The real-life rewards of decoding your body.
I have spent my life and career obsessed with finding “deployable knowledge”. Insights that lead to practices that have a materially positive impact on our lives.
I’ve recently found myself dealing with many people who are deeply uncomfortable in their current circumstances; either lost or stuck. Living out of integrity is like driving with the handbrake on; you can do it for a while, but it will burn you out eventually. It often requires ignoring or numbing sensations and emotions that contain critical warnings. What has come as a particular surprise to me, is how much science is increasingly finding that emotional sensitivity is essential to life and success.
I recently attended a training retreat in California on the topic of Existential-Humanistic (EH) Therapy. I read an article in the Atlantic about the discipline and realised it was a branch of therapy that expertly cultivates awareness, presence and connection. These are the mainstays of effective coaching and the areas of my life I wanted to improve the most. The ultimate payoff from a coaching relationship is that it raises your awareness level in every area of your life.
As a part of my preparation for the retreat I read Irvin Yalom’s book Existential Psychotherapy. It’s a weighty tome, in both senses of the word, given that it’s 544 pages on the ‘four ultimate concerns: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.’
But despite the heavy topics, Yalom’s conclusion is one of the necessity of connection. The final lines of the book read: ‘Yet when it comes to meaninglessness, the effective therapist must help patients to look away from the question: to embrace the solution of engagement rather than to plunge in and through the problem of meaninglessness. The question of meaning in life is, as the Buddha taught, not edifying. One must immerse oneself in the river of life and let the question drift away.’
Emotional withdrawal and distance will only work for so long, and the universe has a funny way of pushing you out of your foxholes in midlife. EH therapist James Bugental used the metaphor of a protective space suit that you wear to live in the world; it keeps you safe but leaves you incredibly limited. Re-connection with the flow of life is the recovery prescription. This requires getting out of the limited loops of the rational mind and connecting to both to the sensations in the body and the wider world around you.
This conceptualization has support from a scientific understanding of complex systems. As John Arden writes in Mind, Body, Gene: ‘Complex adaptive systems are by nature open systems. We need interaction with the environment to grow and change. Closed systems, by contrast, are isolated, with no exchange of information with the environment. They are forced to feed on themselves. From a psychological perspective depression, with its associated behaviors of withdrawal, isolation, and lack of effort, may be thought of as promoting a closed system.’
‘Feeding on yourself’ is an apt description of how the endless rumination of depression can feel. Connection makes you an open system again.
So how do you reconnect on a practical level? As I wrote above, insight must lead to practice; it’s rarely enough to simply know something, you need to do it as well. The approach of EH therapy is to anchor you in the present rather than solely excavate the past. The key question is ‘how am I currently living and how am I willing to live?’. In order to answer the first question you need to know how you are living in the present moment. That may sound obvious, but so many of us are walking around disconnected from our bodies and emotions. It’s enormously useful just to pause and reflect on our emotional state; for example “I’m feeling anxiety and sadness now”. Pulling emotions into awareness also helps shorten the duration of negative feelings. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor coined the ‘90 second rule’ to describe the observation that emotions typically last only a short while when given your full awareness. ‘When a person has a reaction to something in their environment there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.’
One can then ask what need is not being met in the moment to generate that emotional response. There is wisdom in interrogating our emotions. Buddhists describe the practice of inviting the demon god Mara “in for tea”; welcoming difficult emotions and seeing what they have to teach you. In a recent Farnham Street podcast, Jim Dethmer of the Conscious Leadership Group argues that ‘The wisdom of anger is that something isn’t of service, and it’s a boundary energy, you need to be able to say stop. The wisdom of sadness is that there’s a loss here and we’re not fully facing and feeling the loss. The wisdom of fear is that something’s not being paid attention to.’
Once one is more connected with emotions, we can more coherently determine what we want and need from life; how we are willing to live. As Yalom puts it: ‘One’s capacity to wish is automatically facilitated if one is helped to feel. Wishing requires feeling. If one’s wishes are based on something other than feelings- for example, on rational deliberation or moral imperatives- then they are no longer wishes but “shoulds” or “oughts,” and one is blocked from communicating with one’s real self.’ Connection to emotion helps us better determine the direction of our lives.
In neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error he tells the story of Elliott, a man who lost the part of the brain that connects the frontal lobes with emotions. ‘Despite remaining in the 97th percentile for IQ, he lacked all motivation and became paralyzed by every decision in life. He lost the coupling of bodily arousal with decisions; and even though he maintained normal intellect he suffered a recurrent failure to learn from negative feedback. He lost his wife, his job and his savings from bad decisions.’ Elliott’s example does make you wonder about causality: do we make decisions emotionally then rationalise after the fact?
A study of Hedge Fund traders found that their decision-making skills were associated with their ability to sense their internal bodily signals, a phenomenon called ‘interoception’. ‘The scientists visited a trading floor and asked eighteen hedge-fund traders to tune into their bodily system by silently counting their heartbeat, while the researchers tracked their actual heartbeat. The closer the trader came to matching their perceived and actual heartbeat, the higher their interoceptive accuracy.’ Moreover, interoceptive accuracy scores predicted trading success. Legendary trader George Soros claimed his back pain would give him accurate signals on the market.
