Have you ever been caught in a gumption trap? I am going to guess that you have. A better question might be ‘how did you handle the gumption trap?’
Put simply, gumption is your initiative, your energy to move forward and your ability to do so with commonsense and shrewdness. Gumption is the drive that pushes you to start a project and also the focus, clarity and motivation that carries you through until you finish it. When your gumption is high you will find yourself scribbling feverishly, drawing up plans, writing with acute focus, speaking with confidence and full of insights. When gumption is high you work through a project with enthusiasm and a sense of possibility. States of extremely high gumption are akin to FLOW states.
In his 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig coined the term gumption trap. Here he explains the power of gumption while working on a motorcycle:
“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in the whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption. “
What Pirsig so clearly understood is that it is not knowing how you will succeed that drives you forward, but rather an ineffable sense that success is possible. Gumption is our ‘reservoir of good spirits’. Another word for gumption in this sense might be faith.
A gumption trap is something which saps your energy, undermines your faith or otherwise causes you to falter in your drive towards completing a project. Gumption traps can stop you cold before a project is begun at all.
Pirsig identifies two types of gumption traps. One arises from external circumstances, he calls these “set-backs”. The other arises from internal circumstances, he calls these “hang-ups”.
Set-backs come in all shapes and sizes. In motorcycle maintenance Pirsig describes going through a complicated assembly process only to realize that you skipped an early step, “What’s this? A connecting-rod bearing liner?! How could you have left that out? Oh Jesus, everything’s got to come apart again! You can almost hear the gumption escaping. Psssssssssssss.” Set-backs could also be a stubbed toe, a lost computer file or an unaccounted for expense. Basically, any circumstance that adds time, effort or expense to your project is a potential gumption trap. When you first become aware of such a set-back there is a very real sense of having the wind taken from your sails and if you are not careful the entire project is now in danger do to one simple question: Will you have the gumption to continue?
Hang-ups come in many forms as well. The key to hang-ups is that they are something that you brought to the project with you. They are your own personal kinks and shadow issues that threaten to steal your thunder when working on a project. Pirsig identifies a few: Ego, “if you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened.” Anxiety, “You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all.” Often times anxiety is mislabeled as ‘laziness’. Boredom, “the opposite of anxiety and commonly goes with ego problems. Boredom means you are not seeing things freshly, you’ve lost your “beginners mind”.
Each gumption trap has its own unique request and getting your gumption back takes many shapes ranging from taking a break to studying more to seeking inspiration elsewhere (go to a show, make love, exercise) to doing some self exploration and facing your demons.
Many things can be a gumption trap; a bad work environment, disrespectful coworkers, cheap tools, self doubt, an accident or an unsuccessful first try. The key is to recognize that gumption is not a fixed commodity. At times you are full of faith. At others you need a break. Awareness of this dynamic can free you to choose how to use your energy more wisely and free you from beating yourself up unnecessarily for not being 100% at all times and in all circumstances. Learning to recognize gumption traps will help you to avoid them at times, but simply acknowledging them when they do arise and adjusting accordingly can save you immense effort and may be the thing that allows you to finish what would otherwise have become an aborted project.
This post is from a series called Insights that are inspired by the work I do with my clients as a Life Coach.
If you are ready to live with more joy, more passion and more purpose then I would love to be of service. Contact me to find out how my Life Coaching Program can kickstart your journey. – Devin Martin
Have you ever had a great yoga class? One of those classes where you walk out sweaty and smiling? Perhaps you even went into the class in a less than stellar mood, but when you walked out you felt like the world was a bit brighter and your outlook a lot more positive? I have. Sometimes when I’m in a funk I know that a good workout will do me wonders. When it comes to cleansing myself emotionally yoga is one of the best workouts.
