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Russian-ship

Zhuangzi said that the sage can walk through fire and not get burned and through water and not get wet. There is a similar passage in Isaiah 43:2 – “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” How do we accomplish the ability to get through difficult times and be resilient? There are a couple of books that can help.

Coaching for Resilience: A Practical Guide to using Positive Psychology, by Adrienne Green and John Humphrey

The authors of Coaching for Resilience are the founding directors of Nice Work Consulting, Ltd. which specializes in workplace psychology and workplace wellbeing. Green, a psychotherapist, also authored Out Of The Blue: A Practical Guide To Overcoming And Preventing Depression. Both authors are based in the United Kingdom. Coaching for Resilience is an expanded and detailed guide based on workshops Green and Humphrey give on building resilience. Their goal is to help people manage stress so that they do not become overwhelmed and become physically and emotionally unwell. The authors see high stress and low resilience as a vicious circle, and this book helps one to get out of that vicious circle and does so with a series of thoughtful exercise based on what they call “the seven keys.”

The book is divided into two parts with each part having exercises and case studies that allow you to personalize and come up with your own way of learning to manage stress. There are also directives for reflection and specific ideas to pay attention to in each chapter to help you with the process of learning to manage and redefine how you cope with stress. Part one gives the background on what resilience and stress are, the neuroscience of the relationship of resilience and stress, the effects of stress, and why the strategies that we typically use to cope may not work so well. The neuroscience is explained in clear understandable language. Part one lays the groundwork for helping you to understand and define what is causing you problems with stress and resilience.

Part two covers their “seven keys” in detail. Key one is the need people have to be liked and/or to be in control. These needs are the underlying causes of stress. Those who need to be liked may use passivity as a communication style. Those with a need for control may use aggression as a style, while those with both needs may use passive aggression, which the authors see as the most problematic of the three styles.

Each key builds upon the prior key. For example, the second key is to live your values. They help you to determine your values, and then give you exercises to help you determine if you are actually living those values by using a continuum of whether an activity is important or not important and whether it is urgent or not urgent. The third key is that you have a right to determine your own life. Exercises, case studies and reflections teach you empathic assertiveness to help you take charge of yourself.

The subsequent keys are: change is the only constant, life is difficult and that is okay, attitude makes all the difference, and live in the present. In each section, you look at your life as you are living it and decide how you would like to change it to cope better. For example, people typically see change as either dangerous or as an opportunity. The authors use cognitive behavioral techniques to help you build self-confidence and change your self-talk to increase your coping skills. They also address challenging yourself in ways to improve your chances of functioning in a flow state by practicing mindfulness.

Despite the book’s relatively short length, it should not be thought of as a quick read. The authors include many exercises and opportunities for reflection and growth throughout the book in a structured step-by-step way. This is a workbook, and the fact that it is based on workshops the authors have given is a strength. You know as you work through the exercises that the authors have developed and refined these in their teaching. The authors also give examples from their own lives of times when it was a struggle to stay with the keys. What they teach here is realistic. It is an excellent book for getting to know yourself, how you manage stress, and how to improve your coping skills so that they become a way of life do that your life is one of resilience.

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney

Since the publication of the first edition of this book in 2012, both authors have had to put their research on resilience into practice in their own lives. Dennis Charney lost his father, and Charney himself was shot with a shotgun last year while leaving a deli in New York City by a disgruntled former employee. After five days in intensive care, he faced an arduous rehabilitation. Both of Steven Southwick’s parents died, his sister had colon cancer, and his very athletic brother’s leg was amputated, and his recovery was difficult as well. In researching this book, the authors spoke with Special Forces instructors, veterans who had suffered in POW camps in Hanoi, people who survived the World Trade Center attack of 9-11, individuals who had been raped and almost killed, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who had lost limbs to land mines, who had survived refugee camps in the Sudan, who overcame congenital birth defects, and more. They also did an extensive literature review on resilience – what it is, what are important factors in resilience, and how to be more resilient in your life.

Resilience is a complex topic. The authors came up with what they call “resilience factors” based on their interviews with resilient people but concede that the list is not comprehensive in what gives us the strength and ability to come back. The factors are the ones that were “most often the ones described as crucial and even life-saving.” The factors are realistic optimism, facing fear, a moral compass, religion and spirituality, social support, resilient role models, physical fitness, brain fitness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and meaning and purpose in life.

