At the height of his career, Greg Hopkinson was a 50% shareholder in a business that constructed meat and milk processing plants. Based in Russia in the dying days of communism, he was rich, successful and on the outside of it, at the pinnacle of his career.
As a high achiever who worked in a stressful environment, his sole focus was around making money. He had various scares including a near-death experience with an avalanche, but nothing quite seemed to shake him out of his lifestyle. He continued to drink quite heavily and smoke marijuana when he needed to feel relaxed.
By his own admission, he said he was one of the most cynical people you would ever meet and that the idea of meditating was not even up for discussion. So how did an alpha male working in a highly pressured environment completely alter his lifestyle?
He left Russia, for a start, and then set up a chain of successful retail stores in his native New Zealand. He then sold these to live in a remote place on the South Island with his partner Sally. Both are monks of a non-religious order.
As part of our Letting Go series, we took the time to speak to him about his journey.
Greg, can you describe your life both literally and how you felt emotionally, when you worked in business?
I was an entrepreneur with a relatively high-risk profile, so we were continually trying to improve the new business model, implementing innovative strategies and approaches to drive its growth.
This unpredictable approach to growth served up to a point, but I realised I was creating a stressful work environment for myself and my employees.
Emotionally I was often caught up in intense thinking - excitement about the opportunities or ways of enhancing the business. I was an incessant thinker. I would often ‘punch relatively high’ with my ideas and then be wracked with fear and dread of whether the investment or strategy would work.
My thinking often involved intense judgments about the people I was dealing with – the way they did things, or how they could behave more appropriately or perform differently. This judgmental thinking was not objective.
Throughout this time it was necessary for me to communicate the vision to my employees or business partners – all through the filters of my judgments, positions, angst, and inability to authentically praise people. The alcohol and marijuana-induced hangovers didn’t help – they added to the rawness of my interactions with people.
But you ended up stressed out?
Something had to give and the real change in the business came when I learned to meditate. The Russians have a great saying that relates to an organisation – ‘the fish rots from the head down’.
If the CEO is stressed, the organisation is stressed. As I became more compassionate, and able to communicate with empathy, and able to praise people and give them space to grow, the business was enlivened.
As my stress fell away so did the stress levels of the employees, and they were dealing with thousands of customers every week and those interactions became lighter and more engaged.
The work place became more fun and creative, praise became more prevalent rather than it’s opposite – judgment. The key performance indicators moved in the right direction. Staff retention improved, sales grew, costs were down, and the capital value of the business doubled within twelve months. It was a beautiful thing.
What prompted the life change?
A series of events led to my life change but each time something came along, such as a tumour in my head, or my failed marriage, I’d commit to changing but I never committed 100%.
I saw that such an approach provided an opportunity to make soft decisions that lead to a half-arsed outcome. When my soul mate terminated our relationship I was overwhelmed with a sense of loss, and I was shocked at my inability to establish and maintain a loving relationship.
I had arrived at a point where I had no alternative but to pull my finger out and really change myself. So I committed 100% to establishing a stable awareness of the peace and love within me, rather than looking for it in money and women. Things moved very quickly in that direction and I became supremely passionate about the peace within.
You boozed a lot - what impact did that have?
I don’t think I was an alcoholic – but I was definitely a hardened binge drinker. I’d been well conditioned during my teenage years - I grew up in a region of New Zealand that was notorious for a robust drinking culture at that time. University life and living in Russia fortified that.
To be considered ‘serious’ doing business in Russia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union required a foreigner to drink vodka – and I mastered that. I would often drink as if I was thirsty, and my behaviour became progressively unpredictable, loud and even abusive. It was a pretty robust performance all around.
I used to get scared before I’d go out – scared of what I would do or say or who I would offend. I had the capacity to give a bottle of single malt whisky a good nudge, and of course doing business in Russia required me to drink probably about half a litre of vodka neat most days – including the hair of the dog in the morning.
The following day I would have to endure moderate depression and remorse for any bad behavior. As for the smoking – I smoked every day as soon as I came home from the office. During the weekends I had my first joint in bed in the morning.
The thing that made me give up was that I wanted a stable experience of peace and happiness, and that wasn’t happening with my drinking and smoking. It was separating me from that. It wasn’t a specific event that was the catalyst for quitting - I was just over being addled, so I committed to giving up.
When I decided to stop smoking marijuana I was surprised how easy it was to give up. I realized that it was just a habit – it wasn’t addictive for me. If I had it in the house I would smoke it – every day. If I didn’t have access to it I didn’t miss it. It was as if I was addicted to the thought of smoking marijuana rather than actually smoking it.
Abstinence from alcohol was more difficult – in part because of the social expectation. I had to be unflinching in the face of the mocking and goading I received from my mates whenever we socialised.
But it wasn’t until I learned to meditate that I was able to effortlessly cease smoking and permanently moderate my drinking.
Going from business to giving it up must've been a big financial change - what changes did you have to make?
Actually, not much has changed. The retail business was sold for a healthy capital gain not long after I became a monk. So I continue to live well.
I used to be extravagant and I spent needlessly but that has changed. The costs of socialising have diminished. Instead Sally (who was my soul mate who had terminated our earlier relationship, is also a monk) and I travel a lot, and one of the things we enjoy is good food.
Explain the monk thing to us
I chose to be a monk primarily because I wanted to help shift consciousness – so that humanity could move away from suffering and towards more inner peace and contentment.
We’ve all experienced that stillness – whether it is running in ‘the zone’, or the peace that is derived from gardening and painting, or the awe we fall into walking along a beautiful coastline, or the overwhelming love that mothers experience at childbirth.
Those experiences are revealed when we cease thinking – when we rest in the present moment. In those moments we are aware that we are connected to everything, there is no sense of an individual ‘me’ in that experience, everything is perfect.
I was having an increasingly stable experience of that – it was such a profoundly peaceful and magical time that I thought that it would be selfish for me not to commit my life to being a monk – becoming a monk enabled me to teach an ancient non-religious mechanical approach that allows anyone to experience respite from the chatter, and to function in peace and joy in their daily lives.
How much happier are you now than you were before?
I am infinitely happier now. I’ll explain briefly how that has occurred:
All thinking is either in the past or in the future – it is not now. When we think about things that happened in the past we typically experience sadness, or remorse or even anger about something that has happened.
When we think about the future we experience worry or concern and stress about what we think will occur. Sure there are positive thoughts about the past and the future too, but it has been estimated that between 70% and 95% of our thinking is negative, unhappy thinking.
An analogy could be that before I functioned like the waves on the surface of a vast ocean that was often hammered by storms and gale force winds. Now I function as the vast ocean – resting and observing - undisturbed by the squalls or storms that come along.
What are some of the biggest problems that plague men at the moment?
I can’t speak for all men, but the patterns of thinking that drove my behavior before I learned to meditate and remain present throughout the day may resonate with some men.
A societal belief drove me - I had to take responsibility for the people in my life – I had to provide for my wife and to take responsibility for my employees and even the people who owned small businesses I engaged with.
Another prevailing pattern of thinking for me was the fear of failure. I was so identified with being successful that the thought of failure was torturous. Sometimes that fear drove me to succeed more than the desire to make money. One of the downsides was that I had a propensity to take things very seriously and personally.
Sometimes I had a feeling that I was the odd man out – that I did things differently, which meant I must be quite different. I felt isolated by this pattern of thinking – I felt I didn’t fit in or I wasn’t liked.
Greg is the author of Boundless, published by Mountford and Media Publishing.