Another thing I notice is just how much better I breathe after I do yoga. My breath is slower and deeper and feels like it flows easier. My lungs seem to expand more and I can take in more air with less effort. I have battled asthma over the years. I had inhalers for a short while, but I quickly decided that the more I used them, the more I seemed to need them. Luckily I got off before my body adapted to them too much. I have learned to do breathing exercises, monitor my diet and mood and otherwise regulate my breathing without drugs. To be honest, I have a history of ignoring the prevailing medical wisdom and simply experimenting on myself. Most are not this cavalier with their health. Most modern people like to see scientific evidence lead to widespread medical community acceptance of alternative treatments before trying things on their own.
Lucky for most, scientists are now studying the effects of non-pharmacological approaches to treating conditions such as asthma. In a recent study published in the National Journal of Medical Research three scientists examined “the concept that yoga is helpful for the treatment of bronchial asthma.” Their findings are hopeful, but first a bit of background. The prevailing medical wisdom attempts to relieve asthmas bronchiolar obstruction by prescribing adrenaline, salbutamol, aminophylline and administering steroid therapy. The side effects can be many and patients tend to become more reliant on medicine over time, not less. The authors note, as I was lucky to find on my own, that “long term therapy with these drugs is successful but the patient comes to depend on these drugs.”
It is largely accepted that asthma is not simply a physical condition. Also from the authors, “Asthma is considered to have a multi-dimensional etiology which includes allergic, infective, climatic, endocrine, and emotional factors. In most patients with asthma there is a strong psychological aspect. Indeed many regard asthma as a psychoneurosis and the allergy manifestation as secondary to psychoneurosis. Psychological stress is known to trigger asthma via the vagus nerve.” The authors go as far as to say that asthma is increasingly being considered a psychosomatic condition.
Because of the complex, multi-faceted nature of a condition such as asthma it makes sense to treat it in ways that are more comprehensive than administering chemicals. The authors note, “Yoga helps to slow down an overactive mind while, at the same time toning up the body, removing toxins and relieving pains, backache and injuries.” Yoga is a whole system method for balancing mind/body/spirit. So, did the authors find measurable health benefits for those suffering from asthma?
Prior to this study all participants “were on medications for a prolonged period with no relief and their drug usage was increasing day by day.” During this study “the number of attacks of asthma and drug intake was decreased” in those practicing yoga. But why?
The authors not that “there was a significant decrease in respiratory rate in asthmatic patients after yoga therapy.” If you are familiar with another asthma treatment called The Buteyko Method than you are aware that one of the issues with asthmatics is actually over breathing. People with asthma tend to breath too much, not to little. This hyperventilation creates an imbalance in the CO2 in the body leaving the bodies cells oxygen starved. Much like Buteyko, during yoga the authors note that “the subject may change his ordinary rate of 15-18 to 1-2 resp/minute and reduce his ventilation volume a great deal.”
Participants were trained in yoga for “one hour for 15 days. The patients were then asked to do yoga practice, one hour daily at home and to keep a record of the practice done.” Three months later participants were assessed and compared to a control group. Statistically significant improvements were noted “in pulmonary functions; decrease in respiratory rate; decrease in pulse rate and body weight (not statistically significant); decrease in frequency of asthma attacks and decrease in frequency of use of inhalers. The disease status in controls deteriorated. “
Both yoga and the Buteyko Method give practicioners the ability to regulate their breathing consciously. The result in both cases is less reliance on medication. Anecdotally I have heard reports of Buteyko getting asthmatics off of medications altogether. As with many western treatments, inhalers and other asthma medications treat the symptoms and not the underlying condition. The authors state, “While modern medicine aims at immediate relief, yoga aims at removal of the basic cause. “
Most importantly, the side effects of yoga are little to none and you do not need to stop your medicine first (most would advise against this). It is a win-win situation. Yoga has helped me immensely, with everything from depression to my breathing to strength and flexibility. I’m having a hard time seeing a reason not to give it a shot.