Southwick and Charney look at a multitude of influences on resilience including neuroscience, epigenetics and genetics, physiology, and environment. They also put these into the context of the United States and our vulnerability in terms of resilience. Our overall lack of physical fitness, our disconnectedness with each other, and other factors are sometimes framed as a national security weakness. According to their research, about “75% of Americans age 17 – 24 are no longer eligible to join the military.” The most common reasons are poor physical fitness, not graduating high school and a criminal record. Our all-volunteer military comes from an ever-smaller cross-section of the US.

Each chapter has an extensive list of references, so you can do further research if you like. The research is impressive and comprehensive. The stories are what really stick with me. If you need role models for resilience, this book has an abundance of them. There are famous people like James Stockdale who was the ranking officer as a prisoner in Hanoi and Bob Woodruff of ABC news who suffered a traumatic brain injury covering the war in Iraq. There is Jerry White who lost a leg to a landmine in 1984 while hiking in Israel. His struggle to recover eventually led to his winning a Nobel Peace prize along with Ken Rutherford for their work with the Landmine Survivors Network. Just the stories of the strength and resilience of the people interviewed is worth the read. The people are amazing and inspirational. And the stories of how they were able to recover is insightful and thoughtful and always respectful of the struggle. The authors write with both critical thinking and open hearts.

I am happy to have this resource. Over the years I have worked with people who suffered repeated hospitalizations in psychiatric facilities, who were repeatedly incarcerated, and who suffered physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse. I have worked with those who have struggled with severe physical injury and illness, and who were in combat in the armed forces. I have always been impressed by the resilience of not just those who were able to thrive, as the folks interviewed in this book, but also those who somehow got up each day and survived despite living in systems and environments stacked against them. I can share this valuable resource with them.

There are two appendices to the book. One is on posttraumatic stress disorder. In pondering the section, I came to realize that there is a high probability that two of the people I was very close to as a child most likely had some degree of PTSD, one from war and one from childhood trauma. This book is enlightening on many levels.

The other is on community resiliency. All too often we are complacent and don’t plan ahead or do what is needed to be prepared for the crises in our lives that sooner or later come to be. This book is an excellent resource to help us all become more resilient in our lives. The final story is of a small teenaged boy in a track race in the Special Olympics. The young boy’s attitude and his words will leave you with a smile and feeling moved and inspired. A young girl, also in the race, pointed out to him that, “You came in last.” “Tha, tha, that’s okay,” he stuttered as he faced the girl and looked her in the eye. “I came in.”

 

The old and the new - carbon and solar power.

A  review of Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, by Michael E. Kerr

I first came across Bowen family therapy around 1980 in graduate school when we studied a trio of therapy theories and methods – Bowen, Minuchin, and Satir. At the time I was working at a state psychiatric hospital and the lead psychologists would periodically travel to D.C. to study with Bowen and come back and tell us beginners all about it. I have been a believer in systems theory ever since and was delighted to come across Michael Kerr’s update to Bowen.

Kerr was both a student and a colleague of Bowen beginning in the 1960s. Bowen required that one look at one’s own family history in terms of systems, and genograms are the tool for doing this. Kerr includes genograms in the families he explores in this book, so you have an idea of how to do one. I find them very helpful in looking for patterns, but I also found they could get fairly complex in nontraditional families and when people didn’t have much information on prior generations. Still, you could find relationship patterns of the interplay of over functioning and under functioning in the triangles of family members.

We are a species that look for patterns and usually that takes the construct of cause and effect. Systems is not linear cause and effect. It is more of a process dance among the participants and plays out over generations. Kerr gives us many examples of this dance in exploring the dynamics of several families including Theodore Kaczynski, Gary Gilmore, Adam Lanza and John Nash. There is even a look at President James Madison’s family, which is quite interesting. Public functioning and private functioning can be quite different. He also delves deeply into his own family relationships, particularly with his mother and with his brother who was diagnosed schizophrenic and who eventually committed suicide. Throughout, Kerr approaches and examines these relationships with compassion.

At least to some degree we are all looking for safety and to care for those we love. This can lead to patterns of overfunctioning and underfunctioning. These become “a problem if chronic anxiety intensifies the emotional reactivity (overly sympathetic, overly caring, overly controlling) and drives the relationship interaction.” The anxiety distorts one’s perception of self and others. I like the Bowen definition of maturity, “People who assume responsibility for themselves, do not distance from others if they are distressed, and do not anxiously intrude and try to control others are whole or mature people.”

