‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’Archilochus
The quote above, attributed to a Greek poet 2500 years ago, is generally used to inspire debate. Should you be a specialist, going deep in one area like the hedgehog? Or a generalist, traveling across many areas but staying on the surface, like the fox?
What if this is a false dichotomy?
What if the problem is the either/or thinking it demands? Might there be a both/and solution instead?
SPECIALIST = MEDIOCRE
Were you urged to pick a specialty? I grew up with the phrase jack of all trades, master of none. To focus was to succeed, to explore was to squander your chances of getting ahead. I was taught that failing to specialize meant falling behind, but were we just aiming for the middle? Generalists didn’t “fit” anywhere, specialists could follow a clear path. The sooner one could decide on their life path, and put all of their resources into it, the further ahead they would get. Life appeared to be a process of rushing to narrow your focus until you found your professional area of expertise. If you got specific enough, perhaps you could stand out as an “expert” in your field. If you changed course later in your career it meant starting over at the bottom and wasting your previous efforts (college degree, job experienec, etc).
After coaching people through career growth for over a decade I have come to a different conclusion. I see over specializing as the path towards mediocrity. If you want to play the game, to climb the ladder that society has built, then by all means limit yourself to one domain. But what if you want to innovate? To change the game? To stand back and decide where to place the ladder? Might you need a dose of what the generalist has to offer and some deep knowledge, perhaps in a few areas, not just one?
To innovate is to stand outside of the field and take a perspective on it. “Learn the rules so that you can brake them” sounds nice in print. Academics get excited by minor deviations from the norm, but if you never learn the rules you break them by default. When you learn in multiple domains you can’t help but see things from radically different angles than those who stick to just one. Orthogonal insights are perpendicular, they come from other fields. This is about vertical growth in multiple different lines of development.
POLYMATHS ARE NATURAL
We tend to talk about polymaths, those with wide ranging knowledge, as being special. They are rare, but is this a natural limitation or a conditioned one? Does it really require the rare genius to be skilled in multiple areas? Or is this just something we believe because of the way we push people towards specialization?
I believe that a healthy mind wants to go deep in multiple, disparate areas. Children are voracious learners. They are all artists and scientists and dancers with very specific quirks and curiosities and desires. We are naturally multi-disciplinary. Perhaps the reason why the Renaissance Woman seems so elusive is because we put specialists on a pedestal and discourage parallel pursuits and the balanced lives they demand.
The world is not binary. You contain multitudes. When you attempt to limit yourself you become narrow. Your ability to innovate becomes equally weak.
I study leaders for a living and the evidence is clear. Transformational leaders are chimeras; hybrids. They are multi-dimensional. They cross disciplines. Look deeper at those you admire and chances are, even those who appear to be hedgehogs have fox DNA inside and vice versa. By all means, go deep in one area, but if you can’t see your domain from outside the box then you are, by default, an inside the box thinker. You may sustain a system, but you won’t be able adapt it to a changing world. Your insights will be fragile at best, horribly distorted at worst. Depth and context both matter. Combine the two and you are on to something.
CROSS TRAIN to LEAD
If you want to be better at business, learn how to paint. Cross train. Develop parallel areas of interest. When you are early on in your career, as an employee, being single-minded can get you ahead. This same approach will create a ceiling. Being single-minded is fine when you are taking orders. It is a serious limitation when it is your job to give them.
In the version of corporate America that is dominant (but crumbling) employees are encouraged to develop the capacity to work more. Quantity matters. We are forced to color within the lines, to work long hours and to sacrifice our hobbies. Policies are enforced, expectations upheld. The vision is top down. If you succeed, you are promoted. But if you climb far enough up the ladder you start to get dizzy. You are suddenly expected to have not only new skills, but a radically different mindset. What got you here won’t get you there. Now you must see around corners and offer others your perspective.
Leaders are required to think strategically. This is no longer about generating massive output by keeping your eyes on the prize. This is about scanning the horizon and charting a course. At the highest levels a very small number of decisions determine the impact you have this quarter, year, and longer. Quality matters. Systems thinking matters. You must now create policies in a fluid, ever changing manner. Being able to step outside of the situation you are in and see it from many different angles is the thing that will keep you rising up above others who are siloed in their view and their function.