I was depressed for many years. Life felt hollow. I often had the sense that nothing I could do today could possibly matter anyway. The one therapist I saw recommended after a series of visits that I take anti-depressants. I refused. I know that medication may help some people, but I was absolutely certain that I did not want to take a drug to feel normal. Intuitively I knew that there were more sustainable options. Even though there were years where I thought at least once daily about suicide I decided to keep my mental health in my own hands. I tried a lot of things. Perhaps you’ve heard of the studies saying that smiling in the mirror is more effective than Prozac? It feels ridiculous. Then it works. Today I love my life. I got here through a wealth of techniques, some detailed below, all of which are now a part of my approach to coaching others through shifting their consciousness.
Almost as uplifting as mirrored smiles is to see the tides in popular medicine turn away from over prescribing and towards exploring options with no negative side effects. An article recently published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience by its editor in chief takes a look at a number of recent studies and summarizes what we are now learning about how to treat depression without drugs.
This article looks primarily at studies focusing on the neurotransmitter serotonin, but mentions dopamine and tryptophan as well. All three of these are known to have correlation with mood, specifically with depression. Serotonin in particular is often the target of pharmacologic approaches to treating depression.
The author, Simon N Young, put alternate treatments into 4 categories:
1. Cultivate Positive Thoughts
The current medical paradigm focuses on the fact that increasing serotonin seems to lead to a sense of well-being and more positive thinking. Only recently have we had the technology to look at the impact of actively choosing to think positive thoughts. Low and behold it works! The psychological term for this method is “positive mood induction”. The techniques used in studies I have seen range from looking at cartoons to joy based writing exercises to cultivating positive thoughts, much like a mantra or incantation. However it is accomplished, it is becoming clear that when we choose to think positively our brain chemistry changes. As Young points out, “This raises the possibility that the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood may be 2-way, with serotonin influencing mood and mood influencing serotonin.” Not the least bit shocking to me, but scientists don’t rely on intuition, they require data. Finally, we have some data. The opposite of this is also being proven scientifically in other studies. Hostility can kill you. There are even strong correlations with hostility and coronary heart disease.
I often times have clients work with a mantra or incantation to train their mind to work in the way they choose. It is amazing just how plastic our patterns are. When you wake up every day and repeat a phrase or body movement it does not take long for the body/mind to begin expecting this. Pretty soon you wake up and the same thoughts and energy that you were forcefully cultivating are now happening on their own. What we often fail to recognize is that the thoughts in our head were not created by our genetics. They came from our environment. When we are mature we can choose to take an active role in thought creation rather than just receive what our situation offers.
2. Get More Sunlight
I am a HUGE believer in this one as well. We did not evolve indoors basking in the glow of a computer monitor. Perhaps one day computer monitors will emit something closer to sunlight, for now our best bet is to get outdoors more or buy therapeutic lighting. From the author, “Relatively few generations ago, most of the world population was involved in agriculture and was outdoors for much of the day.” The information age has many benefits, but it may not be so great for our happiness. Sunlight stimulates serotonin. In studies “there was also a positive correlation between serotonin synthesis and the hours of sunlight on the day the measurements were made, independent of season.”
So far two treatments for depression, both free, both without side effects (don’t tan until you burn people).
Again, the blindingly obvious bell may be going off in some of your heads. Still, I wonder how many psychiatrists insist on prescribing exercise to increase serotonin before they will consider pharmacologic options. The fact that scientific data is now being gathered to measure the effects that exercise has on serotonin levels is hopeful. This information is getting to the people who make decisions. “In the United Kingdom the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence…recommends treating mild clinical depression with various strategies, including exercise rather than antidepressants, because the risk–benefit ratio is poor for antidepressant use in patients with mild depression.” Young also points out that “as with exposure to bright light, there has been a large change in the level of vigorous physical exercise experienced since humans were hunter-gatherers or engaged primarily in agriculture.” Maybe there is something to this treadmill desk trend.
