Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

In the very early stages of this blog I discussed Tai Chi as a pathway to mindfulness.  I also highlighted the challenges I experienced in maintaining daily practice of Tai Chi along with meditation and writing this blog, when I still had a range of professional and personal  commitments to fulfill on a regular basis.   I concluded then that keeping the benefits of Tai Chi at the forefront of my mind, aligning my Tai Chi practice with the timing of my highest energy levels (I’m a morning person) and continuously reading and writing about Tai Chi would build my motivation for daily practice.

In 2018, I explored the benefits of Tai Chi for the mind-body connection based mainly on research that had been conducted at various centres of research at UCLA such as those focused on psychoneuroimmunology and East-West Medicine. This current post highlights the work of Dr. Peter Wayne who is associated with the Harvard Medical School.

Peter Wayne, who has spent decades practising, studying and researching Tai Chi, stresses the power of Tai Chi to deepen the mind-body connection.  Peter is the Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the founder of The Tree of Life Tai Chi Center

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

In 2013, Peter published a book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, summarizing the research around Tai Chi and highlighting what he calls the “eight active ingredients of Tai Chi” which he had developed through his own research and the teaching of Tai Chi Masters.   These ingredients focus on the “biological mechanisms” that contribute to the wide-ranging benefits of Tai Chi including those related to cognition, breathing and neuromuscular control.  Peter points out that this focus on active ingredients helps him in multiple ways – in shaping a curriculum for teaching Tai Chi, in communicating with members of the medical profession and in establishing clinical trials.

In an interview with Dan Kleiman about his research and teaching, Peter explained that his early study of evolutionary biology and ecological modelling helped him to develop a systems perspective that is holistic in orientation and strongly akin to Chinese Medicine.  His orientation to integrative medicine and his mind-body perspective on Tai Chi flow from this early academic training and related research experience.  In a technical presentation Neuroscience in the Body: Perspectives at the Periphery, Peter highlights the downside of having multiple medical specialisations that contribute to “reductionist thinking” and blind us to the whole-body benefits of interventions such as Tai Chi.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi identified in his book highlight his integrative, systems perspective:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Intention
  3. Structural integration
  4. Relaxation (of the mind and body)
  5. Strengthening and building flexibility
  6. Freer breathing
  7. Social interaction and community (if done in a group)
  8. Embodied philosophy and ritual.

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

Peter explained in his interview with Dan Kleiman that the integrative nature of Tai Chi and its capacity to deepen the mind-body connection is demonstrated in the focus on mindful breathing (which is common to all martial arts).  He pointed out that mindful breathing requires improved posture; positively impacts your nervous system, cardiovascular system and mood; and stills what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” through enhancing the power of focus.  In Peter’s view, an ecological perspective on health recognises that all these processes of body and mind are intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In his neuroscience presentation mentioned above, Peter described Tai Chi as a “multi-component mind-body exercise”.  He stressed the interaction of mind-body through Tai Chi by stating that it “integrates slow intentional movement with breathing and multiple cognitive skills”. The cognitive skills he refers to include body awareness, focus and visioning using imagery.

He illustrated the benefits of the mind-body connection involved in Tai Chi by mentioning several research studies that show two key outcomes (1) the primary risk factor in falls of people over 65 is “fear of falling” and (2) Tai Chi has been shown to reduce the fear of falling by 35%.  Tai Chi achieves this result not only by strengthening muscles and improving coordination and sensation (especially in the feet), but also by reducing falling anxiety, increasing exercise self-efficacy and improving the “executive function” of the brain.  Peter suggests that Tai Chi is a “gateway exercise” – increasing people’s confidence to try other things that lead to overall wellbeing.

Reflection

Research into the impacts of Tai Chi reinforce its power to improve our mind and body and the mind-body connection that is so critical for daily functioning, quality of life and longevity.  I have already identified the personal benefits that motivate me to practise Tai Chi.  However, Peter’s research and presentation has increased my desire to improve the frequency of my Tai Chi practice. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection, the impacts of our thinking and self-stories on our intentions and the blockages that impede putting our resolutions into effect, particularly at this time of the year (with the start of 2020).  I can look forward to improved Tai Chi practice and the multiple personal benefits that can accrue (not the least of these being to improve my tennis game!).

