Counting Meaningful Purpose with the Three Goddess Braid

The organism has reasons that reason must utilize. — Antonio Damasio in “Descarte’s Error”

“I have no values”

The Silicon valley CEO looked abashed as he awkwardly made a request, “I want you to map my values, but.. I want you to know that I have no values.” I replied, “That remains to be seen,” and we got started.

This CEO had founded a company on technology that made mobile services cheaper. He was deeply concerned that he had no altruistic reason to do this. As mainstream media would have us believe, he felt he was in it “just for business.” As I helped him dig deeper and deeper into the values behind his work, we both realized that his main reason for business which he had assumed was personal profit was actually around removing a pain point of other people that he cared deeply about. His deepest value was around living meaningfully and it had two dimensions — with his company staff, he wanted to hold space for them to come alive. With his customers, he wanted to remove a pain point around mobile service affordability. Both were about serving others in a way that felt meaningful to him, a far cry from his initial assumption that he was doing this for selfish reasons. He was very surprised and left that meeting with a big smile on his face and a message for his team. When thinking about this conversation, I recall the virtuous butcher from Chapter 1 who gave us an important teaching: one cannot judge virtue from what appears only on the surface— one has to dig deeper.

This has happened over and over again. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever experienced. Without lecturing anyone, and by following a very specific line of inquiry (which will be revealed soon), I had stumbled onto a way to help others express their deepest purpose through their uniqueness. Strangely, even though each individual’s path to purpose was unique, they all seemed to find in it a feeling of wholeness. This feeling is universal in that it is not possible to deconstruct a feeling of wholeness any further — it does not matter how we get to it, but once we get there, it seemed to be a very pleasant and joyful experience and the path to that experience held great meaning for that individual.

In the west, and its aspirational outposts, we live in a largely goal-oriented society. This gets a lot done, but strangely, we don’t find our work very meaningful. Borrowing an idea from Lucy Kellaway, when I tried Google search’s autocomplete feature with the words “My job is,” the results I got were:

This autocomplete feature is based on terrabytes of information from millions of people searching for a specific phrase, and Google making its prediction on what I am likely to be looking for if I start with “my job is.” Even though many of us are in some way involved in feeding the systems that produce the big data that makes the autocomplete possible, very few of us are connected to big meaning — feeling that we are doing work that makes us come alive. And this is happening while we are getting coached on being ever more focused on the purpose of every task that comes our way.

The Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast makes an important distinction between meaning and purpose — he points out that our language around purpose implies we are in control, trying to effect an outcome. Our language around meaning, on the other hand, tends to be passive, like “this moved me.” He discriminates between meaning and purpose primarily so we can integrate the two.

In recognition of his argument, I will refer to “meaningful purpose” to signify an understanding about our work that provides great energy and direction. Clarity on our meaningful purpose helps us limit our choices in a way that generates meaningfulness. If we can find a way to count meaningful purpose, we would have found a way to count meaning in our lives. The goal of such a method of counting is to help facilitate meaningful experiences — when it does so, it qualifies as a method of deep counting (from Chapter 1).

The big question is —what is the nature of this meaningful purpose? Are universally valued ideals like “world peace” appropriate for meaningful purpose?

Where mind and speech cannot go

After doing several hundred mappings of meaningful purpose over the last several years, I have found that every single mapping is unique, with none other like it. In fact, I have learned to become wary of universally valued terms like “world peace,” “joy and happiness,” “friendship,” etc., as a sign that a deeper inquiry is needed, and every single time, there was something that was more moving, and this something turned out to be quite unique, as we shall see from a few examples later on.

Where does this uniqueness come from? If one reflects on childhood, one realizes that beyond receiving physical and emotional sustenance, it is also a time of receiving distinctions that shape our thinking. When we look at our different contexts, life experiences and our own innate tendencies that drive our attention differently, it stands to reason that each of us could well have some distinctions that mean uniquely more to us than others.

Finding this distinction can be notoriously difficult. We are trying to find a distinction that takes us to wholeness, and yet, we go away from wholeness when we see distinctions (as we discussed in Chapter 1). Ancient philosophies tell us that this is impossible and will only land us in mind games. For instance, the ancient Indians made a remarkably strong assertion (in the Taittiriya Upanishad 2.9.1) that there was no way to understand our most authentic selves with our usual intellectual faculty. They asserted in poetic fashion:

यतो वाचो नि वर्तन्ते अप्राप्य मनसा सह:|
Speech and mind turn back after finding this (realm of the creative self) to be unattainable.

