meQ Talks with Mindful Money Expert Brent Kessel

Welcome back to our Cup of Calm interview series, where we feature interesting people and experts, their journey to resilience, and their wisdom on well-being.

What does financial freedom look like, really? Does working on our inner life affect our outer financial circumstances? According to Brent Kessel, host of the meQuilibrium Financial Well-being track, the answer is a definitive yes. As Founder and CEO of leading wealth management firm Abacus Wealth Partners, author of the popular book It’s Not About the Money, and longtime meditator and yogi, he has made it his mission to help others grow both their inner and outer wealth. Here, he shares his insights on why mindsets matter—and how the most important thing you’ll ever invest in is yourself.

In your book, you call yourself a “financial planner by day, yogi by dawn.” How did that come to be?
I started off in the real estate business but felt that there was too much of a wall between my professional life and my personal inner life. I imagined being on my death bed and saying, “Okay, what was this life for? What’s my legacy?” I just had this sinking, hollow feeling in my heart, like, “This is not what I came here to do. I don’t know what the name of the profession is that I want, but I’ll know when I find it.” So I began my search: What could I do that incorporates psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and money? I was encouraged to become a Certified Financial Planner. A few years into that, I realized that the traditional tools for financial planning just weren’t enough—there was too much focus on “outside in” solutions and none on “inside out” solutions. I wanted to find a way to merge money and spirit.

Sounds like your yoga and meditation practice makes an impact on your professional life. How about in your personal life?
I wake up at 5:30, do about twenty minutes of meditation and then an hour and a half to two hours of yoga. I’m trying to actually have more chilling out time—my spiritual and yoga practices have at times been too driven, too ambitious. But it’s all about making it work for you.

For example, I recently had to take on more of a caregiving role with a family member and had to skip my practice for a number of days. I felt off-center—my body and my psyche weren’t feeling balanced. So I put aside an hour to practice, and instead of focusing on feeling stiff or pushing through the resistance, I came to the truth of the moment and focused on being present while doing long, gentle holds and restorative shapes—not my usual speed! It allowed me to shift my mindset and continue caring for my family member with compassion.

You really are a yogi by dawn! What is one of the best lessons you’ve learned from your practice?
A big part of it is about trusting your good intentions. For me, I’ve done thousands of hours of yoga and meditation, so I often have people say to me, “You must be so resilient!” or “You must be calm and even-keeled all the time,” but I still have days when I wake up and I feel empty or flat, or I’m feeling like I wish something would go differently.

As I’ve been dealing with my family member’s health crisis, I find myself really short-fused with other people at times. It’s not something I’m proud of, but you are welcome to print it because I think it’s helpful for everyone to see that we all have these human judgments and emotions. When I find myself stuck in this angry mindset, silently willing others to get out of my way, I first recognize it’s not about them…it’s about me. When I recognize this, I tune into my inner dialogue. I resist the urge to call myself a jerk and instead take on a validating and loving tone of voice: “You’re going through a lot right now, it’s normal to feel frustrated.” It’s the tone that matters even more than the words in your inner dialogue.

How do you apply these lessons to your relationships with others?
When the conflict is external rather than internal, and especially if it’s around something as charged as money, it’s important to validate the other person’s point of view first. The way human beings work is that we don’t want to get educated or told someone else’s perspective until we’ve felt heard from our perspective. So, if someone is having a strong emotional reaction, take a deep breath, validate (“I’m hearing that you’re feeling hurt, angry, etc.”)…and pause. Let them respond before you charge ahead.

What invariably happens is you can literally watch their body language change—all of a sudden, that person is now open to a new kind of relationship with you, because they’ve been building themselves up to have this very confrontational relationship, and you just kind of took all the wind out of that. The skillful thing is not to rehash what happened. You don’t focus on the problem, you focus on the solution. This applies to romantic relationships, family, people at work, or other financial stakeholders.

One of the best management tips I ever got was to catch people doing something right. We tend to be very problem-focused—we tend to catch other people doing things wrong, especially ourselves—so catch yourself and catch other people doing something right and then validate those moments as often as you can.

Sounds like shifting your mindset empowers you to be more resilient—can you talk more about that?
Oftentimes, our suffering in life is caused by unmet expectations. And you know, in psychological terms it’s quite simple, an unmet expectation: we wanted more. So, the question is, what do you do with an unmet expectation in the moment? Part of resilience is a quality of truthfulness to the present moment. We need to acknowledge the truth of the unmet expectation and focus less on our problem-focused thoughts and emotions. When we get caught up in our “story” about what was supposed to happen, we’re less resilient.

We also need to spend more time focused on what we have and not what we want. If you want your experience of progress, fulfillment, resilience, and peace of mind to grow—put your attention on those moments where that’s already happening, no matter how small. It could be one percent of your life that those good things are happening in, but you put your attention there and it’ll become two percent, and then it’ll become three percent, and then it’ll become ten percent. It’s one of the fundamental laws of human psychology: “Whatever you put your attention on, grows.” It’s like sunlight to a plant.

Sarah Perlman is the meQuilibrium Associate Content Manager and Cup of Calm Editor.