If you can’t see how different departments relate then you do not deserve to be in charge of them. If you can’t see how the entire company relates to the industry you are in then you will never be able to steer it amongst its peers. If you can’t see how the industry you are in relates to the entire marketplace, then you are going to miss trends that disrupt your industry. If you can’t see how the marketplace fits into society, then you are going to miss market disruptors. And if you can’t see how markets exists within global cultures, societies, and the living biosphere, you are going to fail to prepare yourself and your people for the biggest disruptions of our time.
It may have been enough to be single-minded in the past, but we live in a VUCA environment (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). The power of the specialist is limited. Today’s leaders need to be more dynamic than ever. The time of the Expert Generalist is here. We need more polymaths. Today’s leaders must think orthogonally.
People find it endearing that Einstein played the violin. I believe it to be a major source of his genius in physics. Spending years developing a felt sense of Mozart sonatas installs a perspective that is bound to be different from the way that other trained mathematicians and scientists view reality. Viewing physics through a musical lens is coming at it orthogonally, perpendicularly, from another vertical line of development.
Is Elon musk better or worse at rocket science because he also goes deep on batteries, artificial intelligence, manufacturing, and boring machines?
How much cross training do you do?
This is not the checklist that your high school guidance counselor encouraged you to complete. This is not about being well-rounded in the eyes of others. This is about reigniting the flames of curiosity that burned brightly when you were a child. People look down at the severely autistic child who will only talk about trains or penguins all day. Why is spending 100 hours per week focused on investment banking more impressive? I understand the money grab, but I have seen the way it hollows people out. Why is this the way that some of our strongest minds are being cultivated?
A human being is capable of developing multiple intelligences. To foster the growth of but one is to disconnect oneself from vast resources of energy and wisdom. Why do we expect healthy adults to have such narrow focuses?
Steve Jobs credited Apple’s beautiful typography with his study of calligraphy in college. Would he have been able to disrupt as many industries had he not spent so much time studying Zen and developing beginner’s mind?
How many intelligences are you developing?
High achievers reach out to me for coaching when they feel stuck. Before deciding whether or not to work together we interview one another. I have a carefully curated set of questions that I use to help me determine both where they are developmentally and whether or not I can help them. I’m assessing aspects of their physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being to help me understand where their growth is highly evolved and where it might be stunted. One incredibly telling response is to a question many find banal.
What are your hobbies?
Eating food and travel don’t count. For all but the most passionate, neither does exercise. Staring at a screen every night is a major red flag. I want to know what you are deeply curious about. I want to know what skills or passions you are developing outside of your working life. I want to know if you engage in things that seem, at first blush, to have no functional purpose when you are making money. I want to know if you have maintained a connection to creativity. I am attempting to assess how wide your mind is. How many different ways of being in the world are you playing with?
Are you capable of being completely consumed by any tasks that you are not paid for?
Are you pursuing mastery in anything outside of your day job?
If the answer is no, then not only are you squandering this one precious life by not having enough fun, you are also doing your professional life a disservice.
A good friend is the technical co-founder of one company about to become a unicorn and another set to disrupt a completely different industry. He spends his free time learning shibari, an ancient Japanese form of rope bondage, playing bass, gardening, reading, playing board games, and cooking, among other things, including long walks with me.
Parallel lines of development can interact synergistically through orthogonal, and often metaphorical, lines of thinking, acting, feeling, and knowing.
I coach an executive at Google who is getting his PHD in philosophy. I have no doubt that this “competing interest” makes him more effective in his role. This isn’t about doing more, it is about re-allocating resources. It is about working smart, not hard, about focusing on quality, not quantity. This is about setting boundaries, valuing self care, and showing up to work filled up by other pursuits.
How many parallel streams of curiosity are you indulging?
UNLEASH DORMANT POTENTIAL
I spent a couple of decades producing music and playing in bands. This developed nonverbal components of the mind which allow me to sense rhythm, melody, texture and emotional tones in an abstract, yet refined way. I apply this lens to clients, business plans, and everything else. I apply musical metaphors to everything from parenting to business to relationships. Music appears to be more primitive. It allows us to access thoughts we can’t explain. This taught me to express myself in ways I don’t have words for. Music teaches me how to peer into aspects of my mind that are otherwise unconscious simply because I do not have the verbal concepts to express them. I have no doubt that it makes me a better coach, friend, lover, and writer.
