelings."

Indeed, feelings are pretty inconvenient when you are trying to do things you dislike, befriend people you are not interested in, or keep going when you are exhausted — all the things "highly effective people" seem to do. So, the promise of dispelling them is attractive. And some people say they even succeed at that.

So what's the problem? Well, there are a couple of them.

First, this approach, of course, turns Buddhism into its opposite. Buddhist practices start with allowing yourself to feel exactly what you feel, with no intention to change it. Buddhism teaches us to experience our feelings without running away from them: zoom in and feel what exactly it is like to be "sad," with any thoughts, fantasies, images, and bodily sensations that go along with it. When you let yourself experience a feeling, it eventually goes away — because everything is impermanent. (A similar idea underlies humanistic psychotherapy and Rogers's unconditional positive regard: exploring things exactly as they are with no attachment or aversion makes change possible.) Thus, suppressing your feelings is exactly anti-Buddhist.

Second, despite positive reports, the practice of talking yourself out of emotions eventually comes back to bite you in the ass. Of course, inconvenient feelings don't go too far away and come straight back when you loosen control (when you are tired, drunk, asleep, etc.). The same happens after cognitive-behavioral therapy: all the exercises and "coping skills" that are designed to change your thoughts and feelings soon break down and uncover deep wounds that were never dealt with.

Yet, the idea of controlling your emotions holds a definite appeal for those who value success more than their human nature.

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