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Habit Reversal Training – How to Change Habits



Last week I began talking about how habits work and how, by increasing our awareness of the simple pattern that all habits seem to follow we can choose to replace bad habits or install good ones. The ideas that I am discussing are from a new book by Charles Duhigg called “The Power of Habits.” I Introduced the cycle of cue – routine – reward that Duhigg describes and gave you a brief overview of how to identify and bring more awareness to the cues that precede the behavior or habit you wish to change.

Once you have identified and tracked the cues that send you into autopilot you can now choose to follow that cue with a healthier, more supportive behavior. Consider the woman I mentioned who bites her nails. When she gets bored and feels a tingling in her fingertips her old behavior was to start rubbing her finger tips feeling for bumps or edges. When she found one she would chew on it and then, on autopilot, proceed to chew every nail on her hand until here nails were completely smooth (or completely removed). Once she had smoothed out the skin and nails on every finger she felt a sense of completeness, her reward (more about this later).

Step two of reprogramming her habit after identifying and tracking her cues was to install a new program. Whenever she became aware of the cue, of boredom leading to a tingling sensation in her fingertips, she was to do something which physically stimulated her fingertips such as rub them on her arm or wrap them on a hard surface. She practiced this routine with her therapist for 30 minutes and was then sent home with another index card. This time she made a check when she felt the cue and a hashmark when she successfully engaged the new physical stimulation. A week later, after biting her nails only 3 times instead of the usual 18 she rewarded herself with a manicure. This felt satisfying and rewarding in much the same way that completing a round of nail biting did.


Did you catch that? The key is not avoidance. When I say “don’t think of a purple elephant” what are you doing? You are thinking of a purple elephant. When I say “don’t bite your nails” what are you thinking about? Biting your nails. This can actually increase the compulsion and anxiety. If I help you to recognize the trigger that leads to biting your nails and then offer you an alternate behavior suddenly you have options. You have a new coping mechanism and instead of simply trying to shortcircuit the cycle you are completing it in an alternate way.

A similar routine replacement is described for other patterns. A man who snacks when he is bored at work recognizes that the rewards of going to the cafeteria include a break from his desk and some social engagement. He chooses the routine of walking over to a co-workers desk and talking to them instead. New habit installed, same rewards felt. One of the reasons that AA meetings work so well is likely that the habit of drinking is replaced with a habit of meetings (90 meetings in 90 days). The cues such as anxiety remain the same, but the coping mechanism or habit is replaced and the reward can be surprisingly similar. The social engagement, sharing of stories and camaraderie of a meeting are often shockingly similar to those at a bar, party or other social drinking event.

A cue must be identified, a new routine chosen and a reward given for following it. Sound too simple? Too good to be true? This simple process is called Habit Reversal Training. Duhigg quotes one of the developers of this process, Nathan Azrin, “It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

Let’s be clear. This tool is massively powerful. A simple awareness of it and dedication to following it has helped many and can be a positive tool for anyone. But it will not always be enough. Each habit is complex and unique. And there is another factor which plays a huge role in both whether or not we can succeed at changing a habit and in whether or not the habits that we do change last. This factor is belief.

Next week we take a look at the role that belief plays in changing habits. Belief is the key to understanding how to succeed in creating the habits we do want, changing the habits we do not want and why some new habits fail completely at critical moments.


This post is from a series called INSIGHTS that are inspired by the work I do with my clients as a Life & Career 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 Coaching Program can kickstart your journey.



What are Habits?

Devin Martin Nail Biting


Do you have a bad habit…or 12? Maybe you have or have had an addiction? Have you ever tried to pick up a new, more healthy habit? Do you know how to change bad habits? Or how to install good habits? That’s right, I said install, like installing a program in a computer. Conventional wisdom tells us that habits are mysterious and control over habits is an elusive and mysterious process. A new book by Charles Duhigg tells us otherwise.

“The Power of Habits”, published by Random House in 2012 takes the complex issue of habit change and boils it down to a simple formula with cute little graphics and one magical element. Much like computer language, Duhigg refers to habits as routines. A routine is a patterned behavior that we perform with such frequency that it has become mostly automatic. We routinely repeat habits with little or no effort or conscious awareness of a decision to do so.

