Stillness of the Mind
Marie Kronquist is drinking a cup of tea as I greet her to talk about Stillness of the mind in life and leadership. The Awarded Dokk 1 Library in Aarhus Denmark frames our meeting.
We small talk about this impulsive chance for meeting up just a day after our first phone conversation. As I get comfortable with my coffee I become increasingly eager to learn more about stillness of the mind learning the journey from being professional athlete to a professional Buddhist teacher.
“You don’t drink coffee, do you”, I ask Marie? “No”, she replies. “I’m not quite there yet,” I say, nodding at my huge cup. “Well, there’s still time,” she calmly replies with a smile. Now we laugh.
For the next hour and a half, the world next to our table disappears.
Question (Q): Marie, I read the long list of recommendations of you and your work. It describes you as an extraordinarily strong presence; a presence that helps people to achieve stillness of the mind, revelations, and a new life even. Do you have some magic dust to sprinkle?
(Smiling)…no, I don’t have any magic dust. And my intention is not at all to spread magic dust. I am who I am and if this helps people then I am happy about that.
The world is moving at a fast pace today, and we are all very busy all the time. Social media has not exactly improved things in this regard. The way I can help people is by asking them to stop for a second – to breathe, to take a moment and pause.
We are ‘chasers’ and spend perhaps years chasing things without stopping to ask if they’re even right for us. Coming to a standstill is often helpful for people. This is why we talk about a stillness of the mind, about pausing to do nothing and to reflect.
Marie Kronquist’s Journey from Childhood to Stillness of the Mind as a Professional Buddhist Teacher
Q: Before we get into how you work with leaders and some of the largest Danish corporations, let’s go back in time for a second. Can you give us some background on the journey you’ve taken from childhood to being a professional Buddhist teacher?
Well, it’s not so that I told myself early in life that ‘I want to be a Buddhist teacher when I grow up’. It just happened (smiling). And I don’t see it as work. There isn’t a dividing line between what we normally call work and my private life. It is all a flow; it’s my life.
I had a pretty normal upbringing tossing a ball around and playing pretty much like all other children. I guess you can say that I was a reflective child and have always been a reflective person as such. I started playing basketball and played it professionally for some years when I finished school.
Q: You mean on the national team?
Yes, I was playing on the Danish national basketball team and lived abroad doing that for about five years. Portugal was my home for a few years among other countries. Then I decided to come home to Denmark and joined the police academy.
I became a police officer and, at that time, I thought I was to spend my life being a police officer. I was working in the center of Copenhagen and saw a more harsh side of the city than most people probably experience. It was defining in some ways.
It so happened one day that I got injured while on duty as a police officer and I was sent for recovery training for a while. Eventually, it was clear to me that I would not return to the police force.
This is when I went to India for the first time. And it just felt so right to me immediately. I learned about Buddhism, read some of the teachings, and became a Buddhist. I then came back to Denmark to start studying at university.
Q Wait, you read about Buddhism and became a Buddhist – what was the process?
(smiles…) Well, there’s nothing to that as such – anybody can become a Buddhist.
I am not one who has bookshelf upon bookshelf at home full of scripts or the Buddha teachings. It’s just I. It’s all inside of me.
Q: Like coming home?
Completely like coming home!
So I came back to Denmark to study psychology and communication at the University of Copenhagen. At the end of my studies, I was already helping people in different ways and this was the foundation for establishing my own business. It just turned out that way.
I am presently studying at Katmandu University. It’s a way of keeping it all present for me.
In the last couple of years, I have been working mainly with businesses; leaders and organizations. Some of them are large Danish corporations. Yet, again, this is not something that I have chosen. It has just happened that way.
I am actually a very private person, who is most comfortable and happy in my rubber boots out in the fields at home
I don’t really work with strategies as to where I should be in five or ten years. Some will probably say that I should have a strategy. But I just don’t work that way. I am here – here and now.
In my everyday life, I am actually a very private person, who is most comfortable and happy in my rubber boots out in the fields at home. Other days like today, I am out to teach and engage with people. On days like this, I usually pack my calendar with appointments to have as many days at home as possible.