They are quite right, and things would be rather hopeless if speech and mind were the only faculty at our disposal. The same poem gives us a way forward in the very next line.

आनन्दं ब्रहमणो विद्वान|
The knower knows the creative self through the feeling of joy.

Let’s repeat that: The creative self can be known through our feeling of joy.

It turns out that every human being is naturally endowed with the faculty of feelings. We have just not known how to rigorously inquire into them. How might we go about inquiring into our feelings to guide our decisions on shaping our work context? What are some good questions to ask?

The Three Goddess Braid

As the old teacher lay on his deathbed, awaiting his final moment, his gaze fell on the one he had often mentored. Calling this person closer, the teacher’s eyes grew wide and he asked, “When the girl is braiding her hair with three strands, which is the most important?” He smiled, as the implication was clear. “They are all important — you cannot have a proper braid with one or two strands. The three braids we need are the three Goddesses of Knowledge, Creativity and Skill.” It was the last lesson his mentee would receive from him.

That conversation really happened. This mentor of mine didn’t know about my work on mapping meaningful purpose. I had different words for the three dimensions that he called braids — I called them head, heart and habit.

Head is where we feel our deepest intellectual motivation — it is our work context.
Heart is where we feel our deepest emotional energy that fuels our creativity.
Habit is where we feel our deepest skill, a superpower that we cannot turn off even if we want to.

A first step to finding these three dimensions is to stop thinking with our “head” and give ourselves permission to start feeling through our “heart.” A clear test that we are pursuing an inquiry in heartspace is when our faculty for articulation drops. This is a natural consequence of dipping into undivided reality that is the hallmark of wholeness (see Chapter 1)— we will necessarily struggle to make distinctions!

As a listener holding space for someone trying to find what connects them to wholeness, I start with open-ended questions like “Tell me about some important decisions in your life” and then start probing. Some people have found continuously asking why to be effective. I have found that method to work well for some people, and an open-ended storytelling method to work for others (e.g. tell me a story of a time that you were proud to be associated with your work?). After doing this for years, I find it is less important to fixate on a specific question format and more important to find effective questions that give the interviewee the encouragement they need to connect with their deeper feelings.

To know that the interviewee is going in the right direction and connecting with feelings, I look for speech and mind to falter.

It is quite normal for the interviewee to get emotional and tear up. When this happens, as an interviewer, I continue to hold the space for them to feel what they are feeling and remain in a witness mode. When people get real with themselves, emotions come naturally and are to be welcomed as they are.

I also look at my own feelings as a listener, for if it is the case that wholeness cannot be divided, then it must also be the case that when someone else is tapping into their wholeness (through feeling creative joy), by virtue of me being a part of the same nature that is in wholeness, I must also be able to tap into that wholeness with my own feelings and not be able to distinguish whose wholeness it is.

When I clearly feel that, it tells me that we are not playing mind games and are getting closer to something that is quite real. Later on, we will look at how a skin conductance test (which is used to identify markers of emotional activity) done on interviewer and interviewee can show synchronized activity at these points of tapping into wholeness together. I then use the last distinction that brought us this feeling of wholeness and have found that it works as a future reminder trigger for the feeling of creative joy, transcending not just label bias (from Chapter 1, label bias: conflating an experience with its label) but also knowledge bias (from Chapter 1, knowledge bias: conflating a division of reality with reality). The distinctions we end with for the three braids of head-heart-habit may seem like just a bunch of words to you and me, but it can be a portal to wholeness for the person being mapped. And by virtue of being a concrete distinction that limits reality in a specific way, our attachment to this distinction also helps transcend monastic bias (from Chapter 1, monastic bias: conflating distinction avoidance with freedom). It is a powerful call to action and an articulation of meaningful purpose.