If we have good habits we pat ourselves on the back. When we have bad habits we often chastise ourselves and feel as if we are failing somehow. Either way the behavior seems to happen without much effort. Some will say that they have created a good habit implying that their will-power is strong. Most are aware of some habit that they have tried once or a thousand times to alter with little or no sustained success. Most of time you hear someone speak of the effort that habit requires they are referring to failed attempts to create or curtail a habit. What if there really were a formula for changing habits that any of us could use to choose our behaviors?

Cue – Routine – Reward


This is the forumula that Duhigg offers to explain all of our habits, good and bad, from working out to smoking cigarettes to drinking coffee and alcohol to over eating or biting our nails. The exciting thing is that bringing awareness to this loop with a very simple plan does seem empower people to change their subconscious patterns. As I love to say, consciousness is curative. When we increase awareness enough we tap into enormous power with very little effort.

First we must understand cues. A cue is a trigger. It is the stimulus or experience that starts the cycle of a habit. Most of us focus on the habit itself and put all of our effort into preventing or creating a change in our behavior but completely overlook the very thing that put that pattern in motion. Duhigg describes a woman who can’t stop biting her nails even though it causes her much pain and embarrasment. When asked by a therapist when or why she starts biting she describes a sensation, a tingling in her finger tip. This sensation is the cue. Becoming aware of the cue is step one. Her task then was simply to carry an index card with her and make a check every time that she felt this sensation. Instantly her awareness of the cue increased. Later, when asked when she felt the tingling sensation she was able to recognize that this happened when she was bored. The habit was not fixed, but she was on the way to increasing her conscious awareness of the process simply by developing her awareness of it at an early stage she had never before attempted to objectify.

A cue can be identified and monitored for any habit. For smoking or snacking or drinking we can look for and find a feeling or experience that precedes the actual habit. An uncomfortable emotion such as boredom, anxiety, frustration or restlessness is common. The need to take a break, relax or simply switch gears while working is often cited as the reason to smoke a cigarette or take a snack break. Often times physical cues such as dread in the stomach, shortness of breath, tension in your shoulders or an elevated heart rate exist much like the tingling in her fingertips. For some a particular type or tone of thought might be a cue. Identifying and charting this cue will bring you one step closer to understanding and changing your habit. For some, this alone will radically alter your relationship to your habit or addiction. For most this the necessary groundwork to then take a look at the rest of the cycle.

What I have described are the types of cues that precede a negative habit that you wish to change (notice I am not saying get rid of, but change). This same concept will be important as we talk about installing new positive habits. First we must understand the rest of the cycle. Then we will explore the magical element.

Next week we talk about routine and reward.


This post is from a series called INSIGHTS that are inspired by the work I do with my clients as a Life & Career 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 Coaching Program can kickstart your journey.



Find Your Element

Costa Rica Surfing

Part 1 – What is FLOW? : Part 2- How to Create FLOW : FLOW part 3 of 3

I have explained what FLOW is and how much it is like transcendent spiritual experiences. I talked about two ways to cultivate FLOW. One by changing yourself, the other by changing your environment. Today we will look at a 3rd factor in cultivating flow.

Do you know your purpose? How about your calling? Do you know what you were born to do? Many of us dismissed this idea years ago when we had to pick a major and start thinking seriously about making a living. At some point it may have become too painful to keep thinking about you could or should be doing with your life when there are bills to pay and bosses to appease.

Ken Robinson’s new book is called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. In this book he says that when you step into the intersection of your natural aptitude and your personal passion you are in your element. Your element is deeply connected to your purpose, your calling, finding your “tribe” and experiences of FLOW.

We have established that FLOW is an experience of single pointed focus. FLOW happens when we merge with whatever task we are doing and have an experience of timelessness, of absolute clarity and precision of action. Our movements and thoughts arise as one, doubt vanishes and we move without hesitation. We know that you can meditate to cultivate the ability to focus on anything and therefore make yourself more likely to experience FLOW in any circumstance. We also know that you can structure your activities to be more like a game to make any activity more likely to lead to FLOW. Games have just the right balance of challenge and reward. They help us to measure our progress and see what the next steps should be. But we also know that at times we can slip into states of FLOW with no effort, no structure and no prior meditation experience. Most have experienced this at least once in their life, usually far more. These moments provide clues to finding your element.