“The fourth factor,” that Young says could “play a role in raising brain serotonin is diet.” This one is also huge. If you want to look again at the ways that our lifestyles have changed in the past few hundred years go no further than the local supermarket. Almost everything other than the outer, fresh food aisles, are a relatively new invention. Some of this our bodies know what to do with. Much of it, in my experience, is depressing. Since I started out as a Holistic Health Counselor I always work with my clients on their dietary choices. This is primary. I’ve said it a thousand times before and I will repeat it here: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. It’s worth pointing out that this quote is from Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician generally regarded as the father of modern Western medicine.
When I battled depression and now when I work with clients I take an even more integral approach. I look at how the four things above interact with an individuals relationships, work, spirituality, sense of purpose and numerous other areas of their life. It is time we as a culture get over looking for the single cause for anything. Life is too rich to be pigeonholed. It is great to see science waking up to the power of holistic approaches to health and well-being. I chose to call my business Lifestyle Integrity because I believe that nothing other than a truly integrated approach can create sustainable change.
I used to be sooooo angry. I was angry at the state of the world. I was angry at you. I was angry at myself.
Now anger arises so rarely I miss it. And when it comes I cherish it as a gift. What changed? I went deeper into the anger and felt its roots.
Where does your anger come from? Do you embrace it? How do you act when this emotion arises? Do you become aware of anger early enough to choose clarity over rage? Can you smile while you are angry?
Anger comes from love. You can not get angry unless you care about something. It is impossible to feel anger without love. Understanding this on a deep level and developing the ability to witness this within yourself will change your relationship to anger completely. Your anger is there to serve you. It is there to serve others. It exists because you care.
Embracing anger is healthier than suppressing it. We have all heard the suggestion to breath 10 times when you get angry, to pause and let it pass. Perhaps you have been advised to close your eyes, to meditate, to visualize, to exercise, to do anything to minimize or work past the feeling of anger. I say that if you have a problem with anger it is not because you indulge it. The problem is that you do not feel it deeply enough to understand its roots. Anger is dangerous unless you feel it deeply. Truly bringing your awareness to your anger changes everything. Feeling anger deeply brings you to love.
How we act when anger arises is determined by the degree of awareness we have of our internal landscape. The less aware we are of how anger arises the later in its gestation we feel it. When we witness anger at its roots it feels like love. When we catch it early it does not feel overwhelming and we therefore have a choice in how it is expressed in our actions. When we choose to honor anger as a manifestation of love it can be channeled into a creative, even nurturing act. When a loved one is threatened anger compels us to protect them. This we know. But do you recognize that you are often protecting yourself when you get angry? Can you connect with the feeling of vulnerability that precedes the anger? Trace the anger and you will find yourself feeling threatened. Beneath that you will find what you love. Before all else you love yourself.
The later we become aware the more anger controls us and the more likely we are to act destructively when we get angry. Anger offers clarity, but first you must circulate the energy from your body to your mind. If you go into a blind rage when anger arises it is because you have not learned to connect your awareness with your body. Awareness is a skill that develops with use. In life threatening situations fight or flight responses serves to protect us. These adrenaline fueled reactions are rarely appropriate in the modern world. As you get more in touch with your anger you can choose to engage these impulses or not. In nonphysical confrontations, in conversation, in argument, the more evolved response is to quiet the body and engage higher cognition. You must circulate the immense energy that anger offers to your higher mind. Only then should you choose to bring that energy back into your body to act with purpose.
Embracing your anger allows you to honor it. Anger does serve a purpose. Anger is how we connect with that which we love and keep it safe. Yes, you feel anger if someone attacks you or your loved ones. You likely also feel anger when someone threatens your authority or expertise. Can you admit to yourself that you feel vulnerable whenever you are angry? Can you recognize this in others when they get angry with you? When someone is angry at you it is directly linked to their sense that something they love feels threatened. Can you honor the love in them or do you feel the need to strike back with aggression?
