Darnell Lamont Walker leading Rituals Writing Workshop
Photo: Stephanie Lewis
INSIGHTS: Design the Life You Want with Mark Nicolson

Is it possible to design your life? Make it exactly what you want it to be? We asked Mark Nicolson, an executive coach in Silicon Valley, who helps everyone from visionaries to change agents find their zone of genius. 

“Design is the alignment of head and heart,” Nicolson said. “In ‘designing’ the life we want, we create the conditions in which we can access the wisdom of our hearts as well as our heads as we imagine our future.” 

The Zone of Genius was coined by Gay Hendricks to describe when we are most joyful and creative; it’s here that we may find the magic to create the life we want… joyful (of course) and otherwise. 

In advance of his upcoming pair of workshops for spring, we asked Nicolson to share more about this, the so-called “Zone of Excellence,” and why we need this exploration, possibly now more than ever.

Christine Chen: Why is this type of exploration particularly relevant for our lives right now?

Mark Nicolson: After two years of needing to be separate from each other and being unable to ritualize collectively, many of us feel we need to come back into group contexts to be able to share our experience and to hear how others are experiencing themselves and their lives. We are experiencing a collective trauma with Covid — but that which heals collective trauma (ie ritual and group contact) has not been available to us. We have barely begun to process the impact of this pandemic — the untold losses and separations — but as we begin to come together again we can start that process.  

CC: Why do we question ourselves so much? 

MN: We are plagued with self-doubt because we lack group contexts in which we can receive insightful and compassionate mirroring and have the opportunity to express what or how we are affected by our lives. Our self-questioning is actually a form of self-protection: it is a suppression of our feelings. When we are experiencing feelings that are too much for us, one way to push away the feelings is to engage in criticism of ourselves and others. This happens at an unconscious level but when we make this criticism more visible we can give the underlying feelings more space to be expressed.  

CC: Does it happen at certain times more than others?  

MN: The more stressed, triggered, and impacted we are in our lives, the more we question ourselves and the more we become self- (and other-) critical. Sometimes, we are triggered by events that remind us unconsciously of traumatic times in our lives that we have not been able to process. The trigger in the present then resurfaces those unexpressed feelings — but often in ways that are frightening and unmanageable. 

CC: How does this self-questioning differ from self-reflection?

MN: Self-reflection arises from a calm nervous system — parasympathetic. Self-questioning arises in the other, the fight-or-flight sympathetic. It is much harder to access imaginal experience and self-compassion when our nervous systems are aroused and anxious. 

CC: How do we get out of our own way and get on our own unique path?

MN: A central feature of this workshop is to give people the space to be expressive in a group context. We ritualize the expression of our creativity and joy and challenges. This helps us turn towards what is sometimes hard to feel and share — including the parts of us that are joyful. We also give people the opportunity to really be appreciative of themselves and others and this supports us having access to our inner knowing. 

CC: How do we find our unique paths? 

MN: We learn to listen to ourselves. This is hard to do in a culture with so much violence. We lose trust in the experience of our bodies — because it is so frightening to actually be in our bodies. There is much PTSD in our culture from the cataclysmic unhealed traumas of our history. This is perpetuated in violence all around us — in sports like boxing and football, gun deaths, video games, movies, mass incarceration, capital punishment, racism, the legality of physical violence against children in schools, the killing of billions of animals, the desecration of nature, wars on foreign soil, and so much more. This is a miraculous country and culture but we have become numb to its violence and therefore numb to ourselves. 

CC: What three big things come up for people in this process of exploration?  

MN: Just three? 1. The possibility of being vulnerable in a group in a way that many have never experienced and this can lead to a deep joy, 2. The longing for more community beyond just this workshop, and 3. A flowering of the imagination. 

CC: Why does the season of spring inspire people to renew their introspection and be more open to change?

MN: Well, look around. Everything is bursting open and showing us that the winter is over. We want to join in with all of the new growth. 

CC: How do we ensure this clarity is not selfish but generous toward the world around us

MN: Humans are fundamentally kind: read Rutger Bregman’s wonderful book Humankind: A Hopeful History. When we are well resourced and relaxed and feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, we want to share our resources.  

“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.” 

“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”

“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“

“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”

“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“

“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
–David B.

“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”

“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
–David Z.

Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.

What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?

Mark Nicolson’s pair of workshops scheduled for early April are sold out.

Join the waitlist


Christine Chen

Christine Chen is the host of Esalen Live! and Chief Editor of The Journal. She is a two-time Emmy winning journalist, best-selling author, California native, and senior teacher of yoga and Ayurveda on Esalen Faculty.