You can say that the more dedicated and disciplined I have become about my path – the clearer I feel my Dharma, my mission.
This is an insight, which has become clearer and clearer to me the last three-four years…that this is how things are connected.
The Purpose of Meaning in Life through Stillness of the Mind
Q: The issue of a ‘calling’ is rather trendy at the time…the idea of having a purpose in relation to both business and personal life
Yeah, we almost talk too much about it!
We have worn out the term authentic, so now we need to find another word (smiling)
Q: I recently read in a Danish research report that what appears to be most important to people on the job is finding the job meaningful per se. It increases our sense of well being and our feelings of happiness. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it is essential, that my happiness, my contentment, and my being at ease with being me – is independent of my career, independent of my job, and independent of other people. We feel challenged by this.
Our work, resides in feeling good inside, independently of what happens around us
Most people, today, as I see it, are happy or content, because they are pleased with their job or because their family is well. It is, in other words, outer circumstances that predict whether or not they are feeling good.
Our training, our work, resides in feeling good inside, independently of what happens around us.
Q: This will be a challenge for a family, no?
Yet, the moment we attach our inner peace to other people, we are in a relation of interdependence. So if we will be free, then…
Well, it is not that we shouldn’t care about others, obviously. I am in no way indifferent about my son. But I know that it’s essential for me to be feeling good about myself – good about me – independently of him, independently of what people write of testimonials and so forth…that is my work.
Moreover, I believe this is the reason why we have so much stress in our working environments. We are so dependent on the way we have structured our world around us and find it defining for our well being. And right there, we need to be ‘shaking things up’, a bit – turn things on their head – so that I, Marie, can feel good or at ease with myself no matter if it rains or if the sun shines.
As human beings – this is a huge challenge. And things will not change no matter how many conferences we attend, or no matter how many projects we unfold along the way. It will not change until our view of it changes, and the only place we know we can start is with ourselves.
All the relations of dependence are – in the end – the reason why we don’t get what we want the most
Q: Yet, it can be tough to completely let go. To be completely free, we would have to give away all the material goods, right?
Yes. In relation to Buddhism, dependence is one of the key concepts as it is also one of our demons. We are enormously dependent on material goods, on status, on other people, on our performance, on our looks.
All the relations of dependence are – in the end – the reason why we don’t get what we want the most.
Spirituality as the Foundation for Stillness of the Mind in Leadership
Q: Spiritual leadership is gaining ground as we speak and a word like Mindfulness is familiar to many. Can you explain what spirituality means to you?
Spirituality to me is about connecting with something that is greater than me. It is about listening to your inner being and feeling at ease with this inner life.
It’s as if the world is experiencing a tsunami of people talking about mindfulness at the moment. It’s all over the place.
This is good in the sense that we are increasingly becoming more prepared for the thoughts that go with it such as stillness, inner peace, and feeling connected to something larger than this specific life. Therefore, we also see mindfulness gaining ground in businesses and in the world of consultancies.
Q: A critique of mindfulness in the Western version of it – concerns it being too centered on the individual and thus detached from any sense of connecting people. Do you share this concern?
We cannot move the world as a whole, but we can change our practices and thereby ourselves. Society as such is like a big machine, which cannot be changed just like that.
By making changes in our own lives we are changing society and the world we live in
It is often easier to point fingers at others and follow other’s developments and give critique thereof than actually do stuff. We can comment and evaluate as much as we like, but it does not move anything until we take on the responsibilities of our own life.
By making changes in our own lives we are changing society and the world we live in.
Q: Something that may be on many people’s mind is whether or not spiritual leadership is related or not to religious belief. How do you see that?
Well, Buddhism is not a religion. It’s a philosophy and a way to increase awareness of your inner life and being. It is moreover a way of understanding your life as part of a greater picture and worldview – a life that is not just this one life in which we find ourselves right now. It is a way of connecting to something, which is greater than us.
I don’t believe that ‘the-end’ exists. The time we have here, the physical life we have together, is one out of many
Q: We recently lost Stephen Hawkins, who is known for saying: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t believe that ‘the-end’ exists. The time we have here, the physical life we have together is one out of many. And what matters is that each and every one of us makes an effort to become more aware, so we can learn the things which we need to learn – again – seen in a bigger perspective.