Anxiety and differentiation of self are the two main variables in the theory. Anxiety itself is not a psychiatric disorder in Bowen theory and all living things have some degree of anxiety. Anxiety is evolutionary and becomes a problem when it is overly active. Kerr writes, “What psychiatry textbooks term anxiety disorders are but one of myriad symptomatic manifestations of overly active evolutionary ancient anxiety systems.” We see in some of the families examined that when anxiety becomes overly active, for example a parent becoming excessively worried and protective of a child, what one seeks to prevent many times happens. When we become enmeshed in a relationship, we can lose our “differentiated self.” Kerr does an excellent job of explaining differentiated self, which he says is the most misunderstood of the eight concepts in Bowen’s theory. You can read further about the eight concepts here.

Kerr points out how Bowen adds a framework to Skinner’s behaviorism and to cognitive behavioral theory. You look at the behaviors in the contexts of the relationship system. Our behaviors feed back on each other.

Kerr includes a chapter on societal emotional process which was once called societal regression. Human culture has always been susceptible to this, but I think it would be especially helpful today if as a culture we become more aware of this process. Progression and regression occur all the time in cultures driven by both emotional and psychological processes. Emotions drive our behavior and heightened chronic anxiety can drive us to dysfunction. Kerr even suggests that with our vulnerability to emotional triggering and irrational thinking that our species be renamed from Homo sapiens (wise man) to Homo dysrationalis. Kerr looks at the housing bubble and financial crisis of 2009 as an example and for ways that we could improve functioning.

I found the chapter on unidisease especially intriguing. Kerr suggests including this in Bowen theory. The chapter begins with a quote from Peter Libby’s “Inflammation and Atherosclerosis: A Translational Tale” – “We all study the same disease.” Kerr suggests that “the core of the symptom-generating forces is the subcortical emotional system.” Internalized anxiety shows up in mental and physical symptoms, while externalized symptoms show up socially in behaviors like substance abuse.

There is also a chapter on spirituality, supernatural phenomena, belief systems, and mind-body interaction. Kerr includes a quote from Bowen’s 1987 address to the conference “Implications of Bowen Theory for Catholic Theology.” Kerr includes the quote because he feels it gives an aspect of differentiation that is often left out when talking about or trying to understand differentiation. Bowen said, “A major quality in the differentiation of self is complete selflessness in which doing for others replaces personal selfish goals. Jesus Christ has been a model for total selflessness.” I wonder how embracing that concept, which is present in many other religions and philosophies, would affect the level of anxiety in our current culture.

I highly recommend this book. It is a welcome addition to works on Bowen theory, family therapy, and systems theory. If you have never studied Bowen before, this is a good book to begin your study. It draws from a broad realm of research, is clearly written and will make you see the world, your family and yourself in a different way if you are not familiar with systems. And even if you are, its depth will give you more perspective. Even with studying Bowen all those years ago and following the concepts of systems, reading this gave me a deeper understanding of my own family relationships.

Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, by Michael E. Kerr

2013 Burlington Vermont 015

 I think my life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face. George Eliot

We are social beings. We have survived as a species because of our ability to live and work together. The idea of rugged individualism is a relatively recent myth strongly believed in the West, particularly the US. I remember a study from years ago in which people were asked to draw a circle representing the self, and another representing other. Americans drew circles much larger for the self than for other. People in Asia and Africa tended to make the circles the same size or maybe even make the circle for other larger.

We are born helpless and dependent. We rely on others to help us develop as humans, and we rely on others our entire lives. Attachment teaches us how to get along in life. John Bowlby wrote about attachment after noticing how infants in orphanages after World War II in Europe failed to thrive and, in some cases, died, despite having the basic physical needs met.

How hard wired are we for attachment? Take a look at this video.

According to the polyvagal theory, we help regulate each other’s emotions throughout our lives by how our ventral vagal nerve “reads” and responds to facial expressions. In “The Emotional Foundations of Personality: A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach” by Kenneth L. Davis and Jaak Panksepp, the emotion of panic/sadness is linked to separation from our caregiver in our developmental years.

Martin Seligman wrote in “Learned Optimism” that he could predict the winner of a presidential election by the optimism of the acceptance speech. In “The Attachment Effect,” Peter Lovenheim looked at politics in the US and looked at politicians and even speeches from another angle – from the view of attachment.

