I LOVE Provocative Questions.
The first time I heard the term was 20 years ago, as I was birthing my coaching career.
My mentor, Thomas J. Leonard, with a vision to train excellent coaches, had created a list of 15 proficiencies that he felt were indispensable. The first of these proficiencies was “Engage in Provocative Questions.”
Provocative Questions make us stop and dig a bit deeper. In a therapeutic setting, they will quickly enhance the work at hand. In personal relationships, they will fast-track the connection.
A few weeks ago, such a question crossed my path, unannounced.
It asked - and you may want to read it a couple of times, I sure had to:
“When was the last time you did something for the first time?”
I was ready to play, to answer, to make a list. I was also tickled to HAVE a list. A long one.
Almost every day since I moved to Mexico 2.5 years ago, I do something for the first time. Tiny things and big things. Things like handing a street vendor a portrait I just made of him, and things like riding my quad in the dark in the rain through riverbeds. Things like making Tortilla Soup and things like siphoning rainwater from a plastic tub into an underground cistern. My list for the last few years is long and funny and makes even me raise my eyebrows.
Ok, that’s cool. I have a list, I can answer The Provocative Question. I can say “The last time I did something for the first time was … yesterday. And probably the day before too.”
But then what? What do I do with these answers? I sensed there was more to it than just a list. There was an invitation to understand… something.
I grabbed a notebook and a pen.
I let the feelings and the findings write themselves down like little bits of glitter and then I went about the business of harvesting them.
One Essence shone brightly. A delicious Essence, an Essence I recognized and immediately thanked.
Yes, that was it. The Provocative Question had led me to an answer, then to a list, then to an understanding.
I think that when we do things for the first time, we turn on the dial on our Essence of Aliveness.
Living here, with all its quirks and lovelinesses and infuriatedenesses and newnesses, made me feel ALIVE. Brightly, deliciously, and occasionally maddeningly alive. Because… so many first times.
First Times can be scary, exhilarating, demanding, and certainly unknown. One of their gifts is that they keep us very much in the present.
As babies, there are so many first times. The first time we take a breath, a step, a bite of a banana. It happens organically and there is no need to be intentional about it.
Also, there is no way to take a first step and think about what will happen tomorrow. The first time I rode my quad I promise you I was not thinking about what was for dinner nor whether I had somehow screwed something up ten years ago. I was very, very present. Therefore alive.
As we grow up, we have more first times. The first day of school, our first kiss, our first baby. We still have first times but we may have less of them because there is so much we have experienced already. In some way, we start to have to seek them out and create them. Maybe we start rock climbing or we take salsa classes. Somehow we may become aware of the relationship between these first times and our Essence of Aliveness. If we listen and if we have the courage to step out of our comfort zone a bit, we get to play with that thermostat, we can turn it up.
It felt good to understand. When I understand, I find that I can be more intentional. And since I am no longer a baby, this intentionality is necessary.
Returning from the US to Mexico last Spring, the window seat next to me on the plane was empty until the moment just before the doors closed.
Then a woman was rushing through the aisle and making her way past my legs to plop herself down in her seat. The first thing I noticed was that she smelled really good. Then I saw her head of intricate and meticulous cornrows above a beautiful face the color of caramel.
She put her purse down on the floor, took a deep breath, slowly fastened her seat belt, and then turned to me.
She said: “This is my first time flying and I may get scared.” From the smile on her face, I guessed that she may also get really excited but before we could test that theory the plane was taking off and she was holding onto my hand really tight with her nose right on the glass. I was not sure she was breathing.
After a few minutes, the plane stopped climbing, she resumed breathing and we talked. She was flying for the first time for a job interview. She was above the clouds and she couldn’t believe that there we were, sitting in our comfy chairs and FLYING.
This is something I have thought of many times before while traveling, especially when hearing other travelers complain about the lines, the waiting. There have been times when I wanted to take a megaphone and ask: “People, do you know what is about to happen? We are about to sit down on a chair, drink a coke while we FLY ACROSS THE SKY! Do you get this? Do you really get this?”
My traveling companion, she got this. She was very much ALIVE.
And so, through her eyes, I got to fly for the first time too. Maybe not completely, certainly not like she did, but I felt it. The awe, the tiny bit of fear, the amazement. The first time. I was so grateful to her for taking me along with her. She was grateful for my hand in hers as we landed.
A few days ago I was having a phone conversation with a friend about this and she served me an extra bit of goodness to add to this rich dish. She said: “And you know, I think that we can also do something we have done a hundred times in a new way and therefore tap into the First Time.” I love this reminder. Take a new road home, sit on another chair at dinner tonight, switch sides of the bed, try a new vegetable, watch a new genre of movie…
So now it’s my turn to ask you The Provocative Question: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?