A fascinating recent essay in Aeon argues that the interoceptive revolution is just beginning; that the body is the foundation of the mind, rather than the other way around. It certainly seems that we are increasingly understanding that emotional sensations are critical to decision-making and maybe even to our overall sense of self.
What is the practical prescription? For connecting to self, mindfulness, body scan meditations like iRest and traditional Yoga are good practices to build mind-body awareness.
The role of the effective coach in this situation reminds me of the Magic Mirror from Snow White. You reflect back the current state of your client, but with a commitment to revealing the full, possibly uncomfortable, truth in the process. In his new book Reboot, coach Jerry Colonna poses the provocative question “How are you complicit in creating the conditions of your lives that you say you don’t want?” This allows the client to understand their role in controlling the circumstances of their life, but also makes them aware of what exactly those conditions look like in the moment. A coach helps raise the awareness of the client so that they can learn to access their own emotional wisdom. The reward is a richer life. The poet John O’Donohue wrote ‘Each of us is an artist of our days. The greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become.’
The key lies, in a very practical way, in an “open heart”. This is a turn of phrase, but also a felt-sense. It’s that warmth in the center of your chest that feels like an infinite loving resource. Neuroscientists Hugo Critchley and Sarah Garfinkel have shown that emotions are modulated in synchrony with cardiac rhythms. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul, one needs to try to maintain an open heart under all circumstances. ‘The key to staying happy is really very simple. Begin by understanding your inner energies. If you look inside, you will see that when you’re happy, your heart feels open and the energy rushes up inside of you. When you aren’t happy, your heart feels closed and no energy comes up inside. So to stay happy, just don’t close your heart. No matter what happens, even if your wife leaves you or your husband dies, you don’t close.’
‘Understanding your inner energies’ sounds a lot like interoception to me. It’s a simple prescription, but it’s not an easy one. In fact it’s harder than anything I’ve ever done. I’m still failing catastrophically every day, with my son, with my wife and with my friends. But it’s a practice, not an insight; it’s a muscle you build. Loving kindness, or “Metta” meditations do a great practical job at strengthening this mindset. Basic instructions are here, and most of the meditation apps have a section for loving kindness meditation.
It’s primarily fear that keeps us closed-off. The fear of pain and suffering. The best prescription therefore is slow exposure to your fears, overcoming your personal dragons. I’m a big believer in watching popular modern myths for clues into the collective psyche. Game of Thrones has made dragons cool again, but I’d like to go back a little further, to James Cameron’s Avatar. Back in 2009, Avatar smashed all box-office records and proved a truly global hit. True, a lot of that must be attributed to the genre-defining special effects. However, I’d argue that if you’ve developed the best special effects of the modern era, you’d want to hang them on a plot with the maximum mass appeal.
Avatar is a classic hero’s journey narrative, arguably THE central human story that reflects our spiritual development. I’m not going to go through the whole movie, but I wanted to flag up one important metaphor that links back to the topic under discussion.
By connecting to your dragons , your fears, you gain power.
If you haven’t seen the movie, or it’s been a while, the hero Jake Sulley connects his own tail to fierce flying beasts called Ikran. They then bond for life and gain the ability to fly as a pair. By the final scenes of the movie (spoiler alert!) Jake has confronted and successfully bonded with the biggest, baddest dragon in the sky, the Toruk. He subsequently uses the powers of the uber-dragon to help defeat the forces of corporate mankind.
Connection to fear brings power. Allow yourself to feel your fear, interrogate it for that full 90 seconds, and the hold over us dissipates as we learn more about our triggers. The wisdom in the emotion.
The problem is our rational minds have evolved to keep us at a level of vigilance and fear that’s inappropriate for our relatively recent levels of safety and abundance. We no longer need to be constantly scanning the savanna for predators. Part of the benefit of opening your heart and connecting to emotion is that of reducing the burden on your overworked rational mind. As Singer writes: ‘You have given your mind an impossible task by asking it to manipulate the world in order to fix your personal inner problems. If you want to achieve a healthy state of being, stop asking your mind to do this… In fact, your mind is innocent. The mind is simply a computer, a tool. It can be used to ponder great thoughts, solve scientific problems, and serve humanity. But you, in your lost state, told it to spend its time conjuring up outer solutions for your very personal inner problems. You are the one who is trying to use the analytical mind to protect yourself from the natural unfolding of life.’
Anchoring your awareness in your heart center has the effect of bringing you back into the present, where the anxieties of perpetually forecasting the future feel less suffocating. By cultivating interoception perhaps we can increase the quality of the incoming data we have on the world around us, rather than trying to make our limited rational mind responsible for controlling everything.
I am reminded of a passage from Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections when he meets a Native American chief in New Mexico:
‘See.’ Ochwiay Biano said, ‘how cruel the whites looks. Their lips are thin and their noses are sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them. We think that they are mad.’
I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad.
‘They say that they think with their heads,’ he replied.
‘Why, of course, what do you think with?’ I asked him in surprise.
‘We think here,’ he said, indicating his heart.’
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