There are four kinds of attachment – secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. He writes that those with secure attachment “tend to be more giving and tolerant toward others, and they show more resilience in the face of challenges such as personal illness and the death of a loved one.” They are comfortable with intimacy and depending on others. Insecure attachments – avoidance and anxious – are more problematic. They do have strengths. A person with anxious attachment may be more successful getting a parent’s attention as a child (though the attention may not be positive) and the avoidant person becomes more independent and is less likely to feel the hurt, at least consciously. Anxious people may perceive danger more quickly, and avoidant people may see ways to escape more quickly. Anxiously attached people tend to be uneasy and vigilant about threats to relationships and are worried. Avoidant people tend to be very self-reliant and disinterested in intimacy. Disorganized attachment is coming to fear and be drawn to your care giver at the same time. They tend to be fearful of rejection, suspicious and shy.

Lovenheim found a correlation between secure attachment and centrist beliefs – more moderate, more flexible, more realistic, and more self-confidence, empathy and trust. Both anxious and avoidant people are more likely to be drawn to extremes. Avoidant may be drawn to the far right and anxious to the far left, but not necessarily. What does happen is that both are drawn to a dogmatism that gives them a sense of safety and security. “Anxiously attached voters, in particular, may project their unmet attachment needs onto leaders (and) may so crave attaching to a strong, care-giving leader that they nay be unable to distinguish between a transformative leader –one who protects encourages and empowers them – and a leader without such qualities.” The relationship of style to political leanings may be much more complicated. He also did an attachment style interview with Michael Dukakis and found the former presidential candidate and governor as avoidant. You may remember his detached analytical nonemotional answer during a presidential debate that was widely seen as costing him votes.

In speculating about recent presidents, Lovenheim found both anxious (like Clinton) but mostly avoidant including both 2016 candidates. Often anxious attached people wind up with avoidant people in relationships (and it generally doesn’t go well), and I wondered about voters and candidates. I didn’t find any data, but I am also curious because several presidential nominees (and at least two of those elected) have a history of being bullies. Is there an attachment style associated with bullies? At least among adolescents, avoidant attachment style was likely to be the style of bullies. But the relationship may be a bit more complicated. As usual, more research is needed. It also got me to wondering about cultural attachment styles. If a country tends to elect leaders with avoidant attachment styles, how does that affect the country’s relationships with the rest of the world? Also complicating that are cultures sense of the self in relation to others. The nonsecure styles would tend to lead a culture and a country to more extreme and have more rigid positions based on fear and the need to be right so that all are safe and secure, at least in our tribe. It also got me to wondering about attachment and religious belief. A concept of a power greater than yourself can give you a sense of safety. Lovenheim found that attachment styles in religion tend to reflect those we have in every day life. A secure attachment leads one to a feeling of God as loving protector, “available, reliable and responsive.” Those with anxious styles who see relationships as unreliable and unpredictable may be “deeply emotional, all consuming, and clingy.” The research he cites sees avoidant as tending towards agnostic or atheistic, but there are philosophies such as Buddhism and Daoism that have no deity or deities, and then there is rational empiricism all of which can be had by one with a secure attachment style. What I wondered about is more the disorganized style. If God is both loving and vengeful and to be feared, how would one get beyond that paradox and have a secure attachment? Again, with all the variables in daily life, it is complicated, and more research is needed.

I didn’t find any research on attachment style and likelihood of voting. I do wonder how outcomes of elections would change if a greater percentage of people voted. The best estimate I could find for the US population as a whole is that about 65% are secure attachment style, 20% avoidant, 10-15% anxious and 10-15% disorganized. About 75% of people live their whole lives in one style with no change. As Lovenheim writes, “If we’re going to raise emotionally healthy people, a consistent attachment figure must be present at least for the first eighteen months to two years of life. This is not a gender-specific role; it could be mother, father, grandparent, nanny, among other possibilities. But someone has to do it.”

Attachment is not static across a lifetime, and one can earn secure attachment. And, your attachment style may even affect your relationship with your dog.

Other books of interest in this area are “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships”, by Louis Cozolino; “The Feeling Brain” by Elizabeth Johnston and Leah Olson; and “The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory”, by Stephen Porges.

