Finding Center in Turbulent Times

The source of our unease is the unfulfillable longing for a lasting certainty and security, for something solid to hold on to. When something unexpected or not to our liking happens, we think something has gone wrong. We are never encouraged to experience the ebb and flow of our moods, of our health, of the weather, of outer events – pleasant and unpleasant – in their fullness. Instead we stay caught in a fearful, narrow holding pattern of avoiding any pain and continually seeking comfort. This is a universal dilemma.

Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

The Moment We Are In

In the past year I’ve discovered and become absorbed, even obsessed, with the study of complexity. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that in the complex domain things are unpredictable and unknowable. Only in retrospect can we see cause and effect. Our capacity to accurately identify and to then navigate–rather than plan–in complexity requires a level of awareness–of consciousness–different from what was required in simpler times or in response to more predictable challenges. To navigate complexity requires that we be present–and from being present respond in a creative, reflective and non-reactive manner.

In the last few weeks I’ve felt overwhelmed by–at times done in by–the complexity (and chaos) of the world around us. In the last days, with the attempted bombing of key Democratic figures, and the shootings in both Kentucky and Pittsburgh by avowed racists and Anti-Semites, it has felt all too close and all too scary. Drawing a wider circle, the recent election in Brazil is frightening as is the general rise of anti-Democratic forces in areas of the world that we thought were sturdier in their embrace of democracy.

And, complexity is increasing beyond the particular political moment. Climate change looms over us, income inequality and all that is associated with it is still a strong force both here in the US and globally, technological advances are both wondrous and frightening. In our lives and organizations complexity abounds–as we learn to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and to a faster and faster pace. There is, appropriately, a great deal of talk about leadership, the subject I study and that is the basis of my work.

At a time when what I study and what I do every day is converging with the world outside—I cannot keep them each contained in their own, separate lanes. So, I think about what I have learned and how I can apply it in this moment. What I am sure of is that, by definition, there is no magic bullet. Each of us needs to decide what we will and won’t do–how politically active to be or not to be, how much to let in and how much to shut out.

In this spirit, I offer a practice that I believe can be a support and a learning tool in this moment–Centering. It’s a simple and powerful way to build the capacity to stand still in the midst of complexity so that we can make wise choices. It affords us a critical pause to reorient and remind ourselves that perhaps the most important choice we can make in this moment is who we choose to be—even more than what we choose to do.

The Practice of Centering

In 2013 I left the job that I’d had from 1998, and for the first time in my adult life had neither a job nor a salary. My intention was to use this transition, which included a generous severance package, as a launchpad for creating my own coaching and facilitation business. I had zero experience with not having a paycheck and the unpredictability that came with that. My parents were civil servants—I grew up with the stability and predictability that this afforded and never saw them struggle financially—though they lived frugally. I was excited and terrified.

My first investment in this new direction was to study. (No surprise there!) I had read a wonderful book called The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee, learned that he taught a program called Presence-Based Coaching, and signed up for a a series of retreats in Asheville, North Carolina to extend my coach training.

On our first morning together, we gathered in a beautiful retreat center in the Smoky Mountains. Doug, who was to become one of the most important teachers in my life, led us in a Centering practice. We stood in a circle and closed our eyes as Doug asked us to pay attention–first to our length, then to our width and finally to our depth. Each dimension was associated with a different quality–length with dignity, width with connection and depth with sufficiency. After spending five, maybe ten minutes experiencing these different dimensions, Doug asked us to “drop in” to our centers and ask ourselves what mattered most–to sense this rather than think it. (Instructions for the practice are provided at the end of this post.)

As we debriefed the practice, Doug shared that this wasn’t “just” a guided meditation but a specific somatic practice. By attuning to our bodies (our somas) in this way, we were finding where and how we could be better resourced—better equipped to be present and to access that feeling of being centered when we needed it. The practice was scalable. If we had one minute, that was sufficient. If we had ten seconds we could take three breaths–one into each dimension. Doug asked us to commit to practicing multiple (10, 15, 25!) times a day. He promised that doing this regularly would change us.

