How I learned to think with my body and work with nature

Some of the most successful people I know are the least satisfied and least at ease in the world.

They might have a nice house or two, great holidays and the freedom to do what they want, when they want.

Some of them have packed in jobs that didn’t serve them to live their purpose and make a difference in the world.

These are people with high IQs, admired by proud parents and peers.

And yet many of them have told me that they regularly (if not constantly) feel trapped and conflicted.

They feel unable to make simple changes that they know will improve their health, happiness and relationships with the people that matter.

They feel stuck with questions and problems that they’re sure they should have answers to, living with a persistent sense of frustration and anxiety.

And I’m sure this feels familiar to many people who don’t feel so ‘successful’.

Over-relying on rational thought

Why is this? Why do smart people who play by all the rules and have all the rewards still ultimately lead less-than-happy lives?

One of the keys to understanding this is in how we’ve learned to think.

Our society is built on the belief that rational thought is the best strategy for everything.

We swapped a rigid and punitive version of religion that most spiritual people wouldn’t recognise, for an equally rigid and narrow version of science — one that many scientists wouldn’t recognise either.

We tricked ourselves into seeing the world in a self-contained series of cause-and-effect relationships.

We convinced ourselves that there is an answer to everything, if only we thought about it hard enough.

We did this because that’s what our brains love and are good at.

They love immediate answers and they’re great at solving logic puzzles.

The trouble is, that’s not how humans or the world they live in, works.

Navigating the world only using rational thought is like trying to drive a car with only a steering wheel.

If you’re going somewhere it’s certainly not just because you’re turning that wheel, and ignoring the loud knocking noise coming from down below is going to end badly.

But our view of how humans work is a bit like this. As disconnected and laughable as our view of how the world works.

We believe that our brains do all the thinking, and the rest of our body takes care of everything else. We’ve come to rely on our head far too much to find our way through life.

This is a fairly recent thinking.

For thousands of years, ancient societies in China, Greece and Mesopotamia believed that the rest of our body contained wisdom and power that had nothing to do with our brains.

And the evidence for this in Western culture can still be found in remnants, in our language.

We still talk about ‘trusting your gut’ or ‘speaking from the heart’, and we all know what this means.

It means ignoring what the head says, ignoring the supposedly logical answers or given wisdom and going with that feeling in our bodies.

But most of us were never taught how to do this, and we fight so hard to square everything off in our heads.

Finding the brain in our heads and our hearts

What we’ve known for thousands of years, shared down through bodywork practices and spiritual traditions, is finally being (re-)recognised by science.

Recent work in neurocardiology has shown that:

The heart is a sensory organ and an information encoding and processing center, with an extensive intrinsic nervous system that’s sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a heart brain.

Its circuitry enables it to learn, remember, and make functional decisions independent of the cranial brain. Findings have demonstrated that the heart’s intrinsic nervous system is a complex, self-organized system; its neuroplasticity, or ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections over both the short and long term, has been well demonstrated.

And it turns out our gut has a similarly complex role, acting as another brain in our body:

Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal, and contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.

A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut... Butterflies in the stomach — signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response — is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one’s moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above.

While the heart and gut are not be the seat of concious thought or decision making, they are constantly exchanging complex information with the brain that affects how we think, feel and behave.

Where we come unstuck is either not being able to tune into or trust this information, and trying to rationalise it away, instead.

Learning to listen to my whole self

I was one of those people who became terribly good at achieving results, passing tests and gaining the approval of others, while still being totally conflicted and on-edge, most of the time.

Five years ago I’d turned a big corner, having discovered a new way of thinking about what was mine to do in the world and having begun practicing meditation, learning to hold my thoughts a little more lightly.

And yet I still suffered from some of the same anxiety-related problems I’d been experiencing for nearly 10 years. Over-thinking everything, worrying about the future and what others thought, sometimes quite extreme feelings of tension in my body.

But later that year, two things happened that changed everything.

One was finding a bodywork practice and the other was meeting Charles Davies.

For years I’d done various martial arts, and some of those included a meditative practice, but very much as a add-on.

By chance I stumbled across a group practicing in Brighton, taught by a man who’d spent years in China training with some of the last of the ‘old master hands.’

They taught what’s know as ‘internal’ martial arts. A name for various systems and methods that put the emphasis on working with your internal capacities and state, not simply your outer physiology.

There are very few people who teach this work with integrity so I jumped at the chance of joining the school.

What I found was that a huge emphasis was put on the arts of Qi Gong and Nei Gong, as foundations for the martial work.

In fact, at first I did very little of anything that looked like the martial work I’d done before.

Instead, I found myself doing very simple and repetitive movements — (to the uninitiated, it might look like someone doing Tai Chi, but stuck on a loop.

And sometimes standing very still with my eyes closed, for long periods of time, in complete silence, with a large group of people.

I began to learn why.

The art is one of reconnection. Reconnecting the body to itself, identifying tension and letting it go, to relax into stronger, but far more natural ways of standing and moving.

And because what happens in our bodies is so linked to how we are in our minds, through this practice I began learning so much about how I am, who I am and what’s in my way.

The repetition, letting go and standing still highlights all the awkwardness inside of you, physical, mental and emotional.

Over time, you begin to notice the feelings in your gut, or tension in your chest, and you learn how to open up to it, allowing it to just be and let it go.

And for every layer of tension or stuckness, you find something new — quite often a deeper layer of tension that you didn’t know existed.