In high school I started studying mechanical drafting and architecture. Today I design furniture in my mind, buy rough boards from a lumber yard, craft my designs in my garage wood shop, and live amongst my creations. This develops the ability to hold an object in the minds eye and turn it around in 360°. This cultivates a structural understanding of how a joint will fit together and operational planning of the processes required to both add and remove material to achieve a desired shape. All of this informs the way that I view personal development, building businesses, family dynamics, and many other ways that life flows in and out of shapes while various pressures and processes are applied.
Why not play with photography to change the way that you view the world and interact with it?
Meditation teaches us to release the stranglehold any given perspective has on us at the moment, to disconnect identity from one element of a polarity so a higher order understanding can be found. Melt into a causal space of unknowing, and then watch new ideas become manifest in interesting and unexpected ways. The looser our attachment to any one way of seeing the world the more fluid our approach to difficult situations becomes.
Spend a year being fascinated with your dreams, keeping a journal of them, attempting to develop a capacity for lucid dreaming and then bring the insights your mind creates in a radically altered state to bear on the biggest problems you find in your life.
Learn a new language and seek out people who speak it so that you can learn about their life in their native tongue.
Pick a musical instrument and spend the next 50 years slowly adding songs to your repertoire. Write a few songs yourself.
Read books that take your mind in 20 different directions.
Do you remember the way it felt to dance when you were younger? What would happen to your life if you blocked out time every single day to move your body in whatever way feels appropriate for that specific moment? Might you reclaim some of your spontaneity? Some of your capacity to feel and express joy? Tap in to an inner wisdom that has been laying dormant for years waiting for you to come back?
Whatever you do, don’t do any of this because you should. Certainly don’t do it because I said so. Do what your inner child wanted to do, but was discouraged from doing when she spent long nights studying for the test. Do what you stopped doing when you wanted to fit in. Do what you imagine doing once you are retired. Do what sparks joy. Try something new just to see how it feels to you. If nothing calls you then try 10 things and take notes on how they feel to rekindle the inner flame of self discovery.
If you have no interests outside of work then the flames of your curiosity have dimmed so low that you cannot see them the way that you are currently living. It is time to slow down, to create space. It is time to take risks, to be playful.
To come clean, I am speaking to your desire to be an innovator and a better leader, but this is just a Trojan horse. I want you to be more fulfilled, more whole; to enjoy your life more. I want the leadership you provide to come from your heart and your gut, not just your head. If you do this solely because it may improve your work life, you will still be cut off from the spontaneous spark of curious excitement that is meant to drive every single moment of your days.
This is about shifting the source of fuel in your life. When we are driven by “shoulds” we get exhausted. We need caffeine and discipline and deadlines. When we are driven by “want”, we turn back on the natural enthusiasm that all children are born with. This is about waking up excited for the day ahead.
I know you may have a story about yourself that prevents you from investing in new things. You might think you just don’t have any interests and that you are too old to start. You might think you aren’t as smart as these other people, that the way you get by at work is by working harder than everyone else and that this leaves you no time for fun.
STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY
Here is the key point: The people described above do not have extracurricular interests because of how smart they are. Don’t fall into a fixed mindset. They are smart and innovative because they have these interests. You know that your muscles get stronger the more you use them. Top athletes work out in many different ways to keep their bodies guessing. Do you really believe that your mind is any different? Yes, we each have a unique genetic inheritance, but we all benefit from pushing boundaries.
Your curiosity muscles may have atrophied, but they are there. Start small. Expect it to feel overly self-indulgent. Do it anyways. Nourish your soul so that you have more gifts to give. Be a foxhog 🙂
Michael Grab balances stones. Perhaps you have seen a stack of stones in the woods, at the beach or on a mountain? These are nothing like that, or rather, they are just like that, but look like they are a CGI trick. They are not. Just to prove that they are not computer generated, but are actually just one man stacking some rocks, Grab has released a video demonstration of him balancing some rocks. In his words “the process boils down to contemplative stone arrangement; involving patience, adaptation, slow-breathing, steady hands, and a plethora of other practiced skills.” This is nature as spiritual practice as far as I am concerned, and both the process and the results are beautiful and inspiring.