If you are curious about your own attachment style, there is an online test at http://web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116

I remember Dr. Peter Derks, my very first psychology professor, many years ago discussing a study in which people were asked to find patterns in flashing lights. Lights would flash in a sequence and participants were supposed to figure out the pattern so they could predict which light would flash next. What the participants didn’t know was that there was no pattern. The lights were programmed to flash in a random pattern. In every case, however, people found a pattern. When they were ultimately proved wrong, they would typically say, “now I see what you’re doing,” and would change their theory to a different pattern. No one ever figured out that there was no pattern, it was all random.

The NPR podcast, Invisibilia, recently did a story about patterns in the context of trying to predict behavior. One story was about a woman who had a history of abuse and arrests. She had turned her life around and was trying to become a lawyer in Washington state. Her appeal went to the state supreme court, and her attorney was a man who had convictions of bank robbery. Another story was about a Princeton study that used longitudinal data to try to predict outcomes in children. The researchers, despite massive amounts of data and coding efforts were not able to predict outcomes. You can listen to the podcast at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia (it is the March 18, 2018 podcast) or you can read the transcript here. People long for patterns and predictability and typically feel very uncomfortable with randomness. With randomness you can’t predict what will happen next. And life just has way too many variables to be completely predictable.Our brain takes shortcuts to give us the comfort that we can predict things. We inherently look for patterns. It enhances our chance at survival. It is part of evolution. It also gives us a sense of self, of who we are. We are those patterns we fall into.

Michael Puett, a professor at Harvard, and Christine Gross-Loh wrote a book called, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life.” Rather than looking inside for our “authentic true self” we are urged to “recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” Every moment can be a moment of redemption or a moment of damnation. For all of us. Puett says that Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of the Warring States period, said that labeling yourself is dangerous. It limits you. Saying you are an inherently shy person limits you to being that, you become stuck in that pattern. Instead, you can look at each moment for what you can become. We are not static beings.

That moment of becoming reminds me of solution focused therapy and narrative therapy. You start with small steps, like a small snowball at the top of a hill that gets bigger as it rolls down. The problem is outside yourself, and does not define you. Instead of staying with your past patterns and stories, you look at how you would like to be. It reminds me of flow – you become one with the moment you are in. But that takes practice. Humans tend to fall off the Way or Dao. We get caught up in thinking and patterns and ruts. Joseph Campbell, when interviewed by Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, spoke about the Coptic Christians for whom the everlasting life was living forever in the moment – transcendence. Confucius used rituals to help us get there.

Chance life encounters with their randomness play a large roll in our lives, too. That can be for better or for worse. The better are situations like that if Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, who had given up on publishing his first book and planned to destroy it. That changed with a chance encounter on a walk home. You can read that story here. For worse could be an instance of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember years ago a man driving home from work, just as he did every week day, was killed when a car, driven by an adolescent girl and friends, went airborne with the front end coming down into his windshield and killing him instantly. Albert Bandura wrote an excellent article on chance life encounters in the APA Monitor back in 1982. You can read it here.

So in this life, with all its messiness and randomness and chaos, how can be live in a way of growth and loving kindness? How can we live in the present so that we are not captured by the past, but have a chance at a better future? How can we change our relationships into skillful ones? How can we flourish? The Path gives us some practical ideas from the Chinese philosophers whose ideas have been found to be supported by neuroscience.

I think a part of changing and just being in this life is to be comfortable with that randomness and ambiguity. We learn that going with the flow is being open to the results of that butterfly flapping her wings off the coast of Africa, and we adapt and adjust as best as we can. That may go against our nature of desiring predictability and a world of where everything is easily judged right or wrong, good or bad, and we always know what comes next. Rather than judge harshly and condemn or overly praise and think that something is solved for good, we look at how skillful we are and how we can improve that. We have a sense of curiosity. The Chinese philosophers all sought to teach us how to be decent people, each in their own way. It is a constant life long process, and our skill levels vary from moment to moment. The philosophers from Confucius to Xunzi all have ways of reaching a place where we automatically find and live the Way. But for all the teachings, there is an inherent paradox. The harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. In Chinese, the process similar to flow is “wu wei” or effortless effort. Edward Slingerland gives a good overview.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116You may have heard someone say, “I can’t believe I did that, that’s not me!” And sincerely believe it and be baffled at what they said or did. You may have felt that way about someone else. “My son/daughter/friend would never do something like that.”