You learn to tune out the voices in your head as you tune into the micro-movements in your internal structure.

As a result, I found myself being able to make decisions and pursue paths that I knew were right, not because I had a plan or that they were backed by business logic, but because I just knew.

And I became less afraid — of everything. Because the fear was largely the result of thinking and/or tension in my body, and learning to let go of the both allows me to move in whatever direction I choose.

Four years on I’ve learned so much from this work and come to realise that there will always be so much more.

It’s taught me that there is nowhere for me to get to (after all, we have no grades, belts or syllabus) and that every time I become distracted by thoughts of a destination or achievement, I’m not with the work and I’ve lost all its value.

It’s taught me that I take bigger steps than I need to, which leave me off-balance and unrooted. It’s taught me that I can be afraid of standing up fully, and being my full height.

And each lesson from my body, always proves to be a lesson for my work and life.

Being truly creative at work

Around the same time as I found this practice, I also met Charles Davies.

Charles is a disarming and dangerous man.

Disarming because he embodies compassion and love, and invests his time in showing people how to untangle the mess they create for themselves.

He’s dangerous because he also holds no truck with the kind of thinking that keeps many of us trapped in unhelpful loops of behaviour.

And while I largely found this liberating, at times, when he pointed out the ludicrousness of something I was struggling with I sometimes felt deeply challenged.

It made me realise how many of the limiting beliefs and rigid structures we create for ourselves also help us feel safe, even when they’re killing us with stress and anxiety.

Charles showed me how my relationship with money (and many other things) was nothing but a set of fairy tales in my head that were stopping me from making the choices I really wanted and needed.

He showed me how truly creative work is an expression of our deepest selves, and can be applied as much to running a business as creating a painting.

He showed me how to understand the mechanics of meaningful collaboration, and how to put down my ego and my insecurities in service of creating beautiful things.

And much like my martial practice, working with Charles showed me that ultimately there really is nothing stopping me other than myself.

He taught me how to start to listen deeply, to the voice that doesn’t even have words, and give that form in the world.

Working with nature and becoming a child

What my internal practice and Charles’s creative practices share, is a belief that it’s only when we work with what’s natural, that great work and full lives flow.

And that when we fight against nature — whether that’s ignoring the exhaustion we’re feeling and soldiering on, wanting people not to think or feel a certain way, or trying to plan and manipulate the future — we might as well be pissing into a gale force wind, hoping not to get wet.

Working with what’s natural means having to sense what’s needed, right now, and go with nothing more than that. Which is often nothing.

In Daoism this is the much misunderstood concept of Wu Wei (roughly translated non-doing) — which is not doing nothing, it’s just not doing anything that isn’t unnecessary.

Listening in this way, not with our ears or our brains but with our whole selves, allows us to see ‘clearly’. To cut through that stuckness, the constant tension or anxiety, because we can feel what’s necessary, we can feel what wants to come to life, and we can let go of everything else.

And when we do experience stress or sadness, we don’t try to make them go away, we notice them, give them space and let them go when they go.

This is so contradictory to our dominant way of thinking, one that’s about more, faster, bigger, better. Finding problems in the world and in ourselves, and demanding answers.

A culture of worshipping achievement and appearances, despite the suffering we can feel inside and see in world around us.

The supposed founder of Daoism, which is the foundation for my martial practice and a big influence in Charles’s work (he even wrote a new translation of the Tao Te Ching), is a man called Lao Tzu.

Except this isn’t his real name— the literal translation of Lao Tzu is ‘Old Child’.

He said that the sage’s work is to “return people to their childlike hearts.” and in one verse of the Tao Te Ching that:

“Everyone else seems to know what they’re doing, everyone else seems to know where they’re going.

I am like a child, lost in a vast sea.

I appear stupid but I know that I am different, because I am nurtured by the way of things.”

More than anything else, I feel like this returning closer to my childlike nature and trusting in the way of things has been the most liberating journey of all.

I can be a dad, a consultant and a leader of change in my communities AND I can be a child and a fool, enjoying every moment of being alive.

I can do serious work, hold space for difficult conversations and help others uncover their darkest fears and then I can hold a headstand meeting with a friend in the corridor or sing for everyone in Brighton station while playing the piano, badly.

I have no idea how we’ll pay the mortgage in three months’ time and I‘m not concerned.

I have no plan or strategy for any of my work, including the product and book I launched last year, and that’s just fine with me too.

Because I trust that if I follow my intention and listen deeply, I’ll make all the ‘right’ decisions.

And when difficulty comes along, I know that I can sit with that, even if it feels really unpleasant, and it will pass.

Every time I start investing in worry or fretting, or making plans that I know won’t reflect reality, I catch myself and bring it all back to now.

I’d love to tell you this has taken bravery and courage.

But it didn’t, really.

It was always just about letting go.

An opportunity to start this learning

From the 4th to the 7th of June, in Firle, East Sussex, I’m offering a retreat.

It’s a chance to take some space to explore these ideas and practices, in a beautiful place, with a small group of people.

I’ll be sharing some of the core bodywork practices of Qi Gong, and Charles will be sharing everything he knows about the creative process.

It’s the first time we’ve done this, and we know it’s going to be amazing.

We’d love you to come.

Full information and how to book can be found here.

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For entrepreneurs that want to do good, make money and be happy

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Max St John

Max St John

Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally. www.maxstjohn.com

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