It is easy to focus on things that we love. We get drawn in, lose ourselves and time flies. It is easy to see how doing things that we enjoy facilitates FLOW. But have you noticed the same experience happening with things that you are simply good at? I was good at math as a child. A teacher would give me a challenging problem and I just knew how to approach it. I could systematically use logic to work my way through any problem. I was good at it and I very naturally fell into a state of complete focus on what I was doing largely because the steps were accessible and getting results felt rewarding. It may sound like a stretch to you to hear me say that math was like a game to me, but it was. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it enough. Over the years, a love for numbers never emerged enough for me to want to spend my days calculating although I do still love spreadsheets 🙂

I spent years working in the security industry where, at first, I thought I was highly valued mostly because of my technical skills. I had a knack for understanding massive, multi-million dollar security systems. When things didn’t work I was expert at not only tracking down problems through hardware, software, networking, user error and many other levels of complexity, but also at getting that problem solved quickly. It was years before I realized my true gift and how this work was part of what I love. Solving problems in Fortune 500 companies and government agencies requires dealing with massive technological complexity but also with communicating with utter simplicity to complex people of all types. My real specialty, and why I was successful, had as much to do with relating to people as understanding security systems. A problem that might take someone else 3 months of emails and meetings to solve I could often solve by walking the halls, sitting on an unexpecting firewall programmers desk and getting favors done while getting to know about his life. Complete strangers often shared intimate details of their lives while bypassing protocol to get a job done quickly. My real skills merged my ability to communicate the essence of complex systems very simply while building relationships. It took me years, but eventually this led me to become a Life Coach.

What is more complex than an individuals life? We are each an elaborate system of interwoven elements with non-linear relationships that are never constant. My years of study of philosophy, health, nutrition, spirituality, meditation, relationships, careers and on and on all come to bear when helping others build a lifestyle that can support them through creating or managing major life transitions. What is the most crucial element when helping someone understand and transform their life? It is all about building relationships while making complex topics sound very simple and manageable. I love this work.

As you may have guessed, I quite regularly go into FLOW states while working with clients. Whether on the phone, in person, over skype or writing to them through emails between sessions my love for getting to know others on a very deep level merges with my skill (and love) for taking complexity and communicating it clearly to help create major change. I have found my element and it flows with greater ease and enjoyment than anything else I have ever done.

Much of what I now do is help others through this same process of discovery. What are your skills? What are your passions? What do you love? What are you good at? How can your skills and your interests come together to put you in your element?



Yoga May Increase Gray Matter in the Brain

Costa Rica Yoga

(This weeks Science post is coming to you a little bit late and from beautiful Costa Rica. Thanks Em for being my model for this shot)

Increasingly, scientists are conducting studies looking at how practices such as yoga and meditation effect the brain. For centuries in the east there has been a tradition of rigorous practice and acceptance of yogic techniques as being beneficial for people in innumerable ways.  For better and worse the west is not often convinced by anecdote or public consensus alone. We love to attempt to create a controlled environment and then adjust one variable and see what results. This is the basis for our scientific method. Culturally we may seem slow to adopt certain practices that others have trusted for centuries, but in the process we usually add a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind the results that others experience.

paper published recently in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine provides details of a study that looked at how the brains of practitioners of Hatha Yoga Meditation compare to those with no experience. They measured this difference by looking at the density of gray matter. Gray matter is a type of brain tissue. For our purposes you can think of regions of gray matter as processing centers. Our brain has many of these centers. The creators of this study hypothesized that practitioners of YMP would have a greater density of gray matter in a number of regions including the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. They also predicted significantly less self-reported cognitive failures in those who practice YMP.

Previous studies have shown significant correlations between a decrease in gray matter density in specific regions and smoking, aging and adolescent childhood abuse. The consensus seems to be that gray matter increase is beneficial and losing gray matter is detrimental. It is then a decent hypothesis that something which helps to build gray is beneficial for our health and well being.

