How to cultivate authentic presence

“Happy International Yoga Day!”

This is the greeting I received when I arrived at my local yoga studio yesterday morning. While I was tempted to roll my eyes at the relentless proliferation of national and international days of significance (although I did enjoy International Hug Your Cat Day a few weeks ago), the occasion did give me pause for thought as I stretched into my first downward-facing dog at around 7.35am.

Yoga continues to surprise me with its many benefits. Like many things in life, it’s like peeling an onion. Beyond the initial motivation of increasing my strength and flexibility, I’ve discovered a deeper purpose for my practice: cultivating presence.

What is presence?

In the workplace, people usually think of 'presence' as one of those elusive characteristics (like charisma) that helps you to 'win friends and influence people'. We might associate it with a person's height, or stature, or role - or perhaps it's due to their extraverted personality. But look around you, and I'm sure you can think of many people who have presence who don't possess these qualities.

That's because presence is both a quality and a skill.

As I see it, presence is the ability to connect with others and influence them at an unconscious level – and it originates in a very conscious practice of being present.

For a leader to have impact, presence is essential. But it’s not just useful in leadership. Presence is valuable in just about any relationship – with family, friends, clients, and particularly with children. You could say that presence is the glue that binds people together.

The good news is that, because it's a skill, presence can be developed. It may come naturally to some people, but ultimately it’s a choice that becomes a habit.

So how can you increase your presence without getting on a yoga mat?

Based on my yoga experience, I've identified four levels of presence –physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Whether you choose to develop it ‘on the mat’ or ‘off the mat’, here’s how you can increase your presence in your own life.

1. Physical presence

A basic requirement of yoga practice is that you are physically present. You can’t dial in – you need to be there.

But it’s more than that. Whether it’s maintaining your balance in tree pose or resisting the temptation to fall asleep in corpse pose, the practice of yoga extends a standing invitation to be more fully in your body.

What does this mean?

As a starting point, it means being aware of any sensations in your body – any tension, any aches or pains, any spaciousness, anything at all.

The quickest and easiest way to activate your physical presence is to become aware of your breathing. In yoga, we’re often asked to simply notice the breath – not to change it, but to observe it. Similarly, in life, physical presence means simply noticing how we are in our bodies – not to change it, but to observe it.

Why don’t you try it now?

Take a moment to notice your breath – even just for 30 seconds.

If you have a bit more time, you could do a mental scan of your body. Start with your toes and work your way up to the crown of your head. Don’t judge; just notice.

What did you notice?

You can also practise physical presence in daily activities - e.g. mindful eating - or when socialising, playing with children, or engaging in hobbies.

2. Mental presence

Hands up if you’re an overthinker? (Me too.)

Overthinking suggests a lack of mental presence, which can be a real killer when it comes to our overall presence.

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Most people (and especially overthinkers) tend to have a negativity bias when it comes to their thinking. Our mind is programmed to constantly scan the horizon for threats – and if our physical safety is under control, then we’ll look for other kinds of threats, whether economic, social, emotional, and so on. Negative thinking tends to lead to moods like anxiety and resentment that then have a negative impact on our emotional presence.

  2. It is virtually impossible to listen to two people at once and really absorb anything from either conversation. If we’re caught up in our own mental chatter, how can we possibly listen to someone else?

The antidote?

In yoga, we begin to cultivate mental presence by observing the breath. To focus fully on the breath is, by default, to detach our focus from other thoughts. But this isn’t sustainable for most people. Eventually, a thought will arise, and we will probably follow it. So that’s why many mindfulness practices invite us to simply notice our thoughts and let them go, rather than try to resist thinking altogether.

In day-to-day interactions, no one is expecting you to have the mindfulness of a Zen master. But how about taking a moment to focus your mind at the beginning of each interaction?

One way of doing this is to ‘clear your cache’. Our short-term memory is limited, so trying to hold on to too many thoughts is an exercise in futility. It can be helpful to write down anything that you need to remember or come back to. Some say that 95% of our thoughts are repetitive, so you can probably afford to let some of them go!