Anger is a tremendously powerful force. Anger connects you with your power. Emotions themselves are not necessarily good or bad. Power can be used to help or to hurt. It is rarely helpful to judge yourself for your emotions. Destructive actions triggered directly by emotions are what we must control. What happens if you simply feel your emotions deeply; including anger? Many fear that anger will lead them to do something terrible, to hurt someone, to lash out, to make a mistake. But what happens if you connect with the love that is behind the anger? How does this effect the tone of the experience? How does it effect the actions the emotions inspire? Might it allow you to wield this power differently?
Try smiling when you feel anger. Smile, breathe deep and exhale with ease. Your eyes must smile as well. This is not a maniacal grin. This is an easy smile. You should feel it in your heart. You must keep breathing. Holding your breath traps energy. Breathing deeply circulates energy. Smiling will interrupt a pattern of rage, a pattern of holding anger below your neck. Smiling can be a key, a Trim Tab to transforming anger into clarity and compassion.
Anger brings clarity by bringing us completely into focus in the moment. Many are drawn to anger because of the sense of power and clarity, righteousness and control that it brings to a situation. What happens if you choose not to shut the anger off, not to deny or suppress it as many would suggest, but to truly honor this anger? Breathe deep of the feeling and feel the energy coursing through your body. Let that energy move up into your mind. Let anger develop into clarity. Understand why you are upset. Connect with the vulnerability in you and others and honor the love that is at the root of this feeling. Use the clarity and energy that anger offers to take care of yourself and others. Let anger become a catalyst for creativity.
The tattoo on my arm is a reminder. Aggressive patterns run up and down my arm. In the center there is a dove. When I see anger in others it helps remind me that love lies beneath all things, even violence.
This post is from a series called Insights that are inspired by the work I do with my clients as a Life Coach.
If you are ready to live with more joy, more passion and more purpose then I would love to be of service. Contact me to find out how my Life Coaching Program can kickstart your journey.
In 2004 a team of scientists led by Rollin McCraty and funded by the HeartMath Institute set out to explore the role that the heart plays in intuition. Although few media channels covered the findings of the study (which was published in The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine), the results were simply shocking.
McCraty et al define intuition as “a process by which information normally outside the range of conscious awareness is perceived by the psychophysiological systems.” Sounds complicated, but we’ve all had intuitive hunches. It is a sense of what is to come that does not seem to be based any information in our awareness. Based on previous studies they thought that perhaps our body knows things before our mind does. To be blunt, your heart appears to know the future.
From the authors, “Most people at some time have experienced “intuitive” perceptions about distant objects or future events that later turned out to be correct. In many cases, these perceptions are really cognitive inferences, extrapolations based on forgotten memories of prior experience that seep into consciousness. However, there are instances when so-called “gut feelings” or “intuitive insights” are found to be valid and related to circumstances so unique that these intuitions do not seem explicable on the basis of prior experience. It is postulated that such intuitive perception involves connection to a field of information beyond normal conscious awareness.” In other words, sometimes we think we know the future when we are really just processing our memories. But there appear to be times that we are able to tap into information that is beyond our 5 senses. Can a rigorous scientific study be used to prove this?
Here’s how the experiment went down. Participants were isolated in a sound proof room. They were put in a chair with a computer monitor in front of them and a mouse at their fingertips. They were also hooked up to an array of sensors that measured skin conductance level (SCL), the brains electrical activity (EEG) and the hearts electrical activity (ECG). The intention was to see which parts of the body reacted to stimulus and when. The stimulus was images on the computer screen. The participant clicked a mouse and 6 seconds later a randomly selected image would appear on the screen. The images were of two types, calm and emotional. The calm photos were of landscapes, seascapes, fruit, trees, animals and common household objects. The emotional pictures portrayed a range of erotic, violent and otherwise emotionally stimulating subjects. Then the screen went blank for 10 seconds and the sequence was repeated.