To prepare the space for this mapping to unfold, it is critically important to suspend judgment and honor the sacredness of what is emerging. Any intellectual conclusion that someone’s distinction is unworthy will immediately shrink the space for discovery. First, we are injecting our feelings into the space which makes it harder for the interviewee to focus on their feelings. Second, by making a decision of judgment, we are short-circuiting our own feeling apparatus which may have deepened had we continued to hold the space. We can no longer serve as a catalyst for mapping and it is best to backtrack and try again. Judgment does have a place for the interviewer insofar as we use it to detect whether the interviewee is in a headspace and has refused to connect with their feelings. In that situation, it can help to give a gentle nudge. There is a nuance to doing this, and we will go deeper into how this can also be done in a non-judgmental way in Chapter 3.

If this is done successfully, what comes out is just gold. We feel the poetic magic of being the ocean in the drop, notwithstanding the reality that we are also a drop in the ocean. The one who is being mapped and the one who is mapping are bonded in sacredness.

The mapping process does not necessarily have to happen in an interview format. It can also happen over a much longer period of time, when one reflects on the long arc of a relationship, as we will see in the next example. Words can be revised, and are only of value insofar as the one being mapped finds them effective in connecting to their meaningful purpose.

I want to tell you some stories exemplifying the use of each of the strands. Let’s start with the heart, or, your emotional energy and how it can be used to shape your work context.

Getting unstuck from intellectual games

A successful CEO (I will call him Joe) of a strategy consulting company with a long legacy of contribution decided that it was time to give back to society. Joe kickstarted a program where his staff of consultants would try to assist in charitable causes like hunger, poverty, etc. The only problem — they were good at helping others make great decisions— they knew how to be equanimous and work with what other people valued. They did not know what they themselves valued. He requested me to help his organization get value clarity. I tried to explain that my approach did not allow for duality in work — of the kind where great meaning could only be found outside our “selfish” work life. My approach required the inquiry of meaningful purpose within one’s own work.

This confused Joe at first, and I offered to resolve it with a mapping of his meaningful purpose. I noted in that conversation, “When I hear you talk about hunger and poverty, I do not feel any thrill of creative joy. You might as well tell me which burger you had today in the same sentence. On the other hand, when I hear you talk about the value that people leave on the table due to poor decision-making, I feel that you care very deeply and passionately about it.” Joe nodded vigorously, affirming that people leaving value on the table makes him upset. I continued, “Your heart lies in eliminating suffering that arises from bad decision-making.” He resonated deeply. I then gently nudged him, “Why are you creating programs to eliminate hunger and poverty? Instead, what if you focused on creating programs that help those working on hunger and poverty make better decisions?”

Joe left that conversation with resonance. Attempting to solve hunger and poverty issues for him and his company was a work context that was largely devoid of emotional fit, although on the surface it appeared noble and emotional. On the other hand, being able to focus on the decision suffering caused by ignorance of good decision-making principles was what Joe was born to do, as was the company that he had created.

He felt creative joy doing this work for billion dollar corporations just the same as he would, doing this work for non-profits.

A feeling of creative joy is the key test for a heart mapping.

If that feeling only arose when applying his work to non-profits, eliminating decision-suffering might be a better fit as a habit that he could deploy, and turning his heart toward hunger and poverty is what imbued it with meaning. However, if that feeling arose for both non-profit and for-profit contexts, then meaning was arising in the work itself for Joe. I believe it was the latter case for him, which makes this a good and interesting story of emotional fit. Note that I am entirely non-judgmental about what he “should” feel.

Joe’s story showed me that an intellectual inquiry into options without first connecting with values can only lead to dry alternatives; that approach gets you going in circles with intellectual exercises. It is hard to get people inspired around such intellectual exercises, which is what he was facing. The moment one connects with where one feels emotions, one can start to see a generative energy that fuels us to create. Of course, one would still need to supplement this clarity with deeper inquiry to test the mapping. Weighing benefits against costs also have their place, but the ground on which that evaluation will proceed rests on the direction that has been provided by the heart.

The validity of all tradeoff analysis rests with its ability to deliver on what our heart values.

Clarity on the heart is the first step toward shaping a great work context. Next, let us look at how the habit braid can supplement the emotional fit with a superpower fit.

Test the implications of your mapping

At Sofia University, I was teaching a class on value mapping, and asked for a volunteer. This was the second time I was going to do this in a group, and I did so with a little trepidation. No one volunteered at first. Finally, I told the students, “Look, I have no way of showing you what this feels like unless you volunteer.” One brave woman, who I will call Clara, raised her hand.