Take a few moments throughout the day to check in with yourself.

  • What are you thinking?

  • Is this thought helping you or hindering you?

  • If it’s not helping you, could you let it go?

If you want to be really systematic about it, you could adopt one of the practices that my colleagues from Polykala use in their workshops. They get participants to record their thoughts on sticky notes throughout the workshop (which could be over two or three days) and later reflect on any common themes. Onerous, but enlightening!

3. Emotional presence

Emotional presence is two-fold:

  1. It’s about being aware of our own moods and emotions, and the impact they may be having on our thinking and behaviour. This aspect of presence requires a foundation of physical presence, as emotions are experienced primarily in the body.

  2. It’s about being aware of others’ emotions and using this awareness to connect with them – using empathy.

Professor Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, has studied the effects of damage to the limbic system (the part of the brain that generates emotions) and has found that it makes decision-making virtually impossible. Patients without a functioning limbic system can weigh the pros and cons of a decision using the neocortex (the rational brain), but they cannot actually decide – even on something as simple as chicken or fish! (Or maybe they were vegetarian?)

Being more emotionally present with ourselves enables us to be aware of what might be motivating our own behaviour, especially when that behaviour might be at odds with our ultimate purpose. As leaders and influencers, emotional presence also enables us to connect with those around us and engage them in a way that is more powerful than using logic or reason alone.

Try this: How are you feeling now?

Emotions can be complex and nuanced, and it not uncommon for people to have trouble naming them. So perhaps begin by identifying where you’re feeling any sensations – in your head, in your throat, in your chest, in your stomach, or elsewhere.

What impact might your emotions be having on you – on your thoughts, decisions and behaviour?

For bonus points: In your next conversation, try to identify how the other person might be feeling. What emotional space do they seem to be in? And how is it affecting their interaction with you?

4. Spiritual presence

The concept of spirituality means different things to people, and for some it doesn’t resonate at all. Let’s just say that spirituality is about having a sense of purpose – something that goes beyond your physical, mental and emotional existence; something that connects all of life and gives it meaning, whether it comes from a divine source or otherwise.

One of the key functions of a leader is the ability to articulate a clear and compelling purpose – in other words, a vision. And to be effective, a leader needs to embody the purpose – to be present to it as much as humanly possible – and inspire a corresponding sense of purpose in others (which is grounded in empathy).

From time to time, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your purpose?

  • Why are you doing what you’re doing?

  • What impact do you want to have?

Perhaps this sounds a bit too much like hard work...

As the saying goes, being present is “simple, but not easy”. But the rewards are tremendous, in terms of the quality of your relationships and your ability to make an impact in your world. And, as you become more familiar with feeling of presence within you, you may be able to access it within a few minutes.

To summarise:

  1. Connect to your breath (physical presence)

  2. Be mindful of your thoughts and your listening (mental presence)

  3. Acknowledge your own feelings and have empathy for others (emotional presence)

  4. Act on purpose, with conscious intent (spiritual presence)

Ultimately, presence is a gift (if you’ll pardon the pun). When we show up fully – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – it is a sign of respect, to ourselves and others. And we also create a space for others to do the same.

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” (Nelson Mandela)

*Ontology is the study of our ‘way of being’, which loosely corresponds to ‘mindset’ and encompasses the domains of Language, Moods/Emotions, and Body. Ontology draws upon the disciplines of linguistics, biology and philosophy to create a unique and exceptionally powerful framework for exploring personal and organisational change.

How to break up with your inner critic


I recently ended a long-term relationship – with my inner critic.

We’ve had some good times together. During law school, my inner critic kept me focused. It guided my career decisions and made sure I did the things I needed to do to earn the approval of my family and colleagues. It cheered me on in my pursuit of achievement. It has been an important source of motivation for me, both personally and professionally.

And we’ve got a long history. Growing up, my inner critic helped me to navigate dangerous and uncertain territory. My inner critic is the one who kept score of all the things and people that had hurt me, so it could steer me away from them (and things like them) in the future. I probably wouldn’t have made it this far without it.