Hatha yoga techniques, including physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation, involve the practice of mindfulness. This study refers to this as Yoga Meditation Practice (YMP). The 7 participants who were adept at YMP all reported having a consistent daily practice of 45 minutes or more for the past 5 years or longer. The control group consisted of 7 people who reported no current or past dedicated meditation or yoga practice.

From the authors, “prior studies have identified differences in gray matter volume (GMV) between long-term mindfulness practitioners and controls, no studies to date have reported on whether yoga meditation is associated with GMV differences. The present study investigated GMV differences between yoga meditation practitioners (YMP) and a matched control group (CG). The YMP group exhibited greater GM volume in frontal, limbic, temporal, occipital, and cerebellar regions.”

All participants were scanned using an MRI. As you are likely familiar, an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image) is a machine with giant magnets that is used to generate an image of internal organs, in this instance, the brain. It can be used to not only get a general image of internal organs, but also to determine the density of a particular area. This study is one of a growing number that look at the effects of mindfulness. Here “the state of mindfulness is characterized by a nonjudgmental and metacognitive monitoring of momentary thoughts, emotions, action urges, perceptions, and bodily sensations.” When meditators speak of equanimity, the state of composure, calm and level-headedness they are speaking of the effect of remaining mindful. We can learn to cultivate equanimity using mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is a focus practice involving “repeated placement of attention onto an object while alternately acknowledging and letting go of distracting thoughts and emotions.” To readers of this blog this should sound familiar. I have talked about how to focus before and the state of mind that this produces is also a good example of FLOW, of “being in the zone.

So what were the results of this study? “YMP exhibited volumetrically larger brain structures and fewer lapses in executive function in daily life. Structural differences were particularly evident in brain regions subserving higher-order control of cognitive and motor responses…. study findings suggest that the practice of hatha yoga is associated with enhanced cognitive function coupled with enlargement of brain structures held to instantiate executive control.” In plain english, yoga tones not only your body, but your brain as well.



How to Create FLOW

Cesar Burning Man Fire Play

Part 1 – What is FLOW? : FLOW part 2 of 3 : Part 3- Find Your Element

Last week I introduced Mihaly’s research showing that happiness correlates with states of FLOW and then answered the question “What is FLOW?” I also mentioned that cultivating or creating FLOW can be approached in two ways. Today I will talk about those two ways to create FLOW by further exploring the connection between spiritual practice and becoming an expert. Both are about cultivating optimal experience.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to it’s limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Religions throughout the ages have included techniques and practices that help one to become absorbed in something bigger than ourselves. While the paths are many, one thing that all of the contemplative paths have in common is that they develop ones ability to focus single pointedly. I wrote about a couple of ways to do this before. The religious traditions often relied on prayer, meditation, chanting, ecstatic dance, breathing exercises and other techniques. What do these all have in common? Other than developing our ability to Focus, they result in FLOW states. What Mihaly discovered, is that these states can also be cultivated at work, at play and in any other activity. The key is to structure the activity properly.

There are essentially two ways to go about creating FLOW. I could call them spiritual and mechanical. I will talk about Focus and Gamifying. One changes you, the other structures your environment and the way you interact with it. Cultivating focus will transform any and all activities bringing every moment closer to being a flow state. Meditation is the best method I know of for this. I can honestly say that meditation has changed my experience of every aspect of my life for the better. I realize how bold and absolute a statement that is and still I stand behind it. The other way to create flow states is to structure an activity so that it is more engaging. The key is actually to take any project and make it seem more like a game.

Think about what a game includes. Mihaly cites 8 key points to making activities more likely to FLOW. Tell me they don’t remind you of a game:

  • Allows you to work toward a clear goal with a well-defined process
  • Provides ongoing, direct feedback
  • Is highly-challenging, but doable
  • Allows for control over the means to accomplish the goal
  • Is meaningful or intrinsically rewarding, by the very nature of doing it
  • Cultivates deep-concentration
  • Creates a lack of a sense of self-consciousness
  • Leads to an altered sense of time

I start every coaching relationship by setting goals. The ironic part is that, while my clients do tend to achieve these goals, the reason that their life improves while working with me is not just because they reach their goals. Having a clear destination actually helps make the journey more enjoyable. Setting goals helps us to pay attention to what is happening. When we pay close attention to what is happening we are more likely to become immersed in activity. When we are immersed in this we way we are more likely to enjoy immediate experience. Quite often our goals change along the way. I never let uncertainty about outcomes stop me or my clients from setting goals. Having a goal is the very thing that allows you to change plans. It is the sense of purpose, direction and engagement that a goal provides that helps to cultivate states of flow.