I took my time in creating space in the class. I asked the students to acknowledge the courage of their colleague in putting herself out there. In order to respect that, I asked that they gift her total non-judgmental attention. No multi-tasking, checking cell-phones or email. This conversation had to be the only thing in front of us. Everyone agreed. I then started asking Clara open-ended questions about her life and motivations. It turned out that she was born into a business family, and had never been daunted by the complexity of running a business. She would help her father out, and she always thought practically. She had a choice in her education between psychology and an MBA. No surprise, she chose the MBA. I remembered that earlier on in the class, when I was going through the contents that are now Chapter 1, Clara was the only one to gasp, “This is deep!” I had then responded, “What’s wrong with deep?” She replied, “It makes you think.” Now, I put two and two together and realized that the deep philosophical content of my work might actually have been a torture for her.

Noticing an feeling of deep concern within me, I asked, “How have you been tolerating this philosophical topic?” Clara replied, “It has been hard.” I felt truly bad, and offered a consolation, “I tried to put in the stories for a reason.” She responded, “Oh yes, that’s what’s keeping me going.”

Poking my head above the immersive interview, I took my interviewer hat off and told my students, “Did you see what I did? We have found her habit — ‘practical.’ To check, I triangulated. If the mapping is right, the implication is that she should find my class at least a little bit challenging.” It is very important to cross-check the implications with the interviewee in different ways to confirm that I am not stuck in my own mind games.

Our deepest habit is a superpower because it is always there for us. This woman would be an asset in any situation that would stymie others — she could be a leader who helps everyone find a practical path forward. However, our deepest habit is also our biggest curse — it gets in the way of good decision-making when we are not able to create the right context for it through our work. For Clara to benefit from this habit as a superpower, she would need to create a work context where this habit is an asset and not a liability. I then mapped her heart, or emotional energy, as “equitable children’s education” (we will skip the mapping of the heart in this story).

After we had the heart and the habit braids down, it was time to turn our attention to the head, or our work context. If Clara used her MBA to find a regular product management job, as she was planning to, she would not make progress toward her heart braid — equitable children’s education, leading to a lack of emotional fit. However, clarity on emotional fit is not enough, for there is a question of one’s basic nature. For Clara, a PhD on equitable education was likely not going to work owing to her strong bent toward what she called being “practical.” Instead, she might resonate a lot more with a work context that focuses on ‘education entrepreneurship.’ I suggested an example to her, “You could do a startup that found ways of funding students in return for a fraction of their future income (called income share agreements). ”

Clara was thrilled to hear of the idea and had never thought in that direction. As she was in the MBA program, she was in the right place to experiment with a startup along those lines, regardless of the outcome. Reflecting on the exercise a few weeks later, Clara wrote:

I was glad that I volunteered to participate in the Value Clarity exercise in front of the class, and was pleasantly surprised that my ‘head (education entrepreneurship),’ ‘habit’(practical), and ‘heart’ (equitable children’s education) outlined by Somik (gathered through my responses to his tailored inquiries) were pretty on point. I always felt there was something else that I felt passionate for, but never had the ‘guts’ to pursue that. Once plainly written on the board it felt pretty real.

Finding a work context where our heart and deepest habit will be honored is of primary importance. The conjunction of these three braids, as I mentioned earlier, helps overcome monastic bias owing to their specificity. The heart braid in particular helps us stay connected to our feelings. Without this braid, we can lose our way through knowledge or label bias and not find work meaningful any more. Put another way, a work context (head) that allows our heart to express itself is a sign of creative fit. A work context that allows our deepest habit to be an asset is a sign of superpower fit. This method of counting allows us to evaluate and design work contexts that support both creative and superpower fit.

The word “habit” has deeper significance. It is not just any ordinary habit — I try to identify that habit which you can’t remember forming. It was there ever since you had memory. You show up and this shows up. Your friends notice it. Your loved ones notice it. In a sense, an ancient meaning of the word “habit” is clothing that signifies your vocation, like a “nun’s habit.” It is a second skin that you find has always been with you. To be a habit, this should not be a decision. Rather, your biggest problem is that you can’t turn it off, and have to apply wisdom in channeling this constructively. This is your greatest superpower and your greatest curse at the same time. Clara’s habit of being “practical” meant that she would have to work a lot harder than most folks to connect with philosophical content that requires patience.