But every healthy relationship needs boundaries – and that’s where the inner critic tends to go awry. What begins as reassuring encouragement turns into relentless perfectionism – nothing is ever good enough. And what starts out as a healthy apprehension of the unknown can become a debilitating denial of possibility.

Like the ‘frenemy’ (the so-called friend who has an uncanny knack for bringing you down), the inner critic’s voice is mired in pessimism. In its attempt to keep us safe, it shuts out the possibility of joy and love.

The problem is that the inner critic is primarily driven by fear, including:

  • the fear of failure, which drives us to invest in perfectionism and stops us from taking risks;
  • the fear of not belonging, which leads us to hide our uniqueness in order to fit in; and
  • the fear of not being good enough, which causes us to settle for less than we deserve.

I remember the day I really started to realise that this relationship had run its course. I had just run a workshop for a client that, by most accounts, had gone extremely well. But my inner critic didn’t think so. My inner critic was focused on troubleshooting all of the parts of the workshop that hadn’t met its standards. “What happened there? You didn’t explain that activity properly.” “You shouldn’t have spent so much time on that section.” “That bit needs more work.” (I can feel my chest tighten as I write this.)

Ultimately, the penny dropped. My inner critic would never be satisfied. Nothing I could do would ever be good enough. And, in the meantime, it was robbing me of the joy of appreciating all that I had achieved. The client loved the workshop! Why couldn’t I enjoy this?

And so: “We. Need. To. Break. Up.”

(I threw in a gratuitous “It’s not you, it’s me” for good measure. My inner critic does have a sense of humour, after all!)

The break-up took some time (and it’s ongoing). When you’ve been in a relationship for that long, it can take a while to end it.

Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons about how to manage the break-up process:

1.    Learn to hear your inner critic

This may go without saying, but the hardest part about breaking up with your inner critic is recognising that it exists. For many people, our inner critic is so ingrained that we don’t even notice it anymore. It’s like we’re watching a movie that begins with a narrator speaking. At first, we hear the narrator’s voice and recognise that it is separate to what’s unfolding on the screen. But at some point the narrator’s voice gives way to the drama, and we lose ourselves in it.

One way to isolate the voice of the inner critic is by journalling. Write down what’s going on in your mind and read it back to yourself. What are you saying to yourself? Would you say those things to someone you loved?

I’ve also realised that my inner critic doesn’t always speak to me directly. Sometimes it projects itself into internal conversations that I’m having with other people – my ‘peanut gallery’, if you like, made up of people whose approval I've been seeking. Becoming aware of this is a huge step towards the next stage…

2.    Recognise that the relationship is no longer serving you

I used to take a certain sort of pride in being a perfectionist. To me, it meant that I had high standards, as well as the strength and determination to strive for them. And, to be fair, this worked for me for many years. But it came at the expense of my happiness. And now, as I explore the opportunities and freedom afforded by what I call a ‘post-conventional career’, my inner critic has become a liability to the extent that it is slowing me down from taking creative risks.

3.    Develop a new relationship to replace the old one

Let’s be honest: it can often be easier to end one relationship when there is another on the horizon. In this case, it was the possibility of developing a relationship with my ‘inner coach’ that enabled me to recognise the limitations of the existing relationship with my inner critic.

But new relationships take time to develop. I am still learning to trust my inner coach. I don’t want to lose the excitement of ambition, but I do want to approach my goals in a more relaxed and flexible manner. It's important for me to be patient as I establish these new parameters with my inner coach.

4.    Honour your inner critic

Once you’ve created some distance between yourself and your inner critic, it’s worth acknowledging some of the benefits that the relationship might have brought you. Like most relationships, it wasn’t all bad.

Recognise and thank your inner critic for their counsel. It always had your best interests at heart, even if it was limited in its appreciation of what those interests are.

5.    Expect to see your inner critic ‘around the traps’

Just because you’ve declared the relationship over doesn’t mean you won’t hear from your inner critic again. Like an ex-boyfriend sending you random text messages to remind you that they are still breathing, your inner critic may recede into the shadows but probably won’t disappear completely.