Being the good student, I did what Doug asked of us. I practiced frequently between retreats. Multiple times a day I would breathe into these three dimensions. And, as Doug had promised, I did notice changes. In a moment when life had become less predictable, when I was noticing just how scary it was to lose the certainty of a paycheck, I had this practice to draw on. It allowed me to ground myself, to remind myself that I was enough. It didn’t change everything–my fears were strong and the discomfort was enormous–that didn’t go away–and it felt somehow more manageable.

My first experience with centering was enough for me to realize that there was something to this! I saw the value of a practice that I could access whenever I needed it—that extended beyond my morning meditation. I felt grateful that I was just a little bit more confident, a little bit more present in conversations that mattered—that this simple, quick practice could really do that much.

Evolution of a Practice

As I built my coaching clientele, I occasionally offered this Centering practice to my clients at the start of a session. When I did it was usually well-received–but I wasn’t always comfortable suggesting it or leading it. I loved being guided, but being the guide was new territory for me–leading a centering practice was not yet in my comfort zone and I was nervous about trying it with people who didn’t seem like this would be their kind of thing–even though my assessments were likely inaccurate.

For the next few years I would sometimes center and often forget. I meditated daily and figured that was enough. If I was speaking publicly, I’d center before I spoke but not much more.

A couple of years ago, as I began to learn more about somatics (the body stuff) and complexity, I returned to the practice of Centering. At this moment, when the world was spinning in a direction that terrified me, it felt even more important. I have become more consistent in my practice—doing it both in response to triggers and at random points in the day. I am more consistent about bringing centering to my clients.

Centering is no longer a tool for facing the challenges of starting a business. I feel confident about my work and business—more than I ever expected to. Sure, there are ups and downs, but I know how to weather those pretty well. Today, Centering is the way that I find my ground. When I center, I am able to come back to the present moment and see more clearly, sense more clearly and make better choices. Given that my life and work is expressed almost entirely in words, these are most often choices about what to say and what not to say.

More often than not I am able to catch myself when I have the urge to give a client advice and listen more. More often than not, though with greater difficulty than in the work domain, I am able to step back from a potential fight with my husband or daughter and recognize that the words I want to say may not be the wisest words to say. When I center, I am able to allow the words that need to be said to emerge and to trust that this will happen. When I center I am more able—and this remains hard—to recognize that in this troubling moment in our world—I can make wise choices.

Centering isn’t Magic. It’s Biology.

The two people who’ve helped me most to understand Centering are Doug Silsbee, who I mentioned earlier, and Amanda Blake.

Doug’s recent Presence-Based Leadership: Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience and Results that Matter is his first book for general audience (rather than focused on coaches.) It is also his final book—Doug died just around the time of its publication. Perhaps the highest recommendation for his work is that he embraced death consciously, remaining centered and present until the very end. He viewed dying as a “complexity challenge” and applied the tools in the book to this chapter in his life. (For more on that, see the post  I wrote just after Doug’s death.)

Amanda is a coach and teacher, and just published a wonderful book, Your Body is Your Brain. Full of powerful case studies, she shows the power of engaging our whole selves, inclusive of our bodies, in addressing the challenges we face as humans and leaders.

For both Doug and Amanda, the centering practice I’ve described here is foundational.

Amanda’s Wisdom

 Our bodies, our brains, and even our behavior take shapequite literallyin response to our life experiences. And that biobehavioral shape ultimately affects the possibilities we see, the options we choose, and the actions we take. 

Our bodies are quite brilliant in knowing how to take care of us. The problem is that conditions change and “the brilliant way the brain puts behaviors on autopilot means that sometimes those once-useful ways of being become outdated.” When we center we are able to sense what is happening in the moment, to no longer be on autopilot. Centering allows us to notice sensations as sensations, to tolerate them when they are uncomfortable, and to choose not to “automatically act to make the discomfort disappear. 

Doug’s Wisdom

Doug suggests that we can learn “de-couple” our inner states from what he calls our Context (what is happening around us.) Doug writes that “by de-coupling our inner state from the conditions of our Context, we discover freedom and resilience.”