Together, the head, heart and habit signify a map of our meaningful purpose. Getting clear on meaningful purpose is great not just for individuals but also for couples. Let’s look at the story of a couple and how a mapping of their meaningful purpose shaped their decision-making.

Understanding each other

A couple, who I will call John and Mary, was deeply in love and about to get married when I met them. Over a dinner meeting in Lower East Side, Manhattan, they shared the big decisions in front of them. Mary had a budding career in mergers and acquisitions. She had been rising up the corporate ladder. John had a family business in the hospitality sector. Mary had started considering quitting her job and joining John’s business but wasn’t sure that this would be a good idea. They wondered if I might have any reflections to offer, having done my PhD in Decision Analysis. I responded, “I don’t know what you should do, but mapping your meaningful purpose might give you a big clue.” They agreed, and I proceeded with that line of inquiry. The result was quite surprising, to say the least. I had already sensed that the work of mergers and acquisitions wasn’t where Mary’s creative joy was being expressed. However, after the mapping, it turned out that the hospitality sector wasn’t a great work context either. Here is the mapping that resulted.

John felt his deepest creative joy when he was able to create spaces of comfort for other people. His deepest habit was around celebration — he loved bringing people together to celebrate, no matter how small the reason. The hospitality sector gave him a wonderful work context in which he could create welcoming spaces and deploy his skills around celebratory events. On the other hand, Mary was a totally different person. Her creative joy was around helping people on their healing journeys. At the same time, her deepest habit turned out to be avoiding attachment. She found herself detaching from people quite easily. When we arrived at that habit, John almost fell off his chair. He remarked, “You won’t believe how hard it was to get her to say yes to me.” We all laughed. Putting it all together, I remarked to Mary, “Look — I don’t know what you’ve been doing in mergers and acquisitions. Have you considered the profession of a therapist? That seems to be a work context where you could help people heal, and your habit of detachment would be a huge asset. Therapists who get attached to those who they are serving cannot be very effective.”

Mary’s eyes lighted up. She remarked, “You know, it has been my hidden desire for a long time to become a therapist. I have never brought that out.” We were on to something here. I suggested, “Well, perhaps you can work out a transition that is practical for you and start finding ways of becoming a therapist.” As if to confirm that we were on the right track, Mary proceeded to map my own meaningful purpose in a way that was entirely consistent with my own map. This remarkable woman is the only interviewee I have met who mapped me after being mapped to test the method. I was astonished, and couldn’t help thinking that she was born to be a therapist.

Three years after that conversation, Mary’s life was in a very different place. Instead of joining her husband in the hospitality sector, she became a therapist to help people unblock themselves in their relationships. I do believe that she is doing work that brings out her greatest creative joy in a work context where her deepest habit is a huge asset.

These experiences led me to wonder at the consistency of the method and how an inquiry based on feelings has been ignored by our present science. It turned out that I was misinformed — it was only my corner of decision science that was misinformed. For the last two decades, much work has happened to change our fundamental understanding on feelings.

The science behind feelings

Feelings have largely been the stepchild of decision science and have generated much concern, thanks to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his research collaborator Amos Tversky. The two spent a lifetime studying how our feelings misguide us when we have to make judgements around uncertainty. Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” is required reading for all serious students of decision-making. However, it is not the whole story, and the field of decision science has yet to take notice of the major advances in neuroscience that were being made by Antonio Damasio and his colleagues.

We now know that “gut feeling” is not just a figure of speech. We have neurons to the order of a hundred million in our gut. Our heart has forty thousand neurons itself and we are still learning about how it communicates with our brain. The view of a monolithic brain in our heads is slowly shifting — scientists now consider our heart and our gut to be “satellite brains.”

Damasio’s work has called into question the old-school view of the ancient brain core being connected to basic biological regulation and the newer neocortex dealing with reason and willpower. In his seminal book, “Descarte’s Error,” he notes that “the neocortex becomes engaged along with the older brain core, and rationality results from their concerted activity.” A really crude way of understanding his statement is that we are wired biologically to use both knowledge AND feelings as part of our fundamental reasoning apparatus.