You might need to be careful when you’re in situations where you are likely to encounter them – for example, when you’re about to give an important presentation, when you’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep, etc.

Simply notice the conversation and choose to disconnect it – and perhaps begin a conversation with your inner coach instead. (“Sorry, inner critic, I’m getting a call on the other line.” *click*)

6.    Give yourself time to heal

The inner critic lives in our thoughts, so make it easier on yourself by doing things that don’t involve a high level of intellectual activity. For some, meditation is the most direct and obvious way to disengage from thinking, but it doesn’t have to be so deliberate.

Just do anything where you can feel completely engaged and ‘in the moment’ – what is often described as ‘flow’. For me, it’s yoga. For others, it’s playing with their children, hiking, playing or watching sport, playing or listening to music. Anything where you can engage your senses without engaging your analytical mind (or perhaps by occupying your analytical mind with something else) can give you the space you need to recover.

7.    Develop a new relationship with your inner critic

Once you have some healthy boundaries in place (in other words, the ability to end unconstructive internal conversations), you can still be friends with your inner critic. Like the exceedingly honest friend who is the master of ‘tough love’, your inner critic knows you well and can help you to identify what might go wrong with a proposed business venture or creative project.

But be wary of its tendency to exaggerate the risks and catastrophise about failure. If this starts happening, simply smile (inwardly, otherwise you might seem crazy) and say: “Thanks for your advice. I’ll take that on board.” And then re-engage with your inner coach to determine how best to integrate that advice into your plan.

All relationships are based on conversations. The inner critic is simply the personification of a type of conversation that many high achievers are prone to indulge in (sometimes to the point of masochism). By becoming more observant of our internal conversations, we can recognise those that do not serve us and ‘switch tracks’ to ones that are more constructive.

So is it all worth it?

For some of you, this process might seem like a lot of work – and it is. When we’re in a dysfunctional relationship, it’s tempting to wonder whether the “grass is greener” in a different relationship and conclude that it’s “better the devil you know”. And, like all relationships, this is a question that only you can answer. But make sure you’re asking the right question to begin with. As I approach the end of my fourth decade, the question of how I want to live the rest of my life is looming large. And this has provided me with the added motivation to sort myself out internally – to develop a more constructive relationship with myself that is based on love, compassion and trust.

This is all neatly summed up in a realisation I had during a recent conversation with a mentor. In reflecting on the changes I’d experienced over the past 12 months, I said:

“I used to think I was a confident person, but my confidence was based on my achievements – on the strength of my CV. Now, I feel a new kind of confidence emerging. It’s a confidence based on pure love.”

[Note: I’d like to thank my inner coach for the support and encouragement to write this piece and share what has been an intensely personal journey for me. And I’d also like to thank my inner critic for helping me to edit this into something that is reasonably digestible. My inner critic is also urging me to mention that this post is not intended as professional advice. For professional advice on any mental health issues, please contact a medical doctor or psychologist, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.]

How to escape the cult of busyness

“So, have you been busy?”

If you’ve ever started a conversation with this question, you’re not alone. If you’re using it on a regular basis, you may have unwittingly joined one of the most populous cults in the Western world – the ‘cult of busyness’.

The cult of busyness is a well-established institution. In 1985, author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich observed in The New York Times how “busyness has become an important insignia of upper middle class status”. Some would describe it as a “badge of honour”. But with work-related stress being the second most common causeof workers compensation claims in Australia, the time has come to bust the cult and free its members.

But wait... I enjoy being busy!

I’ve noticed that there seem to be three kinds of busyness:

  • Joyful: when you're fully engaged in whatever you're busy doing, experiencing what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow”.

If you’re joyfully busy, then you’re probably not complaining about your busyness – you’re thriving in it. If that sounds like you, then you probably don’t need to read this post. Go and enjoy your busyness!

  • Miserable: when you're overloaded to the point of exhaustion, and you feel frustrated or hopeless about how busy you are.