Looking at the data showed the expected fluctuations in the skin, brain and heart to the emotional images. In previous similar studies both the skin and the brain react to stimulus. There is one exception. In studies done by Dean Radin on experienced meditators their skin conductance response is drastically reduced or non-existant. Trained meditators were used in this study as well. Clearly meditation is powerful in helping one to maintain a degree of stasis in charged situations, but that is not what is amazing about the results of this study. The amazing part is what they saw in the heartbeat data.
The heart responded to the emotional stimulus “starting around 4.5 seconds prior to the stimulus.” ¥es, the heart consistently knew that an emotional image was going to be shown 4.5 seconds before it came onto the screen. You would have to read to the study to understand the thoroughness of the controls in place, but it is quite clear that no one and no thing had information about what image the random number generator would produce before it came on the screen. Yet somehow the heart knew.
Participants were meditators and they were trained in the HeartRate coherence techniques developed by the HeartMath Institute. I own and have worked with this equipment. It is a bio-feedback system to train anyone to control the consistency of your heart rate. In most people the pauses in between heart beats are sporadic. In heightened and FLOW states they become consistent. The implications for everything from immune support to mood to now intuition are profound. This does not mean that the results of this study will only be seen in those trained in these states. Trained participants were chosen based on previous studies which showed that the results are more pronounced than in those untrained.
In closing, the authors added, “although our finding that the heart is involved in intuitive perception may be surprising from one perspective, it is worth noting that in virtually all human cultures, ancient and modern, the heart has long been regarded as a conduit to a source of information and wisdom beyond normal awareness. Thus, our data may be seen as providing scientific evidence for an intuitive capacity that humankind has known and used for many millennia. “
(This post is one in a series on the interface of Science and Consciousness that informs the work I do with my clients.)
(This post inspired by the Art of Living)
Meditation is the deepest pool of water. It goes on beyond ideas. To overstate its reach would be hard. But simple breathing exercises have had a bigger effect on my life thus far. While meditations dive into an infinite abyss in ever subtler and less physical ways, that first dip of my head under water that I felt by doing breathing exercises was a profoundly simple awakening to the control that I can choose to have over the experience I have of my body, my emotions and the thoughts in my mind.
Much of what happens in our bodies we are either unaware of or feel as if we are powerless to control. We each have an autonomic nervous system. This is the term we use to describe the control system for our bodies functions that generally happen beneath or outside of our conscious awareness and control. Heart rate, digestion, perspiration, salivation, arousal, our immune system and our breathing are controlled by processes that we are normally not aware of. By knowingly taking over a task that is normally controlled without our awareness such as breathing we are able to exert conscious control over physiological functions that often times seem to be controlling us. Because of the way that all of the body’s functions are intertwined, by changing just our breathing we are able to have an effect on everything from our heart rate to our happiness.
Anyone who has ever felt anxious, angry, excited or sad should be familiar with a number of things that are happening in their body while feeling these emotions. One of these is the depth and rate of our breathing. For a simple example look at your breathing while you are calm. It will be deep, filling up much of your lungs and possibly causing your chest, stomach and or shoulders to expand. This breath will be slow as well as deep, potentially lasting more than a few seconds. What you are likely not directly aware of is the way that all of the bodies other autonomic functions are working in concert. When we are resting and stress free this is a synchronization that happens in the body that keeps us healthy, happy and alert.