It is intuitively absolutely clear to me that there is a greater meaning. It is a type of meaning, which we can have a sense or a taste of…that we are part of a greater flow.
Helping Leaders to Stillness of the Mind
Q: Relating what we’ve talked about to leaders, can you give us an understanding of how you help leaders?
When I work with people they get a practice to accomplish a stillness of the mind. This helps them slow down and be more reflective of their life and what they spend their time doing.
It can be simple things. I might give a leader some assignments. This can, for instance, be about spending time alone and sitting in silence for 15 minutes at each lunch break. Then when this timeslot has passed by, he or she can take part in office life again.
We are very preoccupied with performance and this is not necessarily healthy for people – including leaders.
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The culture we have created is one where we are constantly judged on our level of performance. Yet this fast-moving pace – ‘pushing us’ to constantly perform to our highest ability – may leave us out of tune with feelings of inner peace or feelings of ‘just being’. This is where getting a practice can help us to recover a stillness of the mind.
Meditation as a Path to Stillness of the Mind
Q: When you say ‘practice’, you mean meditation is that correct?
Yes. It’s about creating a regular pause and a practice of meditation. It doesn’t have to be every day. It can be three times a week for about 15-20 minutes – that makes for a good start and you will feel the result of it.
It is very much about creating a routine. I personally have an hour of practice in the morning. When I get up in the morning I drink a glass of water. Then I sit on the pillow and meditate for half an hour followed by reading scripts of various sorts. After that, I’m ready for my day and other doings.
Q So, time-wise, a leader can start getting results by meditating three times a week?
Well, if you can meditate three times a week you are off to a good beginning. You need to learn it properly though. Don’t download an app or an eBook.
you need a guide or somebody that can walk beside you
Q: Would an online course be okay?
In my opinion, you need a guide or somebody that can walk beside you. That is if you really want to establish it as an ongoing practice. Otherwise, it’ll be another mayfly and you’ll be doing something else in a month’s time. If you can do this – meditate twenty minutes to half an hour, three times a week – then you’ll experience an effect.
Can you find Stillness of the Mind without Meditation?
Q: Do you have any advice for reaching a stillness of the mind for those who are not meditating?
Well, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
It can be as simple as taking a walk in the forest. But do it in silence and without music in your ears.
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Sit on the couch for 15 minutes every day and do nothing.
The problem is that we find it difficult to pause for even small periods of time without reaching out for entertainment. Even during small breaks, we are reaching out for our phone! So the challenge is to avoid filling out all the time slots and turn to practice ‘just being’ instead.
Silence is important. It allows us to listen – not to others, but ourselves. Our inner being. Therefore it plays a great role in my work with leaders.
Buddhism in Leadership for Reaching a Stillness of the Mind
Q: Now relating it all to leadership…it is one thing talking about a need for stillness of the mind. Understanding it is yet another thing. However, we need to embody it somehow, as I understand it, and that is something totally different.
Q: How does a leader do that besides getting a practice? Do you coach leaders?
I never use the word coaching. To me, coaching is about moving from A to B. It’s a type of forward-moving process.
Q Do you prefer ‘Mentorship’?
Yeah. Or guidance! So to me, we are not going any places. We have to learn to be with what already is. In my definition, coaching is the opposite. With coaching we aim to change or fix something by altering its state, so ‘it’ or inner life, if you will, becomes something different.
We have to be with what is, because when we manage to do that, then we have no need for something else. Okay, getting back to your questions – in relation to leadership…
I might insist that we sit and just stare into open space for ten minutes. And nothing happens
I have this visual picture of how things are getting a little out of control. It’s a bit of a provocative picture, right. One can resemble these wild horses, scraping impatiently in the dirt, ready to run and move quickly forward. All the time… forward, forward, forward. And mind you, this is the atmosphere in many places. I see myself in the role of holding back these horses, so to speak, and thereby stopping this continuous hunt for the undefined, which is present all the time.
