Out of the Clouds
May 23, 2021, Anne V Muhlethaler

S1:E18 Solo Episode 1

The one where I talk about my favourite word and Ikigai

Out of the Clouds podcast artwork

In this episode, the first of its kind, host of Out of the Clouds Anne Muhlethaler introduces a solo episode. Unlike the interviews with her varied guests, this is a scripted show, an audio version of the blog post she publishes weekly on her other platform, AVM Consulting (avm.consulting). 

Called Looking Forward, the blog is a jumping-off point where Anne explores business, the future of work, and like Out of the Clouds, applying a lens of mindfulness. 

In this show, her exploration is at the crossroads of two questions she asks every guest on the podcast: what is your favourite word? and what brings you happiness? 

In a moment of procrastination of sorts, she went back to listen to the interview with yoga teacher Chris Magee, whose answer to the final question touched on the Japanese concept of Ikigai. The interview led Anne to a rediscovery of her favourite word –  harmony –  before exploring musical metaphors and the wonderful leadership advice from conductor Ted Speaker and author Benjamin Zander. 


Selected Links from Episode

MMTCP course on SoundsTrue.com with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield

Ikigai on Wikipedia

Benjamin Zander Ted Talk on Ted.com

One Buttock Playing, the concept explained on BenjaminZander.com

Kate Raworth on Doughnut Economics on the Intelligence Squared podcast 

Full Episode Transcript

Hi. Hello. Bonjour. Namaste. This is Out Of The Clouds, a podcast at the crossroads between business and mindfulness. And I’m your host, Anne Muhlethaler. Today is a special episode. It’s the first time that I am actually sharing a solo episode, which is the result of the recording of a blog post that I publish on a weekly basis on my other platform, which is called AVM Consulting.

So I’ve been writing about communication challenges, values, intention, all things that I find incredibly important, both in business and in personal life. And of course, as per this podcast, my writing tends to focus on a point of view that is at the crossroads between business and mindfulness.

Last week, when I was writing and recording the blog post for those like me who like to listen, not just read their content, I realized that it was probably time to share this on Out Of The Clouds, because it feels like it will suit this medium as well.

So to give you a little bit of context, I was interrogating myself first about the meaning of my favorite word, which is the word harmony. And I was going back to the roots of my favorite question on this podcast, which is: what brings you happiness? A question I ask all of my guests as a last question.

And I found that there was a point of convergence between my favorite word and my favorite question. And this brought me to the Japanese concept of Ikigai, that one of my guests, the yoga teacher, Chris Magee, was talking about when he answered the same question, “What brings you happiness?” A few weeks ago.

So this is my exploration and I hope you’ll enjoy it. And it’s also an invitation for you to wonder, aloud or not, about what is your favorite word, what brings you happiness, and how the convergence of the two could help you find something that brings you towards Ikigai.

So without further ado, I give you my first solo episode, and I hope that you’ll enjoy it. Thank you so much.

Hitting the keyword.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” – Mahatma Gandhi. What brings you happiness? This morning I was so perfectly on schedule to start writing this post, and then suddenly I slipped. I gave into the unexpected pull which led me to go back to recording of my podcast.

I was updating a beam, you see. Beams is a micro podcasting app that I’ve been toying around with since the beginning of the year. I created a beam, think of it like a dedicated topic channel, where I share the answers to the last question I invariably ask of my podcast guests: what brings you happiness?

This question has a story. My meditation coaches, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, introduced it as one of the many prompts in the peer group session in their Teacher Certification Program. My group was composed of six women spread across five time zones and across five different countries.

We were to work in dyads via Zoom Breakout Rooms. And the prompt was to take turns to ask the same question on repeat for three or four minutes. It sounded odd, but not hard. I was paired up with Alba, an effervescent academic who teaches art in a community college in Texas, with a very strong Shakti energy. For those not into yoga, read Shakti as dynamic energy; alive, luminous, vibrant.

Alba asked, I responded, and then we reversed the roles. It went something a little bit like this:

“What brings you happiness?”

“My morning coffee, my homemade almond and hazelnut milk.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Sun, the sun’s rays through the leaves of a tree.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Flowers, the scent of tuberose, the scent of flowers, lilac. I can’t help myself. I have this need to stop and smell the roses.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Thinking of that special someone.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Knowing that I am at home within myself.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Feeling aligned in myself, integrated.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Kindness, kind words, whether from a stranger or a friend.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Connection, shared energy, yoga.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Good work, work well done and appreciated by others.”

