We Ask the Wrong Questions

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We Ask the Wrong Questions

If you are a coach, therapist, consultant, if you work with people in any other way, I’d love to get your thoughts and feedback on this question. I’ve been a coach now for about twenty-five years. I notice that when clients enter into the conversation, they frequently have questions on their mind along these lines:

  • “I have to make an urgent decision by…” This deadline is often self-imposed or imaginary.
  • “…… is mad at me. They are crazy and emotionally imbalanced. I am sane and well-intentioned and I can’t figure out why they’re acting this way. Help me figure out what to do.”
  • “….. this situation is happening to me. I don’t want it, I didn’t create it, I’m a victim of it, how can I stop it?”
  • “I need to understand why this is happening to me. I have am good, innocent, well-intentioned, and on purpose. What is the lesson I need to learn to prevent more things like this happening to me in the future?”

All of these questions are variations on the theme of “What do I need to do about X?” They all assume that “I” refers to a coherent, intelligent, well-intentioned, good individual, and that “X” is something that the hero of the movie did not want, did not create, and is the victim of. Hence, frequently the coaching client comes into the conversation intent on changing “X”.

But you could say that this is the wrong line of questioning. Atisha was a twelfth century mystic, and one of the most prominent figures in the development of Tibetan Buddhism. He left behind for us the Seven Points of Training the Mind. The first four lines of this text are:

Consider all phenomena as a dream,
Analyze the unborn nature of awareness.
The antidote will vanish of itself.
The nature of the path rests in the alaya.

In these lines, Atisha is not telling you that everything is a dream in some sort of dismissive way. He’s simply saying that the safest disposition to adopt is to assume that it is a dream, and then act consistently with that assumption.

Let’s think for a moment about a real dream. Imagine you dream that a man is attacking you with a knife. Within the dream, you might ask yourself, “What should I do now? Should I fight? Should I run? Should I reason with him and find out why he is so upset? Why is he attacking me? What have I done to him? What is wrong with him?

All of these questions are within the context of seeing this situation as something that is happening to you, beyond your control. However, if you wake up from the dream and reflect upon it in your bed, or even if you are able to experience “lucid dreaming,” you would ask different kinds of reflections:

“Why am I dreaming this?
What part of me is creating this dream?
This man with the knife, what does he represent about me?
Of course, he does not exist, he’s a projection of my mind.
Maybe I ate too much rich food last night, or had too much to drink?”

In other words, we now assume the dream is a function of neurology and biochemistry. Then the question would become: How do I change my neurology and biochemistry to have different dreams in the future?

I have discovered that in coaching the most powerful questions are always the ones which shift us from How do I change the external situation, to Who do I need to become in order to have a different dream?

When we change the line of questioning in this way, our lives become a kind of intentional reincarnation, but without actually involving physical death. You need to be able to see the “me,”  (the character you assume yourself to be in the dream), as just as much part of the dream as the external world.

External situations, including other people, finances, quality of life, are all being created directly or indirectly by the thoughts, feelings, actions, and speech of the dream character. But the dream character is also being dreamed. How do we know that? Because it can shift and change. You can sometimes remember to redream the idea of the “me.”  We just don’t remember very often. 

When we first recognize this, we see the futility of trying to primarily change the outside world. It’s all created by thoughts and emotions and desires and fears. But when we drop in a little deeper, we realize that equally trying to change our thoughts, emotions, behavior, or speech, also only goes skin deep. They are all created out of a kind of frequency, a vibration, an atmosphere. If we can learn how to modulate the frequency out of which all this is being dreamed, everything else falls into place on its own.

I’ve known Jonathan Robinson for over twenty years, he’s one of my closest friends. He often says to me, “There is one hour which is the most important of my day. After I wake up in the morning, I spend an hour sitting with my eyes closed. Depending on the quality of that hour, everything else in the day naturally falls into place on its own.”