There are at least two versions of us – the one in the moment, and the one we construct in our story over time. In the updated edition of “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn cites research from the University of Toronto about these two versions of the self. The study looked at people who had completed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and found “increases in neuronal activity in a brain network associated with embodied present-moment experience and decreases in another brain network associated with the self as experienced across time.” That second self is the narrative self or the self we experience as ourselves in the story we tell ourselves over time. The research findings encourage us to be in the present moment rather than caught up “in the drama of our narrative self.” “Non-judgmental awareness of our wandering mind may actually be a gateway to greater happiness and well-being right in the present moment, without anything at all having to change.”

Jeffrey Zimmerman in “Neuro-Narrative Therapy” goes a step further and cites the work of Dan Siegel. “Narrative therapy rejects the notion of a single, true self and instead embraces the idea of multiple identities or multiple versions of the self.” Siegel says that the notion of a unified self is “missing the point of the multiplicity of our normal, adaptive, ever-changing selves.” We need these multiple states to be able to adapt to the changing situations in our lives. We do tend to have states that we favor and see those override states or dominant style as our personality. Our brain is constantly taking short cuts so that we can cope with all the information we are constantly bombarded with internally and externally, and we see that dominant style as our self. “… (O)ur brain likes coherence, it has a bias for making the world appear solid and stable. To do so, it constructs an unbroken picture, giving us a continuous sense of self out of these multiple brain states.”

Mindfulness can help us be aware of those states, and to be with them in a nonjudgmental way and lessen the drama and the pain of everyday life.

I think it also helps to look deeper, even on the physical cellular level of the self. What we perceive, for example a chair, is not solid at the microscopic level. And we are not solid beings or even mostly made up of human cells, at the microscopic level. Take a look at this “Nova Wonders” called, “Nova Wonders, What is Living in You?” It not only tells about how in terms of numbers our human cells are vastly outnumbered by the bacteria, viruses, and other micro-organisms that co-habit our bodies with us, but gives some thought provoking ideas and findings about the function of our gut bacteria in illnesses ranging from C. diff to Parkinson’s to autism. You can find it at https://www.pbs.org/video/nova-wonders-whats-living-in-you-fnbfuy/. Fortunately, our human cells are bigger than all our fellow micro-organisms. Their total weight in our body is about three pounds – about the same as the weight of our brain.

2015 May 16 to 23 Bar Harbor 052

Root to the earth and rise to the sky like a tall straight tree.

It is difficult to feel centered sometimes. We are scattered by all sorts of distractions – perseverating thoughts, loud noises, flickering lights, and most often these days from electronic devices like phones and tablets. There seem to be multiple things at any given moment getting us scattered mentally and emotionally, and also physically. Pay attention to your body when you are feeling scattered. Are you grounded and relaxed and in harmony with gravity? Or are you tense, stiff, tilted forward or to one side with gravity pulling you down.

 

Our bodies and minds are one and when you are scattered in one, the other is out of balance as well. In taijiquan and qigong, your center is your lower dantien. That is the energy center about three finger widths below your belly button and three finger widths inside your body. Essentially, it is your center of gravity, and we move around and breathe from that center. I sometimes say in taijiquan class that life is a struggle in finding balance with gravity. It is always there. Astronaut Scott Kelly was two inches taller after spending about a year in space. Gravity compressed his body back that two inches after his return to earth. When you are out of balance with gravity, your body pays a price. Your neck, your lower back, and your spine all struggle to keep you upright. The outcome is increased pain and an increased risk of falling.

When you are out of balance, you also do not breathe as efficiently. Beginning about age 6 or 7, our breathing tends to start moving from our belly towards our upper chest. This style of breathing is less efficient. We get less oxygen, we have to work harder to breathe and tend to breathe more quickly. This “upper chest” breathing engages your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight/flee/freeze/faint system. Your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and breathing rate all rise. You get tunnel vision. Your blood moves from your internal organs and brain out to your arms and legs to get you ready for action. Your ability to think and improvise goes away and you automatically “go with what you know.” Your adrenalin and cortisol levels rise and form a feedback loop between your adrenal glands and your brain that causes the levels to continue to rise. Take a moment and put one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Now breathe like you normally breathe. Which hand moves? Are you breathing from your abdomen or your upper chest?

You can practice getting your center – finding your balance and breathing efficiently. You will move better. You will feel better. You will function more from the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest way of being. You might even be more likely to use the other response to a threat – tend and befriend – when you are balanced.

