Artful Living in the Present – Intensive Retreat in Guatemala 2006

In June of 2004, we were looking for an exotic, not too popular and remote place overseas for a summer meditation / yoga retreat and vacation. My partner Stan who teaches a form of yoga and qi-gong which he developed called qi-yoga and myself, a teacher of Living in the Present / dynamic mindfulness meditation, found Villa Sumaya (heaven on earth in Arabic) – a retreat center at lake Atitlan – which turned to be the ideal place for ourselves and the three busy New Yorkers (in desperate need for an end summer get away) who joined us.

From the moment we arrived to Guatemala and started our journey to lake Atitlan, we kept falling in love with the beauty, colorfulness, simplicity and diversity of this country. The weather in August is perfect for those who don’t like it too hot, too humid and who don’t mind a little afternoon shower.
Villa Sumaya is a combination of simplicity, elegance, exoticness and impeccability. While respecting the Mayan cultural motifs of “Her Majesty the lake”, (as they refer to it there), Wendy Stauffer’s personal accent and taste is felt throughout the premises. (Wendy, the owner and founder of the retreat center is a talented American ex-patriot artist and shaman herself)
There are seven simple and comfortable double occupancy and single rooms, including a delux suite, which are all named after the animal totems they represent. All the rooms face the lake through an incredible garden and each room has it’s own hammock. The first light of dawn and the setting of the sun in the evening, are particularly breath taking. I fell in love with the lake instantly, and found myself mesmerized watching the stoic seaweed gatherers on the lake in boats that look like they were built 2000 years ago.

The only way to travel around the lakes is by public (or private) boats, which because of the size of the local people tend to be very low, and for a tall westerner can be an adventure, as they dock at the small towns around the lake, and people travel in them with their live stock, children and incredible local garments – which differ from town to town, as do their indigenous languages. We learned very soon that the lake dictated our activities and it was no wonder why was it is so revered and respected by the locals. One evening, we got all decked up to go to Panahchell, (the closest town” – for a performance, the lake which is usually calm and pristine, got very turbulent, and as we looked out and saw our boat being tossed up and down, we took a look at each other saying “you’ve got to be kidding me…” and decided to skip the trip and give each other massages at the meditation hall – as we were watching mother nature displaying a dramatic storm. (we later learned was the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan..)

The people are modest and friendly to Westerners. As in any developing country, it is apparent how poor they are in comparison to us, and yet, there is a mutual exchange that can be worked out based on mutual repect – which is an art by itself. Keeping a determined, yet honoring smile and saying ‘hola’ is crucial. It’s not unlikely to arrive to one of the towns surrounding the lake and be flocked by local people who are trying to sell their goods and offer their services. It is however easy to communicate interest or disinterest without too much of a hassle. These trips to the towns around the lake, which we offer are centered around visiting the indigenous cultures and experiencing them first hand: the churches, the people, the food, the art and some shopping. Our favorite towns are San Marcos and Santiago. Traveling in Guatemala as in many other developing countries can be a challenge and a great lesson to the ‘control freak’ in us. Last year, after the group left, Stan and I stayed on for a couple of days, and took a trip to Xella, a town with hot Springs, which we wanted to experience. We rented a van for the day, and as we were making our way through the incredible mountains, we noticed that the traffic was stopped for kilometers ahead of us. When we left the van to inquire what happened, we found out that the local villagers blocked the road with rocks and trees in protest to the privatization of their water – by the government. Three hours later… we found ourselves flowing with the unexpected change. We engaged in conversation with the people, who were too eager to tell us their story, and when the road opened up finally, it was too late to go to our original destination, and yet, it was one of our most memorable experiences of our last year’s trip to Guatemala. We transcended being consuming tourists to having made a connection with the people.