Jonathan is saying that if you learn how to shift frequency, then thoughts and emotions, the desires and fears, the speech and action, will follow suit, and the external world is just an extension of that.

Back in 2003, I interviewed Saniel Bonder, for my book “Translucent Revolution.”

In that book, I quote him as saying, “You really need to have realized the absolute immutable unimaginable awesome magnificence — just to be able to make your way through the day. Once awakening is not viewed as a fetishism of escape, then its value in life becomes more and more evident.”

Instead of primarily changing things in the external world, or even in the internal world, we learn how to move the nervous system from an incoherent to a coherent state. 

Image from HeartMath Institute

This little diagram demonstrates the difference between coherence and incoherence, and was measured using the InnerBalance Technology  created by the HeartMath Institute. The InnerBalance is a biofeedback device which allows you to increase the coherence of Heart Rate Variability (HRV), thereby creating an overall more coherent state of consciousness.

Everything looks different once you learn how to create coherence, including what happens out there, as well as what needs to be done about it… which could include, absolutely nothing. Once you are in a state of coherence, the questions you ask yourself changes. Now you might ask,

“How did the dream character create this situation?
What experience is the dream character trying to have?
How can the dream character called “me,” get this need fulfilled differently?
How do I need to reincarnate this “me” in order to dream something different?

>> An incoherent state of the nervous system perceives only emergencies, real or fabricated. Decisions have to be made urgently. A coherent state relaxes, with humor, into things as they are, and sees everything as an opportunity to create art.

>> The incoherent state believes that everything is happening to me, somewhat outside of my control. The coherent state recognizes that everything was created by the dream character, and can therefore be recreated at any moment by shifting coherence.

>> An incoherent state constantly sees choices between undesirable outcomes. Gregory Bateson, in his 1972 book “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”, calls this the “double bind”. It means that we are faced with choosing between opposites, both of which seem undesirable. A coherent state, on the other hand, sees only possibilities. Everything is an opportunity for art.

>> An incoherent state runs on thoughts like, “I am bad, I am guilty, there is something wrong with me,” which become self-fulfilling prophecies. By holding onto this rigid idea about the persona, which is all made up anyway, we seek out situations that prove that we are right. A coherent state does not fix onto the opposites (“I am good, perfect, and better“), but instead sees the persona as completely fluid, something that can be recreated every moment. Everything is in a state of constant self-forgiveness. It was all the result of incoherence, nothing more.

>> Finally, an incoherent state gravitates towards the sense that “I am full of toxicity.” An incoherent state tends to view the body that way, but also views the nervous system as a container in which traumatic memories from the past are lodged. Hence an incoherent nervous system sees the solution as some kind of psychic enema, and never considers the possibility of simply shifting to a state of greater coherence. A coherent state recognizes that everything is the byproduct of frequency. The past can appear and disappear as real; it has more grip in incoherence, and disappears in coherence.

[Here comes a little caveat about trauma. Of course, many of us live with the personal reality that difficult things happened to us in our early years over which we had no control. I completely understand this, my childhood was spectacularly traumatic. I was heavily impacted by it, and in fact continue to notice the echo of trauma in my nervous system today, particularly when under stress.

Trauma is a real phenomenon, and needs to be addressed soberly. The problem however, with trauma, is that once in a traumatized (incoherent) state, the mind can only imagine dramatic interventions, because the whole nervous system is attuned towards emergency. Dramatic decisions tend to create dramatic outcomes, which perpetuates the incoherence.

Illustration by Boyoun Kim

Bessel Van der Kolk , in his seminal book on trauma, “The Body Keeps the Score,” has written the bible on what causes trauma and how it shows up in the body. But it is his conclusions about how it is best alleviated that are most interesting. After extensive research, he points out that victims of trauma look for dramatic, big experiences to heal themselves once and for all. But what has actually proven to be effective over time is small, incremental change. In fact, he documents that one of the most effective ways people alleviate trauma is through slow, gentle yoga. Being in nature and looking at trees is also effective. So is EMDR, a relatively non-invasive therapy. The pillow-bashing purging popular in the 70’s has proven to be relatively less effective. Van der Kolk has discovered that the way to resolve trauma is to directly shift the nervous system from a less coherent to a more coherent state.]

