A friend asked me this question and at first it felt like the standard career history question I’ve answered many times recently. What was different this time was that I felt safe enough to tell the whole truth. Having talked through the story it felt wrong to keep it hidden.
The entry point to the story is a part I’ve told many times: I was in coaching training by Neuroleadership Finland and for the first time in my life I realised that I need to change. This coincided with my 30th birthday which is roughly the age when the human brain is fully mature, so I was also biologically in a good place to start thinking. The training helped me transform from an arrogant expert to a coach. This was 5 years ago.
The Story Untold
Around the same time I was in a situation where I strongly believed that I knew how things should be done and faced an equally or perhaps even more stubborn person than I was who disagreed with me on some key points. This whirlwind of wills fuelled many positive changes, but also hurt many people. I’m sorry.
Over the course of about a year the tension rose until we were at a point where I found myself in a full blown limbic flight response hiding in a phone booth at the office. My anxiety had gotten to a level where I was physically unable to go to my seat. This was the second time I realised I may need to do something differently. The sad part is that I didn’t realise this from all the fights we had, the blame was always on someone else.
Thinking back to this I’m unable to put that event in a calendar with even an accuracy of a month and it’s very likely it actually happened multiple times. I had been under chronic stress for months which impaired my cognitive function and severely compromised my ability to form long term memories. I’m unable to form an exact timeline of the events that followed but I have a feeling it took a while before I actually did anything.
Regardless of the timeline three key things happened.
- A friend who had gone through some difficult times himself recommended three books for me Why Don’t Zebra’s Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky, Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn and as a deeper dive Heal Thy Self by Saki Santorelli
- I started seeing a psychologist
- I was put on sick leave
Shattered but still whole
I was able to return to work after a few months. The situation itself was never really resolved, but dissolved due to other changes in the organisation.
The 8 week program in Mindful Way Through Depression was where my more or less regular mindfulness practice began. The body scan is still one of my go-to practices.
Saki’s book is what gave me the words to describe my own state: “Shattered but still whole”. Thank you.
One major thing I changed about my behaviour was that I stopped ‘shoulding’ myself. This is a practice I continue today. I’ve written about this in more detail here:
Do or do not, there is no should
I had a long period of heavy stress a few years ago. In retrospect it’s easy to see that a lot of it was self inflicted…
The biggest benefit of talking with the psychologist was realising that the anger and anxiety that I had carried for years was not fully my own. It was my extreme empathy that had made me the unknowing champion of the repressed by channeling the collective emotions of people around me. Regular mindfulness practice and being more aware of the sources of my feelings enabled me to function and even help others in and environment that would’ve otherwise overwhelmed me.
To Infinity and Beyond
The Mindfulness Summit in 2015 was the next major step on this journey. I’m eternally grateful to Melli for making it a reality. Thank you. Listening to so many teachers and practitioners broadened my horizons, deepened my own practice and gave me new people to follow.
During the summit while listening to Kirsten Race I realised that I had been carrying a deep anger with me for decades and it has played a major part in my career. And based on my experience, anger is not a good career counsellor.
Listening to Jon Kabat-Zinn during the summit, I had a profound experience I can best describe as feeling connected with the universe. I’ve never been religious, but I’m starting to understand people who are. It’s a lot easier to explain such experiences as something divine rather than as something built in the nature of being.
Long Live Impermanence!
Experiencing connection with the universe didn’t magically transform me but it left me open to explore more. Sounds True happened to have a 75% sale on Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Without Stress and Fear soon after the summit.
This was my first contact with Buddhism outside the common stereotypes and brief mentions in school books. What surprised me the most was how well many of the teachings from over 2000 years ago align with modern science (seeds -> habits, no ego -> relational self & no permanent self, sensing, thinking and feeling separate processes, community as a source of mental strength, feedback loops between body and mind).
Listening to Thich Nhat Hanh has brought about a unspecific deepening of everything and overall serenity for me. Whatever happens is whatever happens, we are responsible for making good things more likely to happen. He has also reinforced my belief in human potential which is a key tool for me as a coach, facilitator and a father.
Same But Different
If me from 5–10 years ago would read this, he would be very confused. We are definitely not the same but not completely different either.
Things that he would appreciate are:
- I’m able to do things with a presence of mind beyond what I thought possible.
- I’m able to put into words when I feel something is not quite right without it escalating to a fight (well… less often than before at least).
- I’m physically in a much better shape thanks to realising that exercise is more for my brain than my body.
Things that would surprise him:
- How far I’ve drifted from software engineering. In retrospect there’s a clear story arc towards helping people in my career, but he had no idea what was coming.
- My initial reaction to friends stories about challenges in their organisations is a compassionate smile instead of seething sarcasm or righteous fury.
- I make a conscious effort to see people as what they could be instead of judging them based on what they do.
- I listen to a 90 year old zen master on long walks instead of music.
- I calm down in minutes when I get angry, instead of boiling for hours or days. This is by far the most beneficial transformation I’ve experienced.
I’m publishing this story mostly from a personal need for being true to myself and practicing what I preach: transparency, being human and continuous improvement. Hope this also helps someone else find peace.
Whatever happens next is what happens next, I know I’m ready to make the best of it.
Edit: 9 months later.
Things that happened next:
- Writing this down was a huge relief, every interaction with people since then has been easier
- I had a life changing insight: “I want to grow a generation capable of peace”. I wasn’t actively looking for anything like this, the thought just crystallized one day when I was going to the kitchen to get something to eat. Here’s my first attempt from 6 months ago at defining what this means: https://medium.com/@jussiholtta/growing-a-generation-capable-of-peace-8fa07115b3bf
- I was on a mindfulness retreat where Saki was one of the teachers in April. I’m not sure if I can ever find the words to describe the experience and connection with everyone there.
- Learning emerged as a central theme my thoughts about being human: https://medium.com/@jussiholtta/learning-learning-50366e73117d
- I decided to start my own company to help people be people. And to fund my long term goal. https://interbeing.fi/
And what I wrote before still applies. Whatever happens next is what happens next, I know I’m ready to make the best of it.
The distilled knowledge and wisdom from this journey is now available as a workbook that helps you improve your internal conditions for learning through deliberate practice: