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.

 

From “Macro” to “Micro” Self-Awareness

IMG_0888I’ve thought and written a great deal about self-awareness. I work with a lot of self-aware people–and I consider myself a pretty self-aware person. Yet, in my own life and with my clients, I’m become increasingly aware that self-awareness operates at multiple levels and that just being “highly self-aware” is not enough. To that end, I’m playing with a distinction–between what I’ll call “macro” self-awareness and “micro” self-awareness. Macro self-awareness is all about being aware of one’s patterns, one’s reactions, one’s impact in the world. Micro self-awareness is being able to experience yourself in the moment, to catch yourself before you act out a pattern that you are highly aware of in the abstract–and, in the very moment, do something different. Micro self-awareness requires that you remain attentive in the moment, that you are able to observe your reactions before they turn into actions. It is the capacity to stand outside of yourself and be an observer of that self–to see yourself from a distance, to hear your thoughts as thoughts, rather than as reality.

Micro self-awareness is also when you make a tiny course corrections that allows you to be more present, more empathic, more generous–to yourself and to others–because of your capacity to see yourself more clearly in the moment. I would argue that the most fertile soil for meaningful, sustainable change, growth and shift is is in the realm of micro self-awareness–and that we all would do well identifying ways to spend more time in that realm.

I’m becoming increasingly aware that much of my work as a coach is in helping people take macro awareness to a micro level. I am often hired to support people who realize that something is getting in their way–but aren’t sure how to make a shift. They often don’t know where to start. Our work together almost always begins with a period of learning to notice, of observing. Often, just by observing, change begins. Paying attention in the moment is a key to micro self-awareness. And, while this might sound simple, it’s anything but easy. It’s incredibly easy to forgot to observe, to be so “in” the moment that you can’t “see” the moment. Micro self-awareness is the work of a life time.

An obvious and popular strategy for increasing micro self-awareness–to develop the capacity for moment-to-moment awareness–is mindfulness. Mindfulness practices offering many tools for increasing micro self-awareness. We now know that these practices and others that require us to develop our present moment awareness actually rewire our brains, opening up new neural pathways.

Mindfulness meditation trains your mind to be present to what emerges in the moment. A more active yoga practice can do the same. And, for those with whom neither meditation nor yoga resonate, learning to notice, to become an observer of one’s self, can take lots of different forms. Adam Grant’s recent op-ed in the New York Times includes, among other things, some great strategies for building mindfulness–without meditation.  (And, as an aside, his piece is an altogether interesting critique of the emphasis placed on meditation these days–more on that another day.)

Micro self-awareness–and the hard work of daily self-observation–is also the stuff of spiritual practice. Not big, splashy spirituality and religion, but quiet, reflective practice that can result in moments of clarity and–dare I say it–enlightenment (with a lower case “e.”)

So, I’m sure I’ll keep reading books, gathering new insights, looking to grow my “macro” self-awareness. I’ll also make sure to balance my efforts–and guide my clients to do the same–spending more time taking those big insights and bringing them into my day, moment by moment.

The Benefits of Gratitude

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Thanksgiving. Perhaps my favorite holiday. I love that we have a day all about gratitude. And, it’s a great time to think about how we can make gratitude a part of our lives, every day.

The thing about gratitude is that it really, truly IS good for you and for everyone around you. There’s an article in the Sunday New York Times, written by David deSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University about holiday shopping and willpower. Numerous studies over many years have demonstrated that our proclivity for immediate gratification is surprisingly strong and our willpower is a limited resource. We want things now and when we say “no” to “now” we decrease our willpower and ability to keep saying no. Not a great combination as we enter the buying season that begins with Black Friday and keeps going for all the weeks of December. So, here’s what the latest study revealed:

deSteno and his colleagues asked a group of 75 people to write about a typical day, an amusing event, or a time they were grateful. They then tested to see how financially patient the subjects were. How much money would they accept now vs. a larger payout in the future. They discovered that the gratitude stories resulted in more financial patience, when compared to the other types of “priming.” And, the more grateful, the more patient. After writing about something other than gratitude, participants were willing to give up on $100 in the future for $17 today. The gratitude stories doubled that amount (people wouldn’t accept less than $30)–and the most grateful people were the most patient.

So, gratitude actually increased self-control and impulse control! deSteno concludes:
“If you’re looking to avoid impulse buying this year, take time not only to celebrate with your friends and family, but also to count your blessings. You may find that the easiest way to thwart retailers’ enticements.”

Barbara Frederickson, a positive psychologist and author of the book Positivity, has done extensive research on the value of positive emotions. She developed what she calls the “Broaden and Build theory.” Positive emotions–and gratitude is a particularly potent one according to her research–help us to be more creative, come up with new ideas, and build stronger social bonds. They broaden us. They have a lasting impact as well–thus the “build” part of the theory. She describes positive emotions as an “upward spiral.”

For some ideas about how to “practice” gratitude, here’s a resource that is full of great suggestions. Many of these are remarkably easy and, if you’re interested, this link can take you to an amazing set of resources all about increasing gratitude in the world.

So, as you enter the holiday of giving thanks, remember that gratitude is not only good–it is good for you–and for everyone around you. And, it just might help you with the willpower to make wise purchases through this holiday season.