Our retreat last year had 11 participants who started their mornings with qi-yoga, conscious breathing and mindfulness meditation. A delicious breakfast was followed by a lecture and a hike around the lake. After lunch there was free time to catch up on rest, reading, a healing session or a boat tour. Our evenings started with another qi-yoga and meditation practice followed by a candle light dinner; sharing time in conversation, videos, jacuzzi and sauna or just quiet time listening to the crickets.
The retreat started with a blessing ceremony of a local shaman. One of the eight days was a day of silence, which started right after breakfast and ended at dinner. During that day we had plenty of free time to roam around the property, swim in the lake, journal and just lounge in the garden, and just be… Yes, being present – that lost essential art of being – which in our busy ‘doing’ lives in the 21st century is probably the most calming, enriching yet challenging benefits available in the retreat. Spending quality time with yourself, reflecting on your life – far enough from it, yet closer to it than ever before, because of the surroundings and the incredible beauty of nature, the guidance and demonstration of the teachers, and support of the other retretians, can be an investment of a life time; a discovery of the Self – we are always looking for, yet often too busy to find.

It was amazing and humbling to see the participants upon arrival, and witness their transformation and flowering over eight days. Our last night of dance and celebration was particularly joyful. We were happy to share our presence and felt close and accepting of each other. And while we felt sad to leave, we were ready to take the experience with us and integrate it into our daily lives.

As we are preparing for our 2006 retreat, we realize how much the trip impacted our lives, and how long the effects of it stayed with us since we have been there last. We are thrilled to go back to Lake Atitlan and share its splendor and innocence with the next group.

Effective Presentation – All You Need is a Good Story

I believe that with practically every communication, oral or written, our goal is to try to convince the other side of our ideas and/or to convince the other to do something that we want him to do or not to do. No wonder, your oral and written communication skills is the means to sell your products, services as well as ideas to others.

In 1989, I had an interesting experience in the company I worked in United States. It was a tremendous learning experience as it made me realize what the most vital element of our written and oral communication is. Today, I am going to share it with you.

After finishing my MBA at the University of Illinois, I joined an electronic company in Peoria. The chairman of the company, Peter Van Kampen, asked me to prepare a presentation. In order to impress Peter, I worked hard to prepare the presentation. I thought I had made a good presentation. However, when Peter saw the presentation, he didn’t say anything. Then he led me to the conference room which had a huge conference table. He then asked me to lay down the hard copies of my presentation on the conference table in the sequence that I wanted to present them. Once I had finished doing this, he asked me to make my presentation. As I made my presentation, Peter asked me probing questions at various points in my presentation. I could answer some questions while others I didn’t have an appropriate answer. This question and answer session made me realize that my presentation did not have a smooth flow. At places the sequence was not right while at others I was jumping from one thought to another without connecting the two together. The link was missing. Also, at some places, there were gaps, that is, I was reaching at conclusions without providing supporting material. In addition, I realized that I was presenting information in my presentation that was irrelevant to the topic of my presentation. Last but not the least, there was redundant information in my presentation, that is, information which was relevant to the topic but not necessary to prove my point. I did not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the above factors were not only making my presentation confusing, difficult to understand and unusually long but also eroded the credibility of my argument. Net result – my presentation was not convincing.

Peter made a few valid suggestions. First, he told me that I should ensure that my presentation was sequential, that is, the various points of my presentation should be presented in a proper sequence for a smooth flow. It is essential to figure out what should come before and what should come after. Usually, we all have the necessary information about the topic of our presentation but we do not take care to arrange them in a proper sequence. Peter assisted me in rearranging the sequence of some of the slides. I was amazed to see the difference it made in my presentation.

Second, Peter told me that I should make my presentation logical. He suggested to me that I need to present supporting material before I arrive at certain conclusions. He made me fill in some of the gaps with slides that provided the reasoning behind my conclusions.

Third, he said that I should ensure that my presentation flows smoothly. One cannot jump from one point to another without providing a smooth transition or link or without connecting the two. As such, I change a few words and added a couple of extra slides to ensure a smooth flow from one point to another as well as from one slide to another.

Fourth, Peter advised me to make my presentation more focused. He told me that my presentation was confusing and unnecessarily long because I had included irrelevant and redundant material in my presentation. Practically all of us invariably end up adding more and more information into our presentation so as to impress the audience. Usually, most of the excessive information is either redundant or irrelevant. I implemented Peter’s suggestions. I first removed the slides which contained irrelevant and redundant material.