They key is to become light and playful with your goals like a child chasing their best friend in a game of tag. Where I often see spiritual seekers getting lost is when their desire to be present and accepting of all that arises leads them to believe that they should completely let go of any attachment to outcomes. Stillness is not enough. Alone it is boring. The key, as FLOW theory states it, is not to go limp, but to become playful. Human beings happen to enjoy being creative. Having a goal that is challenging draws forth our creative potentials and gives us a focus that is outside of ourself. One way to keep challenge from becoming overwhelming is to break a goal down into smaller, more approachable steps.

When you break your work up into small tasks it helps you in a couple of ways. One is that the next step is clear and approachable. The other is that you get rewarded for completing a step. and This provides positive reinforcement, motivation and builds momentum.

What do gamifying tasks and spiritual practice have in common? They both cultivate two things:

Single pointed focus – the ability to become completely absorbed in one and only one activity
The ability to be absolutely present in the moment – Not only are you focused on one task, you are actually completely focused on one activity at a time in that task. You are not concerned with what the next 10 steps will be, but only on the one step you are working on right now.

The spiritual path works on you. By developing the interior skills to have a single point of focus you can be completely present in the moment. The gamification approach is a method for structuring your exterior environment so that your interactions with it foster single pointed focus while being completely present in the moment.

Of course, no matter how much you prepare, Gumption Traps are a major FLOW disruption.

Next Sunday I will talk about how we each have one task which is the most likely to lead us to FLOW states. Are you ready to Find Your Element?

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.



What is FLOW?


FLOW part 1 of 3 : : Part 2- How to Create FLOW : Part 3- Find Your Element

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Imagine yourself having the experience described above. Are you happy? Has this happened in your life? It has probably not happened enough. What if you could learn to cultivate this experience so it begins to happen more and more often? What if happiness is a skill you have not been taught? Would you want to learn now? According to Mihaly, “it is a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the content of our consciousness.”

Can you control the content of your consciousness? Most of us can’t. Lucky for us people have been studying this concept for millennia; and they have been taking notes. What? You are not inclined to read sacred texts on philosophy and spirituality? Fine fine fine. Today, we have the option of studying more modern, scientific approaches as well. One such source is the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Mihaly has spent the past 50 years studying happiness and building a, now widely acclaimed, theory about how it correlates with states of FLOW. His 1990 book Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience details the years of research that went into his theory. It turns out that FLOW is not at all unlike the states mystics have been reporting for thousands of years. What is different is the approach. But first, what is FLOW?

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” – wikipedia

You have experienced Flow. Some call it being ‘in the zone’ or ‘in a groove”. Whatever we call it, something magical happens when we become fully immersed in an activity. What you may not have realized is that this experience is one that you can cultivate.

“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. ” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (FLOW p.2 1990)

What Mihaly realized is that these states are accessible to anyone deeply immersed in a task. Perhaps the easiest place to see this is when we look at those who have mastered their craft. Musicians, athletes, scientists, chefs, entrepreneurs, the undertaking does not matter. When we immerse ourselves in an activity entirely something profound happens. In one sense, when we go deeply enough into a task we actually cease to exist in our own awareness. We disappear and only the activity remains. For those of you who are familiar with mysticism this might sound familiar. When experts experience FLOW it is not at all unlike mystical union where the goal is to overcoming the duality of self and object.