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Image by Antonika Chanel from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Build Leadership Agility

Ginny Whitelaw maintains that there are four energy patterns that leaders can adopt that enable them to achieve organisational change and influence outcomes.  She explains that the four patterns operate not just at a behavioural level but are reflected in thoughts, emotions, movement and the nervous system.  While the patterns identified reflect the four key factors in other forms of psychometric assessment, what is different in this approach is a whole-body orientation that acknowledges the mind-body connection and moves beyond self-awareness to self-regulation.  Ginny has jointly developed an instrument, the FEBI (Focus Energy Balance Indicator), which enables a leader to assess their preferred pattern of behaviour.  She offers a free mini-FEBI survey on her website as well as in her book.

The four energy patterns

The four energy patterns described in her book The Zen Leader are identified as Driver, Organizer, Collaborator and Visionary.  The Driver is characterised by intensity and an unerring focus on outcomes; the Organizer is contained, orderly and disciplined; the Collaborator emphasises connection, fun and free movement; and the Visionary is the big picture person who readily sees patterns and takes quantum leaps in imagination.  Ginny provides a detailed explanation of each pattern in her book and gives examples of how they operate in practice for a leader.

Ginny maintains that we each have a preferred energy pattern that reflects our personality and that represents our comfort zone, an energy pattern in which we have acquired a level of unconscious competence.  Therein lies the problem – much of this patterned thinking, feeling, movement and behaviour operate at a sub-conscious level.  Our strengths can become our “derailers” in times of stress or new role demands.  Ginny maintains that to achieve leadership effectiveness and to lead fearlessly, we need to develop agility in our capacity to choose an energy pattern that is appropriate to the situation, e.g. in a CEO role we need to be able to adopt the energy pattern of the visionary.

How to build leadership agility

Ginny argues in her book that as a leader you need to flip “from playing to your strengths to strengthening your play”.  She uses the analogy of a team to represent the agility involved and suggests that you need to “build your bench” – have the full range of skill sets at your disposal so that you can lead effectively in any situation.  This means progressively developing energy patterns that are different to your preferred pattern.  She provides a simple exercise to help you identify your strengths as well as “one thing that you often wish you were better at” – a potential starting point for building a new energy pattern beyond your preferred mode (p.110).

In a previous post we discussed the importance of leadership agility on one dimension, namely emotional agility.  Ginny’s whole-body approach, reflected in the four energy patterns and measured by the FEBI instrument, offers a multi-faceted way to develop leadership agility.  In her book (pp.122-123), she offers many examples of three key areas that can be worked on to develop any of the four energy patterns:

  1. Work Behaviours – recognises that energy patterns are manifested in workplace behaviours; examples for developing a particular energy pattern include identify top 3 priorities (Driver); set aside time for planning (Organizer); build your network (Collaborator); make time for reflection (Visionary).
  2. Physical Activities – the four energy patterns also have physical manifestations that can be cultivated as a way to develop patterns other than your preferred pattern, e.g. using the pushing motion and focus of “hard and fast” bicycling (Driver); adopting the movement of shaping and structuring through organizing a space (Organizer); using the rhythmic movement of ballroom dancing (Collaborator); engaging the expansive movement of Tai Chi (Visionary).  Ginny contends that different physical behaviours can lead to “different patterns of energy” and she illustrates this in her video explanation of the FEBI assessment.
  3. Sensory Support – the energy patterns find expression in the things that we value, that create a positive feeling in us and that build our energy; examples of ways to develop a particular pattern using sensory support can involve office design – stark and sparse (Driver); neat and tidy (Organizer); fun and colourful (Collaborator); harmonious with nature (Visionary).  It is relatively easy to conceive how pictures or images could help to develop sensory support for an energy pattern that you are attempting to develop to increase your leadership agility. 

Ginny also suggests that another way to reinforce the development of a new energy pattern is to use a symbol that could be placed on your desk.  For example, she used a playdoh figure to remind her to move beyond her preferred Driver orientation to the playful energy of the Collaborator.  Others have used crystals, pictures, sculptures or a poem to serve as a reminder of a focus for personal development.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can increase our self-awareness by understanding our preferred energy pattern and its many manifestations in our daily life. We can also adopt Ginny’s suggestions re self-regulation through the development of new energy patterns.