More often, a conversation about busyness involves people who are miserably busy. If you identify with this, then you’re probably complaining about your busyness quite regularly – “I’m so busy I don’t have time to think”, etc – and it might seem like there's no end in sight. This type of busyness can arise for a range of reasons, perhaps because you've overcommitted to taking care of others’ needs at the expense of your own.

  • Avoidant: when you're using busyness as a form of procrastination; as an excuse for not getting on with something more important.

This type of busyness can be quite insidious, because you might not even realise you're in it. You might be telling yourself that you're genuinely busy – even happily busy – but you're really finding reasons (excuses) to stay busy so that you don’t have to face a bigger issue in your life - for example, a significant change in your career (“I’m too busy to look for another job”), relationship (“I’m too busy to have that difficult conversation”), or health (“I’m too busy to exercise”).

The key to escaping the cult of busyness is to acknowledge that you're in it. Paradoxically, this is not about 'doing more'. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

Missing: inaction

Of course, the cult of busyness is not a real cult. It’s a state of mind – or, more accurately, mindlessness – that is characterised by an implicit assumption that “busier is better” or that busyness is inevitable. These assumptions are strongly engrained in our culture – and particularly in those of us who are (or have been) fee-earners; where our value to our employer is based on how busy we are (as measure in billable units). In accepting these seemingly obvious assumptions, we may find ourselves beholden to a lifestyle that doesn’t serve our broader purpose, and we end up sacrificing our quality of life for a sense of achievement that is all but illusory.

Modern man is frantically trying to earn enough to buy things he's too busy to enjoy. ~Frank A. Clark

The problem is – we live in a ‘doing’ culture. Nike said “Just Do It” and so we did it and we kept doing it and now we don't know how to stop. And in our obsession with doing, many of us have lost touch with something more important – our way of being.

The distinction between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ is one that I have been exploring through formal studies in ontological coaching. It loosely correlates with the distinction between ‘mindset’ and ‘behaviour’, except that ontological coaching is supported by a comprehensive and detailed body of knowledge that explores our way of being as a function of three domains – Language, Emotions and Body.

Our way of being is important because it predisposes us to certain choices or possibilities in our behaviour. While we all have access to strategies that could improve our quality of life, our way of being determines whether we can recognise those strategies and are willing to put them into action – in other words, whether we are resourceful (empowered) or unresourceful (disempowered).

In the context of busyness, a person whose way of being is 'unresourceful' may find comfort in chronically complaining about being busy and be oblivious to feasible solutions, while a person whose way of being is 'resourceful' will look for and recognise opportunities to change the situation – for example, by negotiating (or re-negotiating) commitments, and so on.

We can’t change what we don’t notice, so in order to change our relationship with busyness, we must stop doing - at least momentarily - and start noticing our way of being.

Let’s play Busyness Bingo

So here’s my suggestion: I invite you to play a game of “Busyness Bingo”.

For the next week, just notice how often you find yourself talking about busyness with colleagues, friends, family, and so on. Don’t judge it – just notice it.

Right now, it's enough just to notice how often busyness shows up in your life. For bonus points, you could also consider:

  • What are some of the unspoken assumptions in your conversation about busyness? What are some of the words you use to describe it?

  • How do you feel when you talk about being busy? What mood does it create? And how does this mood affect your behaviour?

  • How does busyness feel in your body? Where do you notice it?

By engaging in a simple exercise like this, you’ll build your 'noticing muscle'. And the more you notice something, the more opportunity you’ll have to change it.

Try it for a week and let me know what you notice!

It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about? ~Henry David Thoreau

How to kick your addiction to certainty

Hi, my name is Chyonne, and I’m an addict.

I’m not talking about drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Not gambling or video games either. Not even online shopping.

My addiction is far more insidious: I’m addicted to certainty. And I suspect that I’m not the only one.

Why is this a problem?