Centering does double-duty. In addition to supporting us in the moment that we center, we are training our bodies so that the next time we seek to decouple state from Context, that is a little more accessible. Over time centering becomes an available response to being triggered and, ultimately, we are triggered less and less forcefully. In sharing the Centering practice, Doug writes the following about what is happening within us, at a neurobiological level:

Invite the awareness that, in this very moment, the quality of your attention tells your hippocampus that this specific state is important enough to encode for future access. The inner state of center is being telegraphed across your entire nervous system. You are actively initiating the process of neuroplastic change, creating associations between neuronal networks of this state, in order to record it in long-term memory. 

Centering changes our brains and our bodies.

Last Words

There is no magic bullet. The world is complex and at times feels as if it’s veering into chaos. Yet, with practice, we can be more present and more centered. From that place of center we can access greater wisdom so that we can be our best even in this moment. When we are at our best we can make wiser choices that will support, in some small way, the creation of a world that is a better place for the people who live in it.

The Practice (Adapted from Doug Silsbee)

  • Stand or sit comfortably. Make sure that your feet are making contact with the ground, if you are sitting.
  • Take a moment and notice any sensations you’re feeling. Use this first moment to “drop into” what you are sensing, to your body.
  • Center in length. Sense the bottoms of your feet on the ground. Relax your shoulders. Relax your jaw. Let your gaze be soft. Now imagine that you can rise up, that your head is connected to the sky as if by a string. The dimension of length is the dimension of dignity. As you stand in your full height, you embody dignity.
  • Center in width. Gently rock your weight from side to side. Find the balanced place in the center of this dimension. Visualize yourself extending to each side, expanding, taking up space.This is the dimension of connection, we take up space and we share space.
  • Center in depth. Bring awareness to the space behind you, as if you had a massive tail extending out along the ground. Allow yourself to feel supported by this mass. In it you hold your wisdom, your experience. This is the dimension of sufficiency.
  • The last dimension is commitment. Focus on the space just below your belly, your center. Ask yourself: “In this moment what matters most? What’s really important? What do I care about?” If this is available to you, sense your commitment throughout all the dimensions.
  • Remember that this is scalable–and can be done in just a few seconds or for several minutes. You can focus on just one or just two dimensions.
  • A seven-minute version of the practice is available in this video, presented by a teacher at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership.

 

Slow Down, Do Less, Observe More: A Leadership Journey

My exercise routine in the mid-nineties involved getting up before my kids and working out to fitness videos in our basement. During a year when my job was joyless, I spent my downtime (there was quite a bit!) exploring a website with reviews of fitness videos–planning my next morning. Over time I accumulated a significant video collection and kept raising the bar on intensity and impact–adding props so I could include the then-very-popular step aerobics. While I started weaving in some high-intensity yoga, (yes, that’s the kind of yoga that I was drawn to) aerobics were the heart of my practice. That approach to exercise ended with (surprise!) one bad landing from a too-high step and a painful knee injury. Suddenly, I was looking for low-impact videos, spending more time with yoga videos (and starting to actually hear what the teachers were saying,) re-calibrating my practice.

Alas, this was not enough for my injured knee. Sitting on airplanes and going down stairs was excruciating. A bent knee would hurt after just a few minutes. I remembered that my mom, who was struggling with chronic pain, had found some relief with the Feldenkrais method. Created by Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli engineer and physicist, it is described as “an educational system that uses movement to teach self-awareness and improve function.” I found a practitioner who had been trained by Feldenkrais himself and worked with her–in hands-on sessions and using cassette tapes (MP3s are now available!) for well over a year.

It’s difficult to describe the Feldenkrais method. It was subtle, slow and radically different from anything I’d done before. The hands-on work was light, easy and never, ever painful. Feldenkrais challenged the notion of “no pain, no gain” and suggested that we learn best when we are at ease. Eileen never even touched my knee. She seemed to hover over it and gently work with other parts of my body. The tapes were a revelation, too. The instruction often went like this: “Turn to your right, now do 50% of that, now do 50% of that.” The message was to do less, not more. To do it slowly. And to observe your movements. I didn’t know at the time that Feldenkrais was describing the property of neuroplasticity before anyone else I knew was using this language. I also didn’t know that, when I lay on the floor doing extraordinarily boring tapes with the subtlest of movements, I was practicing mindfulness. I did know that my knee pain was diminishing dramatically and that I was able to move with greater ease and comfort.