I completed the min-FEBI survey in her book and found that my dominant energy pattern was “Visionary” which was supported by three less-developed (but relatively equal) patterns of Driver, Organizer and Collaborator.  This result aligned with my personal knowledge and experience.  I have frequently chosen leadership roles requiring visionary energy over other roles.  I have also been able to partially develop the other three energy patterns through the variety of roles, physical activities and workplace behaviours I have undertaken over the many years of my working life.

On reflection, I realised too that I am developing my Driver energy pattern by maintaining my focus when writing and by setting myself the task of completing three or four blog posts per week.  However, I have come to realise that pursuing this relentlessly to a set time deadline (a Driver pattern) has limited my time for other physical activities that build alternative energy patterns (Tai Chi for my visionary energy; meditation and walking for my Organizer energy).  The key seems to be to find the right balance between these energy patterns as well as to be able to use the right pattern at the right time (or to adjust if a pattern is not working in a leadership situation).

I have also realised that my lack of Organizer energy is reflected in my untidy and messy office.  While this office “design” (many stacks of paper making it difficult to find things) manifests my Visionary energy orientation, it makes it difficult for me to function efficiently.  So, this is an area that I must work on for this year (it will take that long to get organised!!).  I will also need to seriously adopt the Bullet Diary Method (of course, I have the resources for this already). I can console myself that I am building towards increased Organizer energy by listening to Mozart while I write this blog (as it helps me to organise my thoughts and writing).  P.S.  I have not been able to readily see my reminder symbol, a symmetrical crystal, because of my messy office – there is a lesson here!

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Image by mediamonk from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Your Brain: A Source of Wonder in the Game of Life

The brain is amazing when you think about how much information it processes and how that influences our emotional and bodily response.  We have deeply embedded neural pathways that serve as short-cuts for determining an appropriate response.  However, our self-stories shaped by early childhood experiences can distort our perception and lead to inappropriate responses to situations that serve as triggers.

I am always amazed at the functioning of the brain when I play tennis.  When you think about it, the brain is taking in so many variables when a person serves or hits to you (all absorbed at an exceptional speed):

  • wind speed and direction
  • level of lighting
  • ambient sounds
  • sound of the ball on the racquet of the server
  • speed of the ball
  • nature of the spin on the ball (e.g. top-spin, slice, backspin)
  • relational information (where you are in the court and where your opponents are positioned)
  • attention level and readiness of your opponents
  • elevation of the ball (impacting the landing and bounce)
  • expected landing point of the ball
  • the nature and height of the bounce of the ball.

When you are receiving the tennis ball and returning your shot, your brain is determining how to respond to the information absorbed when the ball is hit by your opponent.  Again, your self-stories come into play here.  The inner game of tennis is critical as your self-belief impacts the choices you make re shot selection. 

When you think about it, you must make an instant decision about how you are going to respond to the serve/shot by your opponent:

  • the nature of your shot (e.g. forehand or backhand)
  • direction of your shot
  • speed and spin of your shot
  • positioning of your body for your returning shot.

How is it that your body responds unconsciously in some situations and does the perfect shot?  For example, when the ball is hit deep to your backhand side and your opponents are at the net, you automatically do a backhand, half-volley lob into the open court.  Some key influences here are your level of tennis competence (e.g. unconsciously competent as in the example situation) and memory embedded in your body.  Body memory is itself a complex process involving different elements such as proprioception (e.g. the capacity to know where a part of the body is such as the hand when you cannot see it).

Body memory is reinforced when you go to sit in the driver’s seat of your car and land with a thud (after your 6 feet 3 inches son has lowered the seat to suit his driving position).  Another example is when you are trying to put the forks away after dishwashing and someone has changed the positioning of the forks in the cutlery drawer (the other forks are not where you unconsciously attempt to place the clean ones).  The role of body memory in relation to trauma is well researched and documented which is why somatic meditation often plays a key role in recovery from trauma.