Most of us have a habit of including as many points or arguments that we can think of in out presentation. First, this is done to impress the audience. Second, with this shotgun approach, you are hoping that at least some of the points will convince the other side of your ideas. Even though, you may have 50 points to support your idea but the important thing is to identify few vital ones that will sell your idea to the audience.

Even though, Peter did not use the word “Story” while discussing my presentation, I realized that his comments were indirectly suggesting to me that the story of my presentation was not convincing. After I implemented the changes suggested by Peter, my presentation improved dramatically. The presentation not only became focused, clear, easily understandable and convincing but it also became short.

I realized what was wrong with my original presentation. I did not have my “story” right. This happened in 1985 but the experience taught me an important lesson which I doubt I will ever forget. Now in all my communication, written or oral, I make sure that my story is right. It not only flows smoothly but is also logical, sequential and focused. I can honestly say that this experience has been instrumental in making me a better writer. Today, I run an advertising agency and take care of all copywriting. I have also written five books, a number of articles and management case studies.

I am convinced beyond any doubt that while communicating our ideas, whether orally or in writing, the key to convincing others is to tell a logical and convincing story. Every written piece, whether it is an advertisement, brochure, letter, research paper, book, essay, article, business proposal or a report should have a logical and convincing story to tell. Needless to say, you also need a logical and convincing story while making a presentation or giving a speech or conducting a seminar / training programme.

It does not matter where you start your story. Wherever you start, make sure that from that point onwards your story is logical, sequential, focused and does not contain any irrelevant and redundant material.

So remember, while presenting your ideas orally or in writing, always focus on building an effective and convincing story.

Men’s Presents and the Bathurst 1000

Fans of V8 super cars rank the Bathurst 1000 as the utmost of races in Australian motorsports. The Bathurst 1000 draws crowds from fields afar for this spectacular racing event. There are many more knowledgeable people on the actual cars of the Bathurst 1000 than I, but when looking at some mens presents the other day with names such as Hardie Ferodo 500 emblazoned on them, I decided it was time to explore further the history behind such names and the heros behind them.

Significance and History of the Name:
Beginning at Phillip Island as the 1960 Armstrong 500, the 500 mile race, while comparing which makes had the best combinations of speed, ability, and dependability, also held an opportunity for Armstrong to advertise its products, particularly its shock absorbers.

After only three years of use, the track at Phillip Island was worn down and not suitable for racing, so in 1963 the race was moved to the Mount Panorama track in Bathurst, NSW. (for those who may be interested, the Mount Panorama track is aptly named due to the incredible view overlooking the fields around it!) Over the years the race has changed names due to sponsorships, most recently being termed the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000, but the legendary merchandise of mens presents still has names such as Hardie Ferodo 500 and Armstrong 500 emblazoned on it.

Cars of the Bathurst 1000:
In the beginnings, the 1960 Armstrong 500 was specifically for only Australian made cars, whereas now it has branched out and included cars such as Nissan, Ford, and the BMW. Holden and Ford still hold the significant titles, and the Big Bangers have gone down in history.

Famous Names of the Bathurst 1000:
While Holden ranks for the highest number of wins for the car make, there are some drivers’ names that have gone down in history as legends of the Bathurst race. Names such as Peter Brock, Bob Jane, and Jim Richards have become household names amongst car racing fans. Why is this so? Peter Brock rightfully earned the title King of the Mountain due to his nine victories, and winners of the Bathurst 1000 now receive the Peter Brock Trophy in honour of this legend. Bob Jane, most commonly known to the general people for his national tyre company, won four successive races, giving him an excellent foundation for his entrepreneurial endeavours in starting his automotive businesses. And Jim Richards? Well, since his beginnings in 1978 until the present day, he still holds the record for the most starts in the race – 35. He has also won the race 7 on seven occasions. Though not as highly ranking as the first three drivers named, Allan Moffat deserves a mention. A Canadian-born man, Moffat is Ford’s most successful driver in the race and in 1977 won his fourth Bathurst 1000.

While this only barely touches on the significance of the Bathurst 1000 in the world of motor sports, I have attempted to give an overview of one of the greatest races in Australian motorsports and explore the significance of some of those legendary titles I saw on various mens presents – the titles that will be remembered down through the years of motor racing.