The opposite is true when we worry or get nervous, angry or over excited. Then our breathing tends to become shallow and quick as our heart rate goes up and certain muscles in our body constrict. At these times our resources are diverted away from our digestive as well as immune systems and into our muscles in the early stages of a fight or flight adrenal response to stress. Even our higher reasoning in the foremost part our brain seems to lose resources. Studies show that students taking tests perform at a much lower level than would be expected if they experience nervousness or stress for exactly this reason. While the most evolved parts of our brain are correlated with performing the most complex reasoning tasks we are capable of, this ability to meta-analyze complex concepts from afar is understandably a far slower process than the rapid instinctive reactions that potentially dangerous situations require. Fight or flight reactions shut down complex reasoning and amplify our tendency to be reactive. When we see a rapidly approaching lion we don’t stop and ponder the existential implications of life and death, we run. Fear facilitates the functioning of large muscle groups at the expense of the bodies other systems. This is great for physically threatening situations, not so great for the simple stresses of day to day life. Put another way, when we are anxious or nervous we are prone to getting sick, having digestive issues, muscle soreness and often make mistakes on things that we should have been thinking through more thoroughly.
When introduced to formal breathing techniques I began learning how to take control of my breathing in a measured and rhythmic way. While sitting in a calm, restful state I studied the symbiotic relationship between my thoughts, my mood, the activity and sensations in my body and the length and depth of my breathing. By controlling my breath I began to see quick and meaningful changes in both my physiology and the tone and volume of my conscious inner monologue. It became clear in a very short time just how many of the formerly automatic responses that my body would have to a given situation I could actually choose to control with purpose and direction. When we take the reins of our bodies functions by controlling breathing we get a chance to guide so many of the other processes that seem to be happening beyond our control. Most of this happens without any effort or awareness other than breath control. The associations built by slowing and deepening breath while in a resting state carry forward so that in stressful situations all one must do is change the rate and depth of breathing and within seconds a calm, resting state can be accessed based primarily on the way that our body associates states with breathing, but strengthened by the associations we build between feeling calm and breathing slowly each time that we practice this.
On a more subtle level, when I began working with my breathing I also began to have a deepening trust in the intuitive understandings that so often hang out a couple of notches on the volume knob below conscious chatter. In the process of learning to have more poise and be less reactive in everyday situations I found myself having a deepening trust in my own judgment and ability to act quickly in any situation without feeling the need to stop and ponder. With increased breathing exercises my everyday sense of readiness inches ever closer to what many refer to as a ‘flow’ state. This is the state of being that artists and athletes describe where it is almost as if times slows and the most appropriate actions are automatically taken without any conscious effort or hesitation. The calm that I am describing here should not be mistaken for detachment or lethargy. It is an incredibly alert and active stance that is simply free from worry, distraction and unhelpful mental chatter.
I don’t mean to say that I quiet my mind. Many talk about meditation, used here to mean simply focused attention, as stopping the mind from thinking. As I have written before, this is not exactly how I experience it. My mind goes quiet no more than hands go numb, ears fall deaf, or my tongue fails to taste when I stop focusing on it. It has helped me to think of the brain as a sensory organ that picks up on thought. You are not your brain. You are the one who is aware of it. In a moment of slowness between breathes I have the experience of turning my attention to my right ear and hearing the room. My eyes are closed, if I ask myself what I see I will look and realize that I see only black. If I then change my attention to my mind I become attuned to the many thoughts that churn through my waking head. But to rest in between….this is where the wise man prays.
What we learn is that from this resting place of experienced stillness comes the quickest, most precise and in tune movements we can make; but also the most relaxed and effortless. And in the waiting there is no wondering or stress. This is not a place of denial of the outside world. There is a finely tuned listening, an awareness of the environment, that only such centeredness can allow. When the normal tendency to fixate upon and amplify one specific sense, including that of thought, is relaxed we are free to witness the present moment with much greater clarity and joy. The actions that we take from this expanded place of consciousness include all of the functions of our previous awareness, but add an element of choice and a sense of empowerment that is otherwise so often missing.
And all from breathing exercises he says?
The line between focusing on breathing and deep meditation is a thin one. Many meditative traditions begin with purposeful breathing as a means to learn focus and control. This skill is then utilized for prayer, koan practice, mantra, chanting, or to focus on ‘nothing’. From breathing a practice can continue for a lifetime. But I would posit that this is daunting and largely unnecessary for the lay person. What I hope all children will be taught and I offer all adults should seek is to learn to take control of their breathing. The benefits are immense, the effort minimal and really, you are doing it already, so why not do it well?