“What brings you happiness?”

“Being in harmony, working in harmony.”

And it went on like this for a little while longer. Such a simple exercise, such a simple question. Repeating it over and over again enabled us to gently peel away the layers, leaving us both realizing that there are tremendous amount of things that bring us happiness.

What they all had in common is that they weren’t goods; things we needed to pay money to acquire, and they all felt easily accessible. They somehow also seemed both personal and universal. The experience acted as a bonding practice between us, which we couldn’t have expected. Following the exercise, we moved to emailing each other regularly, sharing snippets from our daily lives and asking each other that same question at the end of each email.

One of the reasons I love this practice, this question, is because despite all my dreams of grandeur and achievement, professional or otherwise, this brought me back to a simple state of grounding akin to what we may feel when writing a gratitude list.

The energy and discovery in exploring this with a partner made it even more transformative. We were holding up a mirror to each other, holding space for this self-discovery, how powerful. What’s in a word? From harmony to Ikigai.

So there I was, essentially procrastinating by going to update this new social media feed. In doing so, I came to relisten to yoga teacher Chris Magee’s answer to that same question. His answer touched on Ikigai, a Japanese concept about how to find purpose in life. What brings him happiness is having found his balance, that sweet spot from both the teachings of yoga and the career he was able to build as a teacher of these yoga practices.

My ears wide open, I realized there was more to his answer than I had realized at the time of our conversation, huh. As I sat down to write, I’d made a note about my favorite word, harmony, which I wrote about in a previous post. All these questions I asked my guest, I have asked myself too. I have my answers. I felt my spider sense was activated. There was something here for me to explore further.

Side note: Instead of asking, “What is your favorite word?” I should be asking the same question I had asked myself as a 20-year-old, “If you had to tattoo one word on your body, what would it be? What word would make sense to you? One that you could live with over decades.”

So there was the convergence. What could my favorite word have to do with what brings me happiness, and how could that be linked to Ikigai? To help me get to my answers, I started with doing what I do best, I Googled it, Ikigai that is.

As I read it, according to Japanese culture, everyone has an Ikigai and is able to find it by meditating on these four probing questions: What do I love? What am I good at? What can I be paid for? What does the world need?

Now I was clear on the principles and had also looked over the Ikigai Venn diagram that so clearly expresses the central nugget that is one’s true purpose. I applied the four questions and added the filter that is my favorite word. Geeky or what? Here’s how it went:

“What do you love?”

“Harmony. Writing vocal arrangements. Bringing voices together for a beautiful, powerful, transformational result. Balance. Harmonious surroundings. Internal harmony. Using my voice to convey emotion, create connection, transformation, as a singer, as a consultant, as a new meditation and mindfulness teacher, as a podcaster, as a writer.”

“What are you very good at?”

“Singing. My voice is strong, clear, flexible. I exercise it daily. I know how to modulate its tone. Mindfully nurturing it, it gets better every day. Story-building or storytelling. Identifying powerful stories. Using intention and emotion to paint a vivid picture. Finding the right mediums to convey the stories. Putting voices together. Making the connections. Picking the right tones, textures that complement each other, the right team members, the right channels to reach the right audiences. Not a science, more like a fine art. Orchestrating the different elements and knowing when to take a step back to let magic happen.”

“What does the world need?”

“Harmony. Leadership. Long-term vision. Kindness. Thoughtfulness. Benevolence. Balance.”

“What can you be paid for?”

“Vocal arrangements. I’m not trying to make a living from this, but you can have a listen here at this vocal doodle I had fun recording with last year before putting out the podcast. I mean, give the girl a mic. Consulting. Linking people, concept, and projects. Bridging business development and storytelling. Writing. Writing stories connecting experiences, metaphors, and concepts. Podcasting. Coaching. Holding space to let others have their own experience. Letting magic happen.”

Musical metaphors and one-buttock playing.

Most days, what I am really good at is being the conductor; as in orchestra, not bus conductor. Admittedly, I still don’t drive. Few understand the role of the ‘chef d’orchestre’ or bandleader, until you are in a group or an orchestra. Then it becomes glaringly obvious that having a lead is essential. Ideally, one who manages the energy within the group, fostering collaboration, helping all players to bring the best possible result.

