Amy Sandler is a professional speaker, corporate mindfulness trainer and executive coach who believes that powerful questions and deep listening are the gateways to transformation.
With more than 20 years in senior roles in organizations including Vistage, YPO and UCLA, Amy is a certified breathwork meditation teacher, four-time firewalker and certified teacher of the Search Inside Yourself program.
We sat down and talked to Amy about some of her experiences working with CEOs, being curious about her practice, and loving the journey.
How did you come to meditation?
I was raised outside of Boston. I wouldn’t have considered myself spiritual or religious when I was growing up, but I was always very interested in very big philosophical questions like, “Why are we here?” I always had a desire to understand more.
When I was in college I went to the local Transcendental Meditation center in Cambridge, and even considered majoring in Sanskrit, but it wasn’t until business school when I really started on a path of personal development. What precipitated that was my realization that I was attracted to women. I’d been very much on a “do everything perfectly” mode, so it was probably the first time in my life when I didn’t do something that was in the norm. It made me really start to question: “Who am I? What are my values? What really matters to me? What, really, is happiness?”
“Who am I? What are my values? What really matters to me? What, really, is happiness?”
I started reading lots of books on spirituality, Buddhism and mindfulness, attended dozens of workshops, and moved to Los Angeles, where there were a lot more offerings in this space – this was twenty years ago. When I got to LA, I started practicing yoga and through yoga began to deepen my study and practice of meditation.
What made you interested in those philosophical questions at such a young age?
I think we all have some existential yearning and questioning of how we got here and what our purpose is. In our culture, we rarely talk about it or address it.
I’d always thought, why did I show up in this life, with these wonderful parents and in this beautiful town I grew up in? How much am I a function of growing up outside of Boston and having the amazing privilege to go to the schools I did, and being female and white and Jewish and all these different things? That’s what probably defines me most of all: a desire to ask questions and be curious.
You’ve spoken about learning to approach these questions with lightheartedness — why is that important to you?
That’s a really beautiful question. I’ve had times of dealing with anxiety, especially around the stresses of being a perfectionist, and the depression of feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders. And feeling, as I think many “Type A” people do, of never being – or doing – enough. I think for me, the most important part of this practice has been in holding a lightness in asking the questions, rather than an expectation of what the answer should be or what my mind thinks it could be.
That’s what probably defines me most of all: a desire to ask questions and be curious.
Sometimes, it’s important to go into the depth, and other times, you need the light. Even if you look at the construction of a great Shakespearean play, you always have comic relief (yes, I was the English major who ended up in business school). The human brain can’t handle just depth and depth and depth — we need lightness as well. And I think we need that with ourselves, too.
What messages tend to resonate most with the CEOs and executives you coach?
The more skeptical business mind says, “This all sounds really nice, but I have a cash flow problem and I have employees leaving.” So I frame it based on whatever their biggest challenges are: “How do I handle an employee who wants to quit? How do I handle two employees who aren’t communicating? How can I best lead?”
Once I had a CEO say to me at the end of a workshop: “I’ve been sending emails to my people at 3 a.m. I realized that even though I write in the email, ‘You don’t have to respond,’ just the very act of the CEO sending an email at 3 a.m. sends everyone into a panic.” Practicing mindfulness helps leaders start to realize what they’re doing, the messages they’re sending, so they can gain more insight into the question: “What’s my impact on those around me?”
Some CEOs fail because they end up having people around them who don’t want to challenge them. It’s the greatest CEOs who are willing to hear feedback and say, “You know what? This is an area where I could really improve.” It’s very hard to stay open to that — by the time you get to a certain level, we start to solidify around these identities. I like to speak to CEOs about the idea of beginner’s mind, that, as Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
So these practices take courage. It takes courage to look at yourself. We can say, “These are my strengths, and these are my areas of challenge. And if I know deep down that I am whole and I am enough and my identity isn’t rooted in being CEO; if I know that who I really am is so much larger than all that stuff that’s outside of me (title, salary, accomplishments, etc.)… then yes, of course, I want to grow.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
And I can say as a recovering perfectionist who went to Harvard a few times (which, by the way, is not the source of happiness, contrary to what I once might have thought…) – this has been the most valuable lesson I’ve learned.
What do you feel is our role in helping others keep growing?
Sometimes, it’s important to go into the depth, and other times, you need the light.
I think that the more we grow and develop our own sense of inner peace, the more we can model that for others. We begin by showing up as our true selves – as people willing to live authentically, from a place of compassion and curiosity and kindness and strength, this is a beautiful start.
Part of it can be holding a space for people by showing up with real curiosity, asking with genuine concern, “What’s going on for you, is everything OK? Seems like you’ve got a lot on your plate.”
I find when I do mindful listening exercises with people, just the very act of giving someone your undivided attention, even just for three minutes, is all people want. People just want to be understood – which, by the way, doesn’t mean we have to agree!
The very act of giving someone your undivided attention – sharing your presence – can be one of the greatest gifts you can give.
My personal growth edge in this post-election era is around really stepping up and speaking my truth – acting from a place of social activism. Speaking up for what matters and taking a stand for love. I was struck by this recent post from Jack Kornfield:
“You have been training for this for a long time. With practice you have learned to quiet the mind and open the heart. You have learned emptiness and interdependence. Now it is time to step forward, bringing your equanimity and courage, wisdom and compassion to the world.”
What advice would you have for someone just starting meditation?
I would invite you to check in with your attitude, with your intention – can you cultivate a willingness to be curious and kind with yourself? Maybe even be friends with yourself?
Doing something every day just for you, even if it’s only a couple of minutes, can be so powerful. It can be something simple that will help you with the things that really matter to you, like maybe when you wake up, instead of grabbing the phone automatically, you lie in bed for two minutes and follow your breath.
As thoughts about the day pop into your mind, let them go and return to your breath. If you find yourself wanting to pick up your phone to check email, just notice that and again gently return your attention to your breath. You start your day connecting with you – rather than with what people are expecting from you.
Or maybe it’s at work. If you’re triggered by what someone says in a meeting – pause before reacting and take 3 deep breaths. Focus on the physical sensations of breathing – your breath is always available to you.
For someone who might not want to tackle the whole “meaning of life” stuff, start with a few minutes to help get your day off to a better start, start by showing up at work with a little more awareness. Start wherever you are.
Rainer Maria Rilke said it best:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Start wherever you are.
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