This post is from a series called Insights that are inspired by the work I do with my clients as a Life Coach.
If you are ready to live with more joy, more passion and more purpose than I would love to be of service. Contact me to find out how my Life Coaching Program can kickstart your journey.
Anyone who has ever had trouble getting enough sleep knows just how much exhaustion effects every aspect of your life. Being under slept has been linked to problems with everything from our immune system to learning. But did you know that meditation can help to transform your sleep?
I love science, but it rarely impacts me more than my own direct experience. 12 years ago, long before reading any of this, I started meditating for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at nights. What happened? I started sleeping for an hour less every night. I would wake up energized after 7 hours of sleep instead of exhausted after 8. I assumed that the time spent meditating was so restful that I just needed less sleep. This is surely part of the truth. What the science below shows is that I am also likely getting a much higher quality of sleep when meditate regularly.
You probably know that sleep happens in stages. Generally we talk about 4 stages. In stage 1 you are between sleep and wakefulness and it is very easy to wake you up. In stage 2 you are falling deeper to sleep and it becomes harder to wake you. In stage 3 you experience what is called Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) or Deep Sleep. Most of us can not remember this stage, it is one of emptiness or darkness. Stage 4 is Rapid Eye Movement (REM). This is when we dream.
The majority of the night is spent in SWS and REM. These are believed to be the times when the body and mind rest, regenerate, assimilate the days events and prepare for the coming day. Science aside, we all know what it feels like to wake up well rested and, perhaps more often, to wake up feeling tired. The length of time spent asleep matters, but I for one notice that some nights I get 8 hours that felt restless and wake up feeling exhausted. Other times I get 8 hours that feel like I dropped into an abyss and I wake up feeling amazing. Clearly sleep is not just about quantity, but quality as well.
This paper reports that meditators (both TM and Vipassana) experience “enhanced states of SWS and REM sleep compared to that of non-meditating control group.” We know that the act of meditating itself is restful. I have reported that it can lower stress at work and that the reductions in depression, anxiety and stress last long beyond the actual meditations, but now we are seeing that it can also make sleep more restful.
It is widely accepted that sleep changes with age. The amount of time that we spend in SWS decreases over the years. But this can be counteracted with meditation! The authors note a study suggesting that “older meditators could retain the sleep pattern of younger non-meditating controls.” Again, meditators appear to get more out of the same amount of sleep.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls bodily functions that are usually beneath our conscious awareness. I wrote recently about how you can use breathing exercises to help regulate and control things such as heart rate, digestion and arousal while awake (to be posted 12/9). This paper includes evidence that meditation can have helpful, rest promoting effects on the ANS while we are asleep.
When you are in a “fight or flight” state your sympathetic nervous system is active. The opposite state is often called “rest and digest”. This is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. It is now believed that restorative sleep can be characterized by “autonomic flexibility.” In order to get the most restful sleep possible we want to have some sympathetic activity during REM sleep that is then balanced with high parasympathetic activity during deep sleep (SWS). This balance is a sign of “autonomic flexibility”. The authors point out that in non-meditators “aging alters autonomic flexibility leading to an overall increase in sympathetic activity along with reduced parasympathetic activity, thereby bringing about autonomic arousal and decrease in sleep quality.” But, “Vipassana meditation practices help to retain the flexibility of autonomic activity during different stages of sleep.”
Perhaps you have heard of people taking Melatonin to aid in sleep? Well, “Meditation practices are reported to enhance the melatonin levels” as well. The benefits of meditation on sleep reported in this paper go on to include effects on blood flow to various regions of the brain, metabolic function regulation and even stress reduction. As I said at the start, understanding the science is great, but what I really recommend is that you try this out for yourself and see what happens for you. Drop me a note. I’d love to hear about your experiences.
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