More interestingly, Damasio goes on to show that a fundamental implication of conventional decision science is just plain wrong — that feelings are what misguide us and lower the quality of our decisions. It turns out that although people with brain damage in areas that help them feel should have become better decision-makers, in reality, they end up being much worse decision-makers. Damasio reports a tragic case where his patient was able to intellectually explain a feeling but not actually feel it. The result — this patient had normal intellectual abilities and was able to think and create lots of options when facing a decision situation; however, he could never figure out which one he should take. When he did make decisions, they were almost always decisions that a “normal” person would deem to be a bad one.

My talk at Stanford University on this topic

The crowning glory of Damasio’s conclusion is his “Somatic Marker Hypothesis,” drawing from the Greek word “soma” for body. This predicts that prior to any decision-making activity in our brain, there is stimulus that generates a feeling as a response. This feeling is actually detectable in our body and allows us to know the pleasantness/unpleasantness of the prospect we face. We can then either react to that feeling with an action that our brain has already brought up as our usual response to such feelings from its database of action-response pairs. Or, we can increase the space between the feeling and our action by being thoughtful and choosing our action. The action will lead to some outcome eventually and that will produce another feeling in us, which gets further stored in our brain’s database for learning. The Somatic Marker Hypothesis says that the feeling is not a figment of our imagination — it actually has a physical marker in our body.

The predictions of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis have since been validated in numerous lab studies, mostly with the use of skin conductance. Perhaps more interestingly, this hypothesis validates the understanding of decision-making of Vipassana meditators who practice simply observing their pleasant and unpleasant feelings in order to create a habit of non-reaction or equanimity. The intention of Vipassana meditation is to be able to make mindful decisions, which is also the goal of my own field, Decision Analysis, where we do this with our eyes open.

However, in pursuit of equanimity, we may have gone too far if we start believing that feelings are a distraction at all times. Decision Analysts practice day in and day out not to get “emotional” when making decisions. This is a great habit to develop and I will make the case for why this is so awesome in Chapter 5: Bean Counting to Nirvana, but it also gets us in trouble when we need to connect with our feelings to know if the outcome we face is preferred or not. The same trap lies in Vipassana meditation, which can be misinterpreted as a teaching to disregard our core feelings. When the refusal to acknowledge our feelings is firmly in place, I have noticed that it is strongly correlated with a deep decision-making confusion. People who get into this confusion know a thousand ways that others can improve their work but have not a single idea that they can commit to themselves.

What is remarkable is that my experiential observation is directly predicted by the Somatic Marker Hypothesis, which says that short-circuiting our feelings (as in, refusing to use it for our decision-making) in fact results in the inability to make good decisions. While it is easy to pay lip service and say “feelings are important,” our research focus has only just started to inquire into it, and apart from Damasio and his colleagues, very few have even considered that feelings should be a major source of guidance in our decision-making.

All of this requires us to re-evaluate how we have counted our feelings. In fact, neuroscience is showing us that the neurons in our brains actually accumulate knowledge by literally counting the feelings that are generated from stimuli. Each time a new neuron fires in a certain manner, that is a +1 count that goes into our brain’s big data. As no two people have the same set of stimuli, we are all conditioned a little differently based on what life has brought to us. That could be the scientific basis for our uniqueness in each of the three braids.

What does all this science mean for us? Can we use it to be sure that we are not playing mind games in our mapping conversation and getting to someplace real? Let’s find out with the story of Mark.

Skin Conductance and Mapping Meaningful Purpose

A shy and introverted young man who I will call Mark reached out to me to get some guidance on his future. He had just graduated with a major in Mathematics. Noticing a strong intellectual bent, I asked if he would mind strapping on a skin conductance device while I did the same during our interview. We would look at the data together after our conversation. Mark felt that would be really cool and agreed. Let us see the story of mapping his meaningful purpose through our mutual skin conductance readings.

The readings above were produced with Mindfield eSense Skin Response — GSR sensor for iPhone & Android. The readings were taken from two cell phones connected to each sensor for subject and facilitator respectively.

12:34 PM: Mark says, “I am not attached to things. But I am slowly learning that I am driven by emotions.”