Let’s come back to the conundrum we face when working with people. Many clients step into the conversation wanting to know what to do about an emergency in the external world. “What should I say? What email should I write? How can I stop this happening to me?” With some deeper self-reflection, clients are willing to ask, “How can I change my thoughts? How can I shift my feelings? How can I speak differently and take different actions?” While still in an incoherent state of nervous system activity, very few people are willing to ask the question, “How can I change the frequency from which all of this is emanating? How can I reincarnate into a different “me”??”

That question never occurs to you when you are in a state of urgency. The most time tested and reliable ways to get into a state of coherence are stretching, including slow yoga postures, dancing, being in nature, a regular sitting practice, and the judicious use of certain supplements and other substances. Then, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year— and yes, decade by decade— we retrain the nervous system to be in an increasingly more coherent state.

How do you know if this is working? What is the subjective experience of heightened coherence?

In my opinion, the most reliable indicator of a coherent state is a sense of humor, which includes being able to laugh at yourself. Of course I’m not talking about that kind of dry, sardonic humor which can sometimes be mixed with a tinge of cruelty. I mean the capacity to see things as delightfully funny.

• The recognition that all outcomes are equally welcome. They are all opportunities to create art. Although there may be mild preferences for one over another, a coherent nervous system will adapt to any changing circumstance with ease and even gratitude.

• The capacity to quickly recognize that the outcome I have is exactly what I want. You can’t do this by engineering your thoughts artificially; it has to be a natural conclusion which arises out of coherence.

• Spontaneous forgiveness of yourself and others. Of course, both forgiveness and gratitude can be practiced for a few minutes a day, as a way to increase coherence, but you know that it’s working when it spills over into the rest of the day. Then you just naturally see that the “me” is doing what the “me” does, and the way to shift it is to change the frequency through practice, not to try and interfere with it directly.

• Everything is an opportunity to create art. When the nervous system is freed of the habit of perceiving urgency, it becomes grateful for little things and seeks to create art and beauty everywhere.

      So here’s where I’d like to ask your help. What are the ways you have found most effective to invite a client to release their grip on sudden emergencies, and the need to make urgent decisions? Equally, to unplug from believing everything the mind says?

When people believe they are living in some kind of war zone, which is of course exacerbated by the recent pandemic, everything seems like it needs urgent action. Gentle disciplines, which create more coherence in the nervous system, may seem like a distraction and an indulgence if there’s a siren going off in one’s brain.

Ironically, when we do build our castle upon the foundation of practices that create coherence, everything else miraculously falls into place on its own.

By |2020-05-04T13:23:16-07:00May 4th, 2020|Brilliant Lifestyle, Read Articles|


  1. Gabriela May 7, 2020 at 8:25 am - Reply

    Amazing and super enlighting post!! Thank you!!

  2. Sherry Tuegel May 7, 2020 at 11:23 am - Reply

    I learned a lot reading this! Thank you Arjuna! However, I still struggle deeply with the dream/illusion reference. My struggle comes from the trauma and violence that I luckily have not faced but as you and many of my clients and friends have. The true emergency of facing physical violence is not a dream to this physical being. Recovering from the experience with this approach makes complete sense to me. I respect the “dream/illusion” of this physical world and playing the human game. I hope you can write more about how you coach an abused person living with a violent potentially deadly partner. During this pandemic I understand we are seeing more battered women and children as places for the violent partner to go have been closed. I believe we come in to play the game that this is real. We are dependent and innocent and then can grow with the right environment to awaken to the illusion of it all, Then we learn to flow in coherence. With love always and thank you!

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