It has been said that humans perceive change as linear – we see it as occurring at a constant rate over time. But, as futurist Ray Kurzweil points out, technology is bringing about changes at an exponential rate. Kurzweil calls it the Law of Accelerating Returns. To put it simply, we are living in a time of unprecedented change, which brings with it unprecedented uncertainty.

The problem is that most people don’t like uncertainty. Our survival instincts are based on knowing whether the long cylindrical object ahead of us is a dead tree branch or a snake. And if we’re not sure, then let’s assume it’s a snake. Certainty can save lives.

Now that's fine if you’re dealing with a life or death situation. But when the ‘threat’ arises out of an organisational or personal change, the effects of creating certainty prematurely can be disastrous.

Consider these examples:

  • A manager, under pressure to recruit for a critical role in her team, ignores her misgivings and recruits a candidate that she considers ‘coachable’, only to find that the candidate is a poor cultural fit and doesn’t make it past the probation period.
  • A colleague blurts out an ill-considered answer to a question and spends the next five minutes backtracking, because he's too uncomfortable with the silence to pause and think before speaking.
  • A person routinely sabotages her romantic prospects by insisting on knowing whether an evening out is ‘a date’ or ‘just friends’, creating unnecessary pressure that forces the conclusion towards the latter. (To be fair, this was over 10 years ago!)

These situations (and many more like them) occur because we are addicted to certainty.

Why do we crave certainty?

From a psychological perspective, uncertainty exerts an enormous amount of pressure on the human psyche and tends to trigger a fear-based response.

The obvious way to counteract this is to move towards certainty, in whatever form it might take. In doing this, the risk (as illustrated above) is that we may grasp for answers and solutions prematurely, without allowing events (and our full understanding of them) to unfold naturally. It’s a bit like “better the devil you know than the angel you don’t”. We then justify the disappointment of an unsatisfactory outcome with the marginal relief provided by the certainty.

How can we learn to embrace uncertainty?

Over the past five years, I've been training myself to 'embrace uncertainty'. I've had to, because I love change. And by far the most powerful technique I've learned for dealing with uncertainty is to cultivate curiosity. I say "cultivate" because I believe that humans are naturally curious, although many of us are trained out of it through our formal education.

The field of ontological coaching* (which focuses on a person’s ‘way of being’ as the key driver of their success) proposes that curiosity is a natural consequence of accepting uncertainty – that is, when we accept that we don’t know the outcome of a particular situation, this naturally leads us to feel curious. On the other hand, when we oppose uncertainty, this leads us to experience anxiety or some variation of it (e.g. fear, worry, stress).

The reason that curiosity is so powerful is that it opens us up – physiologically and psychologically – to see the possibilities around us. Young children are the perfect example of this. Ever notice how much they notice?

Anxiety, on the other hand, literally causes the brain to narrow its focus. During periods of great change, anxiety can cost us dearly by causing us to miss opportunities that could lead to a better long-term outcome.

Try this simple experiment to experience the difference for yourself:

Go for a short walk at lunchtime and consciously shift your mindset between anxiety and curiosity. To generate anxiety, focus on a problem in your life that you don’t yet know how to solve. Then shift to curiosity by saying to yourself, “I wonder what will happen next.”

What do you notice?

How can we build the curiosity habit?

An essential part of cultivating curiosity is to have faith. I’m not necessarily talking about the religious form of faith, although I do wonder whether people who believe in a higher power have a leg up on this one. Faith could be faith in a God (of your choosing) or the Universe, or it could simply be faith in yourself – faith that you can handle whatever happens.

Beyond this, we can also learn to value curiosity in others. While it’s tempting to respect a leader or colleague who demonstrates certainty, the world has become too complex for that. A person who is willing to be openly curious, consider a situation from different perspectives and be flexible in taking action is more likely to generate a better outcome than one who jumps to conclusions for the sake of certainty.

Wherever there is uncertainty in your life, I hope that these insights will help you to navigate it more effectively – and even learn to enjoy it!

"Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit." (E. E. Cummings)

*The ideas in this post are based on the work of Alan Sieler of the Newfield Institute, which promotes and teaches ontological coaching in Australia and overseas.