As I was exploring movement in this new way, my career was advancing. I’d long ago left that joyless job, moved to California, and was assuming increasing levels of responsibility in a training and development organization. I was pursuing a masters degree that required late night and early morning hours. Working full-time, raising kids, doing a graduate degree, fitting in exercise–it was taking a toll.There was never enough time and I always felt that I should be doing more.

One day, just as I was finishing up the graduate program, I got a call from the school letting me know that I was was going to be named as the outstanding student in my graduating class. As the call ended, while a small part of me felt honored, my dominant emotion was frustration–with myself. It was time to apply the lessons of Feldenkrais to my life. I had poured myself into my classes, spent far more time than I really needed to (or had)–because I didn’t know how to do less and could not recognize when less was more than enough. I was paying too high a price for being all-in, all the time.

As I began to think more about it, I also realized that doing more was not only making my life harder, it was getting in my way as a leader. I wasn’t giving others the space to bring themselves fully to their work. I began to notice when I was doing too much of the thinking and the planning and not allowing others to step into the challenges that would help them grow. I needed to learn to step back, to make room for others.

This was a turning point for me as a leader. I began to experiment (though I wouldn’t have used that word at the time) with slowing down, doing less and observing more in my work. Most of the time other people stepped in–and sometimes they didn’t. I experimented with different ways of responding when they didn’t–short of taking over. Thanks to Feldenkrais, I knew what it felt like in my body to slow down. I was able, with practice, to translate that to work settings and, in the process, becoming a better leader. And, remarkably, one with more time for both work and home.

I realize now that Eileen, my Feldenkrais practitioner, was also my first leadership coach. The shifts I made when working with her were essential to the shifts I made in my leadership practices. Since then I’ve developed a regular yoga and meditation practice, and learned many in-the-moment centering practices that have, collectively,  further enabled me to embody the idea of “slow down, do less and observe more.” To a degree I couldn’t have imagined, this has become who I am. I can still move too fast, step in too quickly, speak too much. And, I do these things a lot less frequently–catching myself a whole lot sooner. I am better able to recognize when I am not present and find my way back to presence.

Almost every leader I work with struggles with the challenge of too little time and too much to do. Many of my clients complain about poor time management skills, hoping that there are ways to organize their work–productivity hacks–to make them more efficient. Without exception, at some point each of these leaders recognizes that it’s not about managing time better, it’s about thinking differently about how we “be” as leaders so that what we “do” begins to shift.

This kind of shift requires more than training our brains–it requires training our entire being, including our bodies. We can experiment with different practices, large and small. A regular yoga or meditation practice or a bodywork practice like Feldenkrais can have a dramatic impact. Just as important and easier to embed in your day are “micro-practices.” Taking a breath before you speak, five breaths before meetings, short centering practices several times a day–simple, quick, regular. What my teacher, Doug Silsbee, called “experiential neuroplasticity.” The key is to find something that works for you, and through practice and repetition, turn it into a habit. And then get curious about what shifts in the way that you respond. Does it allow you to slow down? to do less? to observe more?

Shifting in this way can feel challenging–even scary. Letting go of how we define ourselves–through our doing–and allowing ourselves to be shaped more by how we “be” is not so easy. It’s likely we’ll be pulled back (over and over again) to the comfort of doing more. Paradoxically, in fast-paced, increasingly complex environments that make more and more demands on us, learning to “be” a leader is the only sure fire way I know to thrive–to take care of ourselves and serve the people around us.

 

A Tribute to My Teacher

PBLIn the spring of 2013, Amazon suggested that I read The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee. I did–on a 15 hour plane ride to Hong Kong. I was so excited by what I read that the first thing I did upon arriving in my hotel room was to go online and find out if Doug taught in person. He did. And, the program he ran, Presence-Based Coaching, sounded wonderful.