Speaking of a composer lost in the experience of creating new music Mihaly recounts, “that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist. And that sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration. But actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t hear more than two people. You can’t understand more than two people talking to you. Well, when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended. And he says that his hand seems to be moving by itself.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Ted Talk 2008)

The key to achieving FLOW lies in immersing yourself entirely in a task. You become absorbed in something other than, perhaps bigger than yourself. Starting to sound a bit more like spiritual practice? The American meditation teacher Shinzen Young describes Mihaly’s flow as “the pleasure derived from being in a state of samadhi as you do ordinary things.” In a sense, FLOW happens when you take an every day task and transform it into something overwhelming and uplifting. While it is true that FLOW can happen during any task, there are specific tasks and specific ways to approach activities that make it far more likely to happen. There are two approaches to cultivating FLOW, one is more spiritual, the other is more of a game.

Now that you have an idea what FLOW is you may be wondering How to create FLOW (read on)


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.



Gumption Traps

Devin Martin Spilled Milk

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



Anger is Love

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.



Breathing Exercises

(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?

I do.

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.



How to Focus

Do you know how to focus? Be honest. Concentration is a skill most of us are never taught. My ability to focus on one thing has improved drastically in the past year. Allow me to explain.

The average adult can focus on an object in an unbroken fashion for far less than one minute. Some estimates put the average time at more like 8 seconds. That’s when we’re trying. 8 seconds of laser like focus and then we seek distraction; a new webpage, a different thought, shifting in our seat, looking out the window. Distractions are endless. But what does it feel like to stay focused?

Have you ever been in the ‘flow‘ or the ‘zone’? Have you ever lost yourself in sex? Sports? Reading? Work? These flow states are the product of extreme focus for an extended period of time. Take a look at a great athlete, scientist, artist, inventor or entrepreneur and you are likely to see extended periods of deep, unbroken concentration coupled with fearless action. We wield great power when we can focus. A wealth of research is starting to point to the idea that your ability to focus single pointedly on a task directly correlates with the ability to achieve one’s goals. (I’ll be writing more on this in coming weeks)

We are all familiar with the increasing number of diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder in the United States. There are a lot of uncertainties about the reasons for this. Some cite genetics, others the way schools are set up for a particular learning style or parenting, technology, the pharmaceutical industry, media, sedentary lifestyles, chemical imbalances, diet. The list goes on. Clearly all of these factors and many more play a role. When I talk with clients about “lifestyle integrity” we work with all of them.

What does not receive enough voice is that concentration is a skill. You can learn how to focus. Like any skill, concentration increases with practice. Yes, some seem to have an innate proclivity for extended concentration while others seem to struggle with single pointed attention. The same could be said for shooting free throws. Some people take to basketball instantly. Others are a bit clumsy. Certainly not everyone can play in the NBA. But ask any coach and I am sure they will say that everyone who puts in the work can improve from their baseline by a great deal. Practice is the key. Lucky for us, there are practice techniques that have been honed through thousands of years of testing for developing concentration. This is one of the reasons many business leaders will report having a regular meditation practice.

Spiritual practice is about a lot more than simply concentration, but there are few formal paths that do not develop this skill early on. Concentration is the foundation of prayer, mantra, koan, chanting, ecstatic dance, breathing exercises and a wide range of more subtle meditative exercises. Christianity asks us to pray with absolute focus and intention. Zen Buddhism will have you focus on a koan or ‘nothing’ at all to realize enlightenment, but first you will spend a great deal of time doing little more than counting your breath; 1-10 and repeat. When I first started attempting 1 minute of perfect focus was difficult and frustrating. Now I will do this for up to an hour at a time and enjoy it immensely. This practice is fruitful through years of effort.

Transcendental Meditation (TM) works with a mantra. A mantra, in this instance, is a sound or phrase that is repeated silently in the mind. In TM one brings awareness to the mantra and then lets the mantra go. Emptiness or transcendence is cultivated. When the mind wanders to anything at all it is brought back to the mantra with complete focus and then relaxed once again. While not as aggressive as a fixed focus, TM also cultivates an awareness of where one’s attention is as well as the ability to choose where it will rest. An increase in one’s ability to concentrate is often reported. Well over 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals cite a range of benefits in the lives of those who practice TM.

Knowing your purpose and finding your vocation will help you to be successful simply because it is easier to focus on that which you feel aligned with. None the less, enthusiasm waxes and wanes for all tasks. When we develop the skill of concentration we increase our likelihood of being productive and successful in every tasks we choose. What have you done to learn how to focus?

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.