12:37 PM: We start exploring the heart. Mark describes his experience of people around him feeling powerless. That really affects him. Notice that his conductance readings are at a local peak.

12:38 PM: He explains how that takes away our agency and humanity. He is on a journey toward another peak. He struggles for words.

12:41 PM: He describes how economic powerlessness works — gives example of the “opioid epidemic” in America where young people are getting addicted because of their feeling powerless.

12:43 PM: I ask him to stay with the feeling of powerlessness. I note a peak in my feelings and mark that time. He too seems to have a peak. Struggles with words.

12:44 PM: I flip the script — “now imagine you are empowering the powerless.” Notice another peak for me. He peaks shortly after.

12:46 PM: We turn to his habit, and when I identify “poetry,” he notices his finger twitching (I had noticed it earlier as well when he was struggling for words). Mark used to love writing poems as a child and stopped when asked by his parents to do it to impress others. His ability to find beauty in mathematics and express meaning through it was am expression of that habit in a different context.

12:47–1:11 PM: We spend time on the head, exploring different options for creating a work context that fits his heart and habit. Mark eliminates psychology and we look at two contexts that at first seem equally attractive — “public policy” and “entrepreneurship.” By the end, he realizes that he wants to empower, and public policy informs and is very important, but doesn’t go the full distance (for him) toward empowerment. We build a story around this — Mark is not an entrepreneur rooted in the first world — he is the guy who will go to Liberia and live with the people there to understand their needs deeply. Once he connects with their powerlessness, he will find ways to empower them. All this while, he will respect his poetic self. He is an introvert and needs his solitude to find beauty. He is very happy when being of service to the powerless to help them find their empowerment. But when he is done, he is not the socialite who will hang around and build social bonds. He will move on and find the next context to be of service. Therefore, he must find work partners who will be able to form strong social relationships and are not exhausted by extroverted communication, so that he does not have to do this. After this story develops, I ask him how he feels. He heaves his shoulders and slowly says, “I feel relieved — I have finally been understood.” I ask, “Do you feel complete?” He says, “Yes.” Note the peak in his readings. I ask him to look at the full picture on the paper I have drawn for him. Note that this entire time, he continues to stay a higher level of conductance while my readings have been plunging, perhaps because I am in headspace now, moving the process along.

The sheet on which I noted the three braids for Mark, and annotated special moments with timing information. I showed this to Mark near about 1:12 PM.

1:12 PM: The depth of his feelings start to hit me and I feel that he is in a sacred space for himself. I stop thinking and go into this weird zone where I am deeply inspired and connected to the beauty of Mark’s meaningful purpose. Note how my readings shoot up around this time. Also note that Mark was already there and I had to catch up — once I finished my “head” work on the process, I allowed myself to feel what he was already feeling.

1:14 PM: We start discussing next steps — his plans to join the Peace Corps and go to Liberia. Yes, this inspiring young man is going there. Looking at where we began and where we ended, perhaps there is a new meaning to leaving on a high!

Some words of caution

The Three Goddess Braid has been an incredibly powerful framework in my experience and yet, this has been the hardest thing for me to write about. For one, it can easily be misused in the hands of a facilitator who is not committed to holding the space for the subject. I have shared this method with friends in other organizations and while they have found it very meaningful, I did hear of one story where two colleagues were taking turns to interview each other. One of them started to pass judgment on the other in the form, “Oh, that’s why you have always had trouble making commitments.” Thankfully, the people overseeing the process stopped that kind of behavior in its tracks. It is a great violation of someone’s trust to pass judgment on them when they are making themselves so vulnerable in this conversation.

For another, this is not the first time that skin conductance is being used in a self-discovery conversation. The scientologists used it to build an entire religion around a dubious inquiry that included mapping past life events using a similar device called the “e-meter.” They were likely mapping markers of emotion to their questions but overreached in their claims. The claims I am making here are the following:

  1. The points when the subjects seem to feel something deep within them in response to the mapping process are not imaginary — they seem to have somatic markers.
  2. The points when the facilitator feels strong emotional connection with someone else’s meaningful purpose are not imaginary — they seem to have somatic markers.
  3. The points when the subject feels deeply inspired, understood and complete also seem to coincide with the points when the facilitator feels bonded in sacredness with the subject.
  4. If emotional clarity in the form described with this framework is reached, it seems to also coincide with decision-making clarity.