You can learn more about Michael by checking out his website Gravity Glue
This man is AMAZING! Wednesdays are for AMAZING MEN Find More Amazing Men by clicking HERE
This month at the Integral Salon we will be sitting down in a circle and having an open conversation about meditation led by our own Logan Beaux. As an intensely serious meditator at times and a non-meditator at others, I, for one, am eager for the opportunity to speak frankly about the many benefits and challenges that having a regular meditation practice presents. All are welcome. Please join us. For more info read Logan’s invite below and visit the Meetup page here.
Why is a meditation practice so hard to stick to? Do you ever tell people you meditate even though you rarely if ever actually do it? For that matter, is meditation even “worth it?” What’s so great about it, anyway?
If you’re anything like me, you think about these questions a lot. As curious thinkers and, ideally, doers, who have stepped into integral waters, we encounter plenty of advanced spiritual teachers encouraging us to embrace a sustained spiritual practice.
And I’ll be honest. If I could snap my fingers and instantly be someone who had meditated 2 hours a day for 30 years, I’d probably do it. But it’s the getting from here to there that gives me pause. And I start to think to myself, you know, a ton of people live successful, satisfying, fulfilling, kind lives without meditating. Maybe other things–losing weight, learning to deal with my shadow reactions, making more money, etc.–would be of more use to me when it comes down to it.
That’s how I usually end up justifying it to myself, anyway, haha. And, without pointing any fingers, I know a lot of us well enough to know that many of you have similar stories you tell yourself that keep you from engaging in a sustained meditation practice. Admit it!
Why is that? Why do so many of us supposedly integral people not meditate? Strange, if you think about it, right? For a group of people who embrace a model that gives such high praise to meditation?
I know I’m not alone. Join me. Let’s talk about it. I’d love to hear the stories you tell yourself about why you don’t meditate. I’d also like you to join me in shining a light on this gap between where we are and where we want to be. And if you do consider yourself a serious meditator, we want to hear from you too! Share with us how and why you stick with it.
For more info on Integral New York’s Ken Wilber Meetup: http://www.meetup.com/kenwilber-58/
Do you consider yourself to be creative? Do you have a strong critical mind? What connection do you think there is between these two? Which has your education helped develop? Which does the world need you to have more of right now?
Reading the first chapter of the book Presence today I came across the words of Stanford business school professor Michael Ray. Mr. Ray teaches very popular courses on creativity. His courses start with three assumptions:
- Creativity is essential for health, happiness and success in all areas of life, including business.
- Creativity is within everyone
- Even though it is in everyone it is covered by the Voice of Judgement
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Ken Robinson. Sir. Robinson has written some wonderful books on creativity, the modern education system and finding your purpose or “element”. I wrote about “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” earlier in one of my posts on FLOW. In his previous book “Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative” Robinson raises the very pressing possibility that “we are educating people out of their creativity.”
In an article on the Huffington Post Robinson writes, “First, we’re all born with deep natural capacities for creativity and systems of mass education tend to suppress them. Second, it is increasingly urgent to cultivate these capacities — for personal, economic and cultural reasons — and to rethink the dominant approaches to education to make sure that we do.”
Years ago I came across a popular story, perhaps from Robinson, about what happens when you ask school kids who in the room is an artist. The story starts out in a kindergarten class. The question is asked and every hand goes up. Then the question is asked again in the 1st grade classroom, then 2nd grade and on up through senior year in high school. In elementary school the number of hands going up quickly drops towards half and then less. By high school there are only a few hands and by the end of high school a room is lucky to have one hand go up. Often all of the other students agree and say “yes, she is the artist.” What happened? Is school to blame? And does this narrowing of identity really have an impact on our health, happiness and success?
Mr. Ray tells the authors of Presence about “a study by Howard Gardner’s Project Zero at Harvard that involved developing intelligence tests for babies. The project also tested older subjects. The researchers found that up to age four, almost all the children were at the genius level, in terms of the multiple frames of intelligence that Gardner talks about – spatial, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, mathematical, intrapersonal and linguistic. But by age twenty, the percentage of children at genius level was down to 10 percent, and over twenty, the genius level proportion of the subjects sank to 2 percent.
Everyone asks, ‘Where did it go?’ It didn’t go anywhere; it’s covered over by the Voice of Judgement.”