This is an exercise we do at the beginning of classes to find balance with the earth and harmony with gravity.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116Recently a friend mentioned how different he felt while on prednisone, and as a Buddhist it helped bring home the tenuousness of the concept of self. Alan Watts wrote extensively about the concept of self in Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, with one example here.

I get to listen to about 10 or 15 minutes of Radio Lab on NPR during my Wednesday commute and recently there was a piece on the element lithium. Lithium is used as a psychotropic, but they also mentioned that towns which have an incredibly small amount of lithium naturally occurring in their water supplies also have lower suicide rates than towns with even smaller amounts. It reminded me that when lead was removed from gasoline and paint, crime rates went down. Transcranial magnetic stimulation not only helps with relieving depression, but in at least one study, people changed a decision after the stimulation. They didn’t realize the stimulation had occurred and had a rational explanation as to why they changed their minds, and the explanation went along with our concept of self and free will. So much of what we do and who we are occurs below our conscious level.

One theory in neuroscience I have come across is that the construct of “other” evolved first followed by the construct of “self.” These came about so that we could communicate and get along in this world. Music also evolved for our social and emotional well being, and it can have a very big impact on emotion. Think about the use of music in the soundtracks of movies, television and radio and how that affects your experience of the story. Athletes use music to change their performance. You can even use a soundtrack in your mind to change your mood and to change your self-talk. In Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Daniel Shapiro tells how at his workshops he uses a soundtrack of drums to increase the sense of tribe for workshop participants who have to negotiate bringing their separate tribes into one tribe or else the world will end. The world almost always ends in the exercise. I wonder if that would change without the beat of the tribal drums during the cohesion of the tribes.

Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to the self – the “dual nature of identity.” He refers to our sense of self as the “fixed-identity problem.” Identity is not static, and includes our beliefs, rituals, allegiances, values, and emotionally meaningful experiences. We have various mindsets of the self. There is the fundamentalist who sees identity as fixed and governed by forces outside our control. There is the constructivist who sees identity as an “ever-evolving social construction.”   There is the anattist who sees us as having no permanent identity and transcending “the material world of attachment, experiencing identity as shifting waves within the ocean of life.” Lastly, there is the quantumist who sees identity as “a combination of nature and nurture” with identity both fixed and fluid and there are many possible selves. And we may change that perspective over time. They are not fixed either. With these different perspectives, how do we get along with each other? We change our relationships in that space between us. You can learn more by listening to Shapiro here.

A few years ago, I was cleaning out the attic in the home where I grew up. I found the speech I gave at my high school graduation. The last line was “we are all in this together.” All these years later, I still believe that. Shapiro’s work gives us good guidance on how to get along with each other in this world, and some different perspective on just what the “self” is.

Last week I participated in World Taiji and Qigong Day.  As part of the program I demonstrated Yang style 24 form and Dr. Paul Lam’s Sun style Tai Chi for Arthritis.  My teacher and his teacher were also demonstrating forms.  No pressure to perform well there, eh? 

For performance of any kind, some bit of anxiety is a good thing. Too little and you do not put in the necessary effort, like a heavily favored team getting knocked off by an underdog.  Too much anxiety and you can also perform poorly. You freeze; you get tunnel vision and stop seeing options when the unexpected happens.  You need just that right level.  You are psyched up and not psyched out.

I went on third and sixth.  Rather than think about my upcoming time in front of the crowd, I watched and enjoyed the other forms being demonstrated.  Tai Chi for Arthritis was my initial performance. I was certified to teach this about seven months ago.  As I began to move I could feel myself settle in and the movements flowed. I didn’t think, I just “was.”  When my time for Yang style came around, my adrenaline had taken a little out of me and my focus was not quite as good. I have been performing Yang style for over ten years. The problem is that sometimes if your concentration lapses you can find yourself morphing into 40 form when you started out in 24. Fortunately that did not happen and my performance went well. What it did point out to me was the difference between self awareness and self consciousness. When you are self aware, you are mindful and in the moment. You know where your body is in space and flow from move to move.  It is the feeling of wu wei – effortless effort, what we call “flow” in the West. Self consciousness on the other hand, is thinking too much, trying to be aware of everything and criticizing it at the same time and maybe imagining the critique of others. You overload and performance deteriorates as you try too hard. 

 Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes habitual. I would say practice makes permanent, but nothing is permanent. You practice so that you do not have to think and can just flow in mindful self awareness, an awareness that helps you to continually improve your practice. 

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