These first two claims are entirely consistent with the somatic marker hypothesis. The third claim is interesting but not surprising, given the research on mirror neurons. It points to the need to add the feeling dimension to that research in contexts that are not about distress but inspiration (the positive psychology movement). The last claim confirms Damasio’s contention that feelings are needed for making decisions. Without clarity on our feelings, we won’t know how to label future prospects as desirable or undesirable. If we cannot label future prospects as desirable or undesirable, every alternative will look the same and we won’t be able to make a decision.

If we are able to stay grounded in holding the space for others and at the same time, remain committed to a truly scientific and rigorous understanding of our subjectivity, this method may be broadly useful in supporting our communities in their quest for meaning.

In summary, the Three Goddess Braid helps you count meaningful purpose by getting clear on the following three vectors:

  1. My intellectual energy is directed to ____.
  2. My heart is devoted to ____.
  3. My unstoppable habit is ____.

One may wonder if clarity on meaningful purpose leads one to great outcomes. I have done everything I can to not make such a claim, and yet, such a question sometimes can come up in the minds of readers. We will talk about this at length in a later chapter, but for now, I would like to remind the reader that there is a distinction between decisions and outcomes. You cannot judge the quality of a decision from the quality of the outcome. If the outcome could be known with certainty at the time of making a decision, you’d just pick the one you like best. Uncertainty in life throws a monkey-wrench into such simplistic thinking.

If we can’t judge decisions from outcomes, how do we know that decisions made on the basis of the Three Goddess Braid are good ones? One test that I have found useful after being in the field of Decision Analysis for many years is whether individuals making decisions feel completeness and peace, having expressed a deep part of their nature through their action. This test must be applied at the time of making the decision (as opposed to the time of the outcome becoming evident) for us to label the decision as a good one.

Finally, the Three Goddess Braid is just one framework that has evolved over time in my own work toward counting meaningful purpose through feelings, and it is by no means the only way. The ancient wisdom traditions of the world have always counted feelings as a guide for inner inquiry. From time immemorial, people have tapped into their creative joy in the strangest of places and in the strangest of ways. The native peoples of the world understand this wisdom at a very deep level. They encourage engagement with art as a way of expressing oneself beyond the realm of thought. When art manifests in this way, one can see something tangible and draw deep insights from it.

However we get to connecting with our creative joy, we will ultimately have to bring these insights into the world of action to give them a life. That is the work of our lifetime. The great paradox here is that to get to the feeling of creative joy, which is a universal pursuit, the only path available to us is to find our unique meaningful purpose through our own so-called “subjective” feelings.

I know that prior to doing this work, I would never have believed that just three phrases could summarize our meaningful purpose. I often end my mappings with a final test, “If you could only speak these three phrases to someone who wanted to understand you, would you feel complete doing so?” To my surprise, the interviewees always nod.

We have a new way of counting to understand and act on Oscar Wilde’s wonderful maxim:

Be Yourself, Everyone else is Taken.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Where lies your creative joy (your heart)? What is your deepest habit? What is your work context (your head) that will honor your heart and habit?
  2. What are your reflections on the difficulty of decision-making when you have tried to avoid feelings?
  3. What are your reflections on the difficulty of decision-making when you have honored your feelings?
  4. Consider the butcher’s story from Chapter 1 — he cannot become the renunciant he wants to be due to family responsibilities and the profession he is tied to. His head is a constraint that he needs to work within. For people in that situation, how do you harmonize with heart and habit?
  5. What is your situation: you have the freedom to shape your work context but are not sure what is meaningful, or what is aligned with your superpower. Or, you know what is meaningful and what is your superpower, but don’t have the freedom to change your work context. How will you navigate your situation?

My gratitude to Prof. Ronald Howard, my PhD advisor, who allowed me to do a big part of this research at Stanford University and whose continued guidance led me to learn about Damasio’s work. My gratitude to Ganoba Date, a reputed organizational and strategy coach, mentor and co-meditator at Awakin Santa Clara. He gave me teachings on his deathbed that I will never forget. My gratitude to all the people who have out of great kindness allowed me to witness their meaningful purpose. Every one of those conversations has upgraded me and my work.