The solution offered by Ray? Become aware of the Voice of Judgement, the voice that tells you “that’s a stupid idea” or “you can’t do that” and choose to disregard that voice. In a sense we must practice willful disobedience within our own minds. The key is simple awareness. Much of what he describes sounds just like meditation, albeit meditation with a specific intention. The first, hardest and most powerful step is simply deciding to notice this voice and label it. That’s it. As I am found of saying, consciousness is curative. When we decide to bring awareness to something with the intention of loving and healing ourselves the solutions do become apparent. We don’t have to be fearlessly creative to begin. We simply have to open up to the possibility that deep within us there lies an immense capability to be creative. We must consider the possibility that our education, training and cultural conditioning has been unbalanced and has favored critical reasoning (the Voice of Judgement) over creative imagining.
If you would like to re-invigorate your creative side and are having a hard time doing so perhaps it is time to look for, label and summarily dismiss your Voice of Judgement. The Voice of Judgement relies 100% on the past to determine what it thinks is possible or reasonable. Being creative, being an entrepreneur or an artist is an unreasonable act. It must be. It is about bringing into being something which does not already exist. All great creators are unreasonable in the eyes of those who did not share their vision. There is a playfulness, a childlike naivety, in all acts of creation. What would you do if you were suddenly free from your Voice of Judgement?
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.
Every once in a while I get excited when science documents something that intuition or experience tells me is real, but my judging mind and the society that cultivates it assumes is false. I have written about how Yoga Can Increase Gray Matter in the Brain and treat asthma. I have told you how meditation can help you sleep and reduce stress at work. I even wrote about some amazing science showing that Your Heart May Know the Future. We know that Breathing Exercises have an amazing number of positive effects on your physiology. The breath is the link between our conscious and unconscious processes, the way to establish a conscious link between our awareness and our autonomic nervous system. Well, when you combine meditation and breathing exercises with visualizations the results are astounding.
Researchers recently visited some Tibetan nuns to take EEG readings and temperature measurements while the nuns engaged a practice known as “g-tummo” meditation. What they found is that Tibetan nuns can change the core of their body temperatures at will. This not only helps them keep warm but also give their immune systems a boost. The nuns were able to dry up wet sheets wrapped around their bodies while sitting outside in -25 degrees Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit). They were able to increase their core body temperature up to 38.3 degree Celsius (about 101 Fahrenheit).
G-tummo meditation is a spiritual practice where they harness “inner energy”. The practice requires two techniques, “Vase breath”, a form of breathing that causes heat production and visualization of flames near the spine.
For 15 years I have been practicing breathing exercises prior to and/or during meditation. To me it is obvious that at times my internal temperature changes drastically. Occasionally I get cold. The vast majority of the time I get warm or hot. More than once I have broken out in a sweat. To say that meditation can change your core temperature is obvious to me. What I have not ever attempted is to raise my temperature intentionally. I did have some intense experiences a few years back that appear to have raised my internal temperature permanently. I used to hate the cold. It bothers me far less now. Others can often feel me radiating heat. This perplexed me. In my attempts to figure out what was happening to me I stumbled across literature on kundalini. There is an entire branch of yoga dedicated to the attempts to “uncoil the serpent at the base of the spine” and release the immense energy that resides there. Yogic asanas, breathing exercises and meditation are the key to raising this “fire at the base of your spine”. My Year on the Mountain was largely about exploring and cultivating this phenomenon. I have no doubt that it works, but I hadn’t put the effort into cultivating raising my core temperature at will. Given the impending energy shortages perhaps this is what we all need living up hear in the chilly NorthEast!
[Science Daily Image: Sirikit Dam Thailand Tevaprapas Makklay/Wikimedia Commons]
I’m a HUGE fan of this man for a whole lot of reasons.
I have and will continue to share many aspects of his work. All of that aside, what he as accomplished as a meditator is incredible. The title doesn’t lie. He does it at will.
This man is AMAZING!
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. When we are under stress our heart rate becomes more regular, like a metronome. When we are well rested, calm, and alert, especially when “In the Zone” or in a FLOW state the heart becomes irregular. This may sound bad, but think about it. We want a heart that is nimble, that is adjusting to demands in real time. Our heart rate should increase slightly with every inhale, activating the sympathetic nervous system and decrease slightly with every exhale, activating the parasympathetic.
Higher Heart Rate Variability (HRV) has correlations with everything from immune support to focus to mood and now to intuition as well. 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 the 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.
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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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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?