For most of the 90s, my car had a sticker that said “Kill Your Television.” A bit violent, a bit extreme, I loved it. It told anyone who drove behind me that hey, I didn’t buy into the mainstream hypnosis. I spent time talking with my family, not looking at a screen. I was interesting.
Funny enough, the sticker seems to have disappeared just as cell phones and computers made their quiet way into my life. It would be years before I realized that the TV might have been the better alternative, the healthier fare. After all, we could all watch it together.
Recently, I have once again entered into a higher awareness of my relationship with my phone. These bouts of attention come and go in cycles and each time I have a whole bunch of understanding of what’s happening, all the right words and statistics.
I know what’s going on.
Not only do I know, but I can feel it. In my brain, I mean. I can see how it is not so much the phone I am hooked on, but the Distraction. The freaking distraction. I see how hard it has become for me to read ten pages of a book without checking the darn thing. Just in case, you know? Just in case something really interesting, really important happened in the last few minutes.
I do not like this one bit. I do not like being told what to do and this is pretty much what’s happening, here.
So in the last few days, I have entered a new cycle of “I’m going to do something about this.”
And then, because the Universe loves to make a point, the-man-I-love-and-who-often-drives-me-crazy decides to really get on me about this. And goodness does he ever.
Because hey, I have been thinking about this on my own, I think a simple: “Yes, I hear you and I’m working on it,” is going to do. But oh no. Apparently, I need more information, more examples.
Which pisses me off.
So I talk about how important it is for me to check my phone. I have clients, I have children, and I have friends on the other side of the border. If we are traveling I have a home and pets to check on, and I have a social media life to keep up with. I have a life!
And I also know that the very thing I am defending - solely because it / I is being attacked - is the problem, not so much Carlos’ unpleasant rant.
Years ago, I interviewed Maggie Jackson, author of the book Distracted. Maggie knew what was coming. She could smell it. I listened to her and vowed that it would never happen to me.
And my goodness it is so easy to slip into it. I live alone, in the middle of pretty much nowhere. The majority of the people I love live in other time zones. I don’t want to be disconnected from them.
Even as I write this, I know it’s BS. A lie. I can absolutely be connected to them and still be in balance.
I am hooked and that’s that.
I am hooked and I get to choose what I am going to do about it, and how.
Awareness is the first part, this I know. I also know that for me to make promises - even to just myself - about timeline, schedule, and restraint are not going to work. What I need is to pay attention to my “why.” To keep it close at hand. For the first phase, which is usually the hardest.
The why is that as I said earlier, I hate being told what to do and I’ll be darn if a little machine (which I love dearly for its magical abilities) is going to tell me to look at it every few minutes. So there’s that. Rebellion can go a long way with me.
Then there is The Guidance. The Guidance that is always there for me and does not steer me wrong. If I ask, it will take me there. Back into harmony. Back to a place where I choose the goodness and pass on the madness. I trust this.
A girlfriend recently said to me: “I am sitting here trying to not smoke a joint, not get sexy with some guy, and not look at my phone. Staying away from ice cream is the easy addiction.”
In the end, it’s all about Sovereignty. And these days, our Sovereignty is increasingly more precious and more elusive.
Sitting in my bed with a cup of Market Spice tea, the doors wide open and the jungle still asleep.
Soon the sky will turn pink, the birds will stretch their colored wings and start their good morning routine. The roosters will let out their part celebratory, part indignant cry and the day will begin.
Right now everything is velvety-quiet and I am thinking back. Thinking forward. Mostly, thinking now.
Twenty years ago this month, I began my career as a life coach.
I had never heard of life coaching, and neither had most people. One late night on the phone, during this tentative chapter of the years following the end of my marriage, my sister casually mentioned that I may want to look into life coaching. "This is what you have always done," she said.
I was living on the island, away from my family, and had navigated the last three years through a blend of luck, hereditary business creativity, and my friends' generosity. It was time to face the fact that this was not temporary. It would be at least 15 years before I had the freedom to leave. 15 years is a lot of meals, shoes, school backpacks, vacations, and opportunities to either love it or survive it. I had to love it.
When I got off the phone and had tucked my kids into bed, I walked downstairs to the big computer and entered the words Life Coaching.
I did not look up from the screen until morning until it was time to make breakfast and get everyone to school.
I knew this work. In my cells, I knew what it felt like to listen to someone and to simplify their aching brains, their confused hearts. I knew what it felt like to go to the Essence (It would be years before I adopted this word) and to use the past only as a gateway to the present, to a sweet shiny present that was theirs, truly theirs.
I knew this work.