Doug’s work combined many of the things I was already exploring (mindfulness, neuroscience. adult development) with other domains I’d never heard of (somatic work, polarity management, and more ) in a way that was both fresh and familiar. I would be able to deepen areas I wanted to work on and gain new ways of putting it all together.

So began five years of study–in person at a beautiful retreat center near Asheville, North Carolina and through a variety of online courses. Throughout that time, Doug kept building, adding, growing and expanding his understanding of leadership, coaching, our place as humans on this planet. He was generous enough to include us in his journey. And I was fortunate enough to be his student.

The most important distinctions and insights that I’ve gained in recent years came from my work with Doug, and his partner Bebe Hansen. (Bebe has recently taken the reins at Presence-Based Coaching–meaning that the work is in great hands.) Doug introduced me to polarity thinking, which is central to my work as a coach, facilitator and human being on this fragile planet. When, on the last day of one of our retreats, Doug offered up the polarity of humility AND confidence to replace the dichotomy of confidence OR arrogance, I felt a shift and sense of possibility in that moment. Doug is one of those coaches who, with just a few words or an incisive question, delivered with compassion and humility, helps you see what was previously invisible.

Doug’s newest book, Presence-Based Leadership:Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience, and Results That Matter, was published in March. The book builds on Doug’s interest and exploration of complexity. The essential idea is that complexity –which is more and more a part of our reality–requires work with our bodies, hearts and minds, together, to be more fully present. Developing our capacity for presence, writes Doug is “possibly the most fundamental life and leadership competency.” Doug describes presence as the “conscious, intentional awareness that connects our deepest heartfelt essence to the furthest reaches of societal contribution.”

Unlike Doug’s previous books, which were written for coaches, this one is written for all leaders–which, in Doug’s definition, is all of us. The book is simultaneously practical and profound. It’s built around a model for cultivating presence, which he calls the nine-panes model, and supported by a myriad of accessible practices. Each pane is a window into a part of how we see and experience reality and, as with all elegantly systemic models, the panes are interdependent. They operate together, as a system. Being aware of them and working on them individually can influence how they operate together.

A few months before the book was published, Doug was diagnosed with a rare cancer. I wanted to believe that he would beat it. Doug was a healthy person–rugged, strong, balanced. Instead, Doug, perhaps sooner than the rest of us, recognized that this was not going to be “beaten”–it was going to be lived. And, he embraced it as the ultimate “complexity challenge.” For eight months now, Doug has been on this journey. He has been generous and courageous enough to share it with his community, including his students. He and his wife have authored a blog that has invited us into this journey. Even as Doug is consciously letting go of his professional identify, he remains a teacher. He embraces that role with wonder and humility. Just a couple of weeks ago, in reflecting on his choice to document his dying process, he wrote:

“I really don’t know how to do this, this dying thing. I’m (drum roll….. yes,  the rumors are true!) a first-timer. Any actual knowledge I might profess about dying hasn’t yet been fully earned. So, it’s not expertise that I am offering.

Rather, it’s my lived experience, day by day, as it unfolds. Is it not true, at the end of the day, that our fullest selves and our lived stories are what we have to offer anyway?

Almost certainly, I will only get to die once. Not that I would wish cancer on anybody. More like, if I’m here, I might as well explore the unique perspective on living that is revealed by dying.

Doug’s curiosity, his willing to share his own experiences, his ability to bring humor (and reveal when he’s in deep pain,) has had an extraordinary effect–it’s the first time in my life that death, itself, has seemed just a bit less scary. That is an amazing gift. I know, because I’ve talked to many of his students (and read the beautiful comments on his posts,) that it’s shared by many of us. It is a testament to the truest power of vulnerability. Doug has embraced dying as a space for practice and decided to share what he’s been learning along the way.

If you don’t know Doug, read his books, listen to podcast interviews of with Amiel Handelsman. They were recorded as the book was being published and as he was coming to terms with his new reality. If you do know him, then I’m sure you and I are having many of the same feelings and sensations. It’s wonderful to have a teacher and hard to lose one. I’m grateful that Doug is guiding us in the journey.

Update: Doug passed away on July 30. May his memory be a blessing.