As it turns out, like a conductor, few understand my consulting style too. There are so many different types of consulting, right? But that’s only until we work together, that is. So thinking about conductors sparked this idea that I should go back and watch the beautiful and fabulously entertaining TED Talk by Benjamin Zander, an English conductor who is currently the musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

In his transformational talk – I know, big words, and I stand by them – he shares this oddly-named practice, which he refers to as one-buttock playing. Whether playing a challenging showpiece on the violin or leading a conversation with a large group, living life on one buttock allows for spontaneity and freedom, allowing for exploration and mystery, energy, empowering others.

Turns out I’m very good at one-buttock playing and had no idea it was acceptable at all. The last time I tried to get piano lessons, reconnecting with my own classical roots in 2013 or ’14, the teacher had to ask me to stop moving on the seat as I performed the piece I’d retrained my fingers to play. My entire body swayed with the music in a way that apparently is not acceptable.

As you can imagine, even though the teacher delivered the feedback with kindness, I was mortified. What’s wrong with me that I lean into the music so much? And how could I cultivate the poise required to deliver that Chopin properly? This time, it was Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2.

Of course, I now see why Ben Zander’s theatrics on the TED stage and his expression of leaning into spontaneity touched me. Leaving us with this amusing concept full of lightness rarely associated with classical music, he then brings the audience to an emotional peak with a study on intention by offering us a glimpse of the emotional vision powering his performance of Chopin’s Prelude.

The long line where the player’s performance is driven by the connection from the first note, all the way down to the last. It’s rare to be able to show with such undeniability, the power of clear vision and how the intention behind it shapes the final result from the first note to the last. The audience was visibly moved, and so was I.

Then the maestro explains the essence of conducting and how he discovered it some 20 years into his orchestral career, “The conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.” It was totally life-changing. My job is to awaken possibility in other people.

He went on to explain, “If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask yourself a question, ‘Who am I being that the eyes of my players are not shining?'”

His definition of success is compelling; it is not about wealth and power, but how many shining eyes he has around him, how he is able to use his energy and his ability to help move it in others. I guess I have found my new mentor, for that is what I too love to create and nurture.

As Kate Raworth said the other week in her interview on Intelligence Squared, and maybe my new favorite quote, “Energy, you could say, is the ultimate currency, not money.”

Energy work.

I have been known to conduct or lead since that first acapella girl band back when I was 17. And I’ve been led as a performer, as an assistant, as an executive. As such, I understand how good direction can drive a certain performance and results; how the underlying motivations and intentions can create strong, flowing energy in teams or sap all energy out of a room.

So my own style matches Ben Zander’s success metric. I do my best to lead with empathy and remind myself that we are all here, all of us, full of our universal needs for happiness, our need to find purpose and meaning.

I put all my energy into making those eyes shine bright. I arrange, I enroll, I harmonize. Like him sometimes, I fail and I check in with myself to see, who am I being that the eyes of those around me are not shining? A work in progress, for sure, but soul-feeding work, I would add.

I guess that this exercise in layering what brings me happiness, plus my favorite word, plus Ikigai, was pretty worthwhile for me. Has it sparked something in you too, listener? And left your eyes shining just a little more? Or is that your ears?

Consider trying to find your keyword, the one that you’d tattoo on yourself. See how that keyword can be a powerful metaphorical lens to superimpose onto your Ikigai explorations. And feel free to get in touch and let me know what happens.

Meanwhile, Alba and I are still in touch, as I am still with others from our peer group. We have continued to meet monthly on Zoom since graduating, and are cooking up a fine plan to teach mindfulness to students of her community college later this year.

College and technology permitting, we will be co-teachers offering twice weekly free meditation and talks to students, supported by our mentor, conductor, the inimitable and ever-inspiring Solwazi Johnson. Sometimes wonderful things happen when you ask the person in front of you, “What brings you happiness?”

Hey, friends and listeners, thanks again for joining me today. And I want to remind you that selected links from what we covered in this episode are included in the show notes. If you want to hear more, go to your favorite podcast app and hit the Subscribe button and leave us a review. We really love to hear from you.

If you want to connect, you can get in touch with me @annvi on Twitter or Anne Muhlethaler on LinkedIn. Follow the show @_outoftheclouds on Instagram, where I also share weekly guided meditations and daily musings on mindfulness.

You can soon find all of my episodes and find out more about my projects at annevmuhlethaler.com. You can sign up to receive updates via email on all the fun things I am doing. The site is almost live.

So that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening to Out Of The Clouds, and I hope you’ll join us again. Until next time, be well, be safe. Remember the hand-washing, the mask, the social distancing, et cetera, et cetera. Thank you.