That night, in the dark of a sleeping house and with an intensity of focus that said "Ah... there you are," I met Thomas J. Leonard, "the father of life coaching." He had died a few months prior and along with the strange grief I felt about knowing that I would never meet him, I discovered the thousands of courses, papers, tools, interviews he had left behind. I read that Thomas wanted to create 10,000 coaches and equip them with the tools to go do all kinds of good in the world. He also knew how to turn this gift into a profession, a viable business. And god knows I needed a viable business.
I dove in. Deep.
I helped myself from this seemingly unending source he had left behind, that day when his heart gave out. I read, I listened, I took notes. For three months I walked around with earphones listening to his voice, witnessing his work session after session. It was like receiving an infusion. I downloaded his worksheets, his summaries, his dozens and dozens of lists. Had I known that most of his work would soon get packaged into expensive courses I would have saved a lot more of them.
Little by little, I could see it. I could see how with the help from this man I would never meet, I could turn something that was so natural to me into something that would buy meals, shoes, school backpacks, and vacations. My sister told me recently that during that time I said to her that "I wanted to build a career that I could one day practice from a beach in Mexico." I had never been to Mexico.
So for three months, while summer turned into early fall, I absorbed. I let his work gently wake up a knowing inside of me. I let his outrageous productivity organize me, too. I let him guide me toward a system. Not so much for the actual coaching as for the structure, the web that would hold all this goodness. I guess the coaching, too.
And then it was time to get to work. I did not have the luxury to do a potentially-soothing one-year certification program, I didn't have the time to take more time. I had to make this happen and with a gentle push from my other mentor Barbara Sher who shockingly told me to "get on the bike and start pedaling," I decided to well, get on the bike and start pedaling (you can listen to more about this HERE - including some darn funny typo).
It was time to take what I had learned for a spin and see what good I could do. I remember thinking also that I wanted to make sure I wouldn't mess anyone up.
I would offer four people four weeks of free coaching.
And that's how it started. Two of the four people turned into paying clients, more clients joined in, I fell in love with writing, I allowed courses to come through me, I taught, I coached, I created, I connected and I think I helped.
It was the first time in my life that I didn't feel like a fraud. I had had two successful careers before and yet always thought that at some point someone was going to bust me and call me on my bluff. I would be escorted out of the movie set, walked out of the bakery. I was going to be ousted as having used my French accent to make up for my lack of skill - and there would be some truth to that.
With coaching, never.
This is not to say that it was easy. It would be a few years before I could rely on my coaching to fill up our fridge. There were phone sessions held sitting on the toilet in order to get some privacy from a home full of kids. Our water got cut off a couple of times. But I never ever doubted that I was doing what I was born to do. So I kept doing it. Quitting was never once an option.
Eventually, through a blend of passion, persistence, and creativity, my work became very specific to me and the toolbox I shared became more and more distinct. I dared to blend my deep spirituality and what I see as the rules for dancing with Life's magic and share that, too. It just works and I hear over and over again about the deep, lasting changes that my clients experience. I get high from reminding my clients about how guided they are, we are. And showing them how to listen to this guidance. How to get intimate with their Essence, too.
I taught in hospital basements, in my home, and eventually in beautiful villas during Retreats all over the world. I did finally coach from Mexico and also from the sidewalk in Paris, from a small port on a Greek island, from a medieval village in Italy, from wherever I was traveling. Some heart-based, inspired people joined me and together we created online courses, opened the Center for Happiness, created high-impact community projects locally and internationally. I published a few books, created some art when I could, and was even able to certify a group of people to teach some of my work. I think this may have been the highlight of all these years, sitting on the floor and watching this body of work I had been blessed with come out of someone else's mouth and heart. That one made me weep.
What a ride it has been. Twenty years. TWENTY YEARS. What a nice round number. What a blessing.
As time passed, I brushed shoulders with a modicum of fame and realized that it gave me more chills of unease than thrill. Learning to balance community with privacy is something I am still dancing with.
I now live in Mexico, on the outskirts of a blessed little village tucked between the ocean and the jungle. There is a deep calm to my work as a life coach. The fire has turned into a forever burning bed of red coals, soothing, safe. I tend to it, I sit by it and I share it with the people who ask to join me. It's a new season. It's a glorious season.
Here in the middle of nature, my art has been allowed to make a sweet quiet skip from the back burner to the front burner and I am following this guidance. Writing is asking for a bigger spot, too. I am listening.
Mostly, I am grateful. And in awe.
I am grateful for the ever-present guidance, for continuing to listen to it, to dance with Life's magic. For the lives I have touched and the ones that have touched me. For all the ones to come whether we meet on the page or around a fire. On the screen or in person.
I am in awe of how much we are allowed to do, in this life. I am in awe of all the ways we can touch each other's hearts and fill our own. I am in awe of the playfulness, the creativity, the inspiration. The choices.
The sun is now peeking over the jungle and the roosters are decidedly awake.
We have a new day ahead of us, and what a Gift this is.
SCARED OF THE SACRED