Often, then, I hinder and interfere with this process, and this can be experienced as somewhat provocative. I might insist that we sit and just stare into open space for ten minutes. And nothing happens. Or I give the leaders some individual programs, where they do nothing but sit alone in silence and so forth.
we have to return to the original state to be at ease with the present state
I believe quite simply that we must confront things. We have to dare to come to a halt. We run all the time, both physically and mentally speaking.
Constantly on the go and Full-Speed Forward
Constantly we are on the go, and we don’t know for what reason, or what we are chasing. So, for me, it’s about having the courage to stand still. Therefore, I harness the horses and hold on tight to slow them down. And then we are just sitting there.
So we have to return to the original state to be at ease with the present state. That’s the challenge, right.
Over-stimulation is a problem. Over-loaded in terms of impressions, stimuli, tasks, and projects. So just sitting there – being, staring, and being quiet, not doing anything – that creates a strong reaction in most people. In this sense, we are like drug addicts quitting cold turkey. Our system is used to the overload situation.
Q And how does this help the leader? Which results do you see in the people you work with? Do they become more empathetic or…?
It’s of course very individual, but I think – and it sounds almost like a cliché…you become more present. Leaders discover the quality of these pauses and learn to better prioritize what their time and energy is used for.
If you have been running for 30 years and you all OF A sudden allow yourself to walk; that’s a major shift
They learn to ask: Is this something I should get involved in or not? Is it perhaps more important for me, as I mentioned in a prior example, to go home to my children now rather than sit at the office until ten o’clock at night?
They get a better sense of their own inner being; discover their breathing. And it is all a discovery type of feeling. If you have been running for 30 years and you all of a sudden allow yourself to walk; that’s a major shift.
To many people, this is an overwhelming experience, but it’s also a huge relief to experience different speeds. So people get the experience that it feels great for them to be at various levels. This may even be difficult to define, but that’s not important.
Q Is this what makes a person talk about a personal revelation.
Yes, I believe so. If we are driving at full speed all the time, it’s a problem. There is a first gear too, we must remind ourselves.
Many only know the fifth gear, full speed, right. When we learn about using first gear and so forth – that opens up possibilities.
It’s not that we have to be in first gear all the time. The opportunity for variation makes our lives so much more satisfying as opposed to just having one speed, which is full speed.
3 Pieces of Advice for Today’s Leaders from a Buddhist Teacher
Q If you were to give leaders three pieces of advice for a stillness of the mind, which they’ll live by, beginning today. What would you advise?
Well, first of all, take a break, whether it’s morning, noon, or evening. Halt for ten-fifteen minutes, where you do absolutely nothing. Sit down and pull the invisible emergency brake. Put aside people, mobile phones, your computer, and – if it is in the evening – leave the glass of red wine be. Just halt.
Second, meditate. No doubt. Learn to meditate to get clarity and further insights about yourself.
Finally, health is part of it all. It may sound banal. Yet, health in terms of sleep and nutrition; how we live our lives – is really important.
The Interview with Marie Kronquist has come to an End
I thank Marie for prioritizing this time to sit down and talk about her life, stillness of the mind, and how she helps leaders.
We discuss for some moments how people are getting ill from expectations of performance and how it is possible to turn one’s back on these expectancies. She looks me in the eyes and says:
“We are afraid of the dark and the unpleasant feelings of sadness, hurt, grief, and so forth – and we aim for immediate release and remedy. We want to be in the light all the time. Yet life is not only about light. There is light, yes, but there is also darkness – and that is okay”.
It’s time to say goodbye. Marie is on the move again. In a few minutes, she’ll be instructing a team of lawyers on meditation and mindfulness. The leader of this team of lawyers says that Marie has changed her life.
I leave the building with feelings of gratefulness for having met Marie and for the honest and friendly conversation we just had.
Immediately outside the building, I am met by a gigantic Eagle kept in place by long lines of thin rope giving the appearance that it is tied down to the ground. I pause and recall Marie’s words about our dependence on material goods, status, and performance while it being the reason why we don’t get what we want the most.
Are these things keeping us all from flying, I wonder…is there inside us all a tied down majestic Eagle that is ready to fly if we let it?
Danish readers can read more about Marie Kronquist and her work about Stillness of the Mind and more at MarieKronquisk.dk. She will soon launch an English homepage and we’ll be the first to let you know.