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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.

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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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