 Reflection

The brain is a source of wonder and yet we take it for granted so much of the time.  As we grow in mindfulness and awareness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can better appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of our brain, its role in our daily living and sporting activities and express gratitude for the wonder of it.  We are also better able to manage mistakes we make when playing tennis or undertaking other activities requiring complex information processing.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Our Inner Life as a Leader

As we grow in mindfulness, we develop our inner life – realising a deeper self-awareness, developing increased understanding of the nature and strength of our personal triggers and building a greater understanding of, and tolerance for, other people’s differences.  This enriched inner life builds our capacity for insight, resilience, creativity and integration of our words and actions with our life purpose – all essential traits of effective leadership.  Ginny Whitelaw, in her book The Zen Leader, describes this reframing and reorientation of a leader as a flip from “Out There” to “In Here”.

We create our world “out there”

Ginny explains that what we consider to be “out there” (external reality) is, in fact, a projection of our inner world.  Drawing on her study of biophysics, martial arts and Zen philosophy, Ginny marshals her arguments to demonstrate that our external world as we perceive and experience it, is mostly of our own making.  Her argument revolves around several key insights:

  • Limited perception – Ginny points out that our human capacity is to perceive external reality in two or three dimensions (the latter achieved mainly by artists and architects).  She maintains that our external world exists in ten dimensions, most of which are outside our awareness.
  • Cultural filters – our national culture, the world we are raised in, creates filters that shape our perceptions, beliefs, words and actions.   Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis star), for example, explained in an interview for the Brisbane International that she was bemused by the enthusiasm, boisterousness and naturalness of Australian tennis spectators – which she pleasantly experienced as a sharp contrast to the “politeness” of Japanese tennis spectators.
  • Personal triggers – what we experience individually and differentially as negative triggers is shaped by our early life experiences which heighten our sensitivity to different interactions – a sensitivity that can be reflected in a constant need for control, an overwhelming drive to prove that we are “better than”, an obsessive need to please so that we are liked, or the continuous perception of criticism of ourselves by others.  These negative triggers are often the result of distorted perception of our external world – for example, we see criticism where none is intended or where the opposite is intended.
  • Expectations – our expectations reflect our self-image and influence how we experience others’ interactions with us.  Ginny maintains that through our expectations “we’ve pre-tuned our senses to notice only certain things and to place certain interpretations on them”.  Our expectations that reside “in here” create the world we experience as “out there”.

So, what we experience as “out there” is highly subjective and is of our own creation – we are constantly making our own world.  There are inherent deficiencies and dangers for leaders in assuming that what we perceive and experience, is “real” and is the only reality.  Reg Revans, the father of the action learning approach to leadership development, warns us that if we assume that we know what is real we are going to cause trouble for ourselves and others.  Politicians frequently attempt to shape our perceptions of reality by stating unequivocally that “the reality is…” (invariably something of their own making that serves their purpose).

Developing our inner life (as a leader)

In her book on Zen leadership, Ginny offers some penetrating exercises that address our individual distortions of “out there” and enrich our inner life (what is “in here”) thus empowering us to “lead fearlessly” but attuned to others’ reality and own purpose.  These reflective exercises fall into several categories:

  • What World do You Make? – this exercise built around personal skills and traits as well as values that you hold strongly, develops an insight into how you shape your world in a typical week. (p.86)
  • Turning a Difficult Relationship – involves reflecting on an interaction with curiosity and openness to ascertain what you personally brought to the interaction (in terms of perceptions and triggers).  It entails looking into the mirror, discovering the fear at the root of your perception and behaviour and “claiming your power” by naming and facing your fear. (p.97)
  • Sitting Meditation as a Core Practice – Ginny offers a guided meditation based on sitting and grounding that releases tension, develops deep body-mind relaxation and provides the opportunity to gain greater awareness of what is “in here” and “out there” for you. (p.101)

Ginny’s book is rich with insights and personal exercises and reflections to deepen self-awareness, enhance self-regulation and develop ways to empower yourself to take your place fully in the world (not constrained by distorted perceptions, unfounded assumptions and projections or unexposed fears).

Reflection

Our life experience and our personal responses provide a rich store for reflection and insight.  Developing our inner life is not a luxury for a leader – it is an imperative because leaders are able to influence others and to enrich their lives.  The starting point is acknowledging and accepting that the world we experience is something of our own making and that we can remake our world (and help others to do likewise) by growing in mindfulness through meditation (such as the sitting meditation proposed by Ginny), by reflection (such as focusing on what we brough to a difficult interaction) and by open exploration (seeking with curiosity to identify our personal “imprint” of our world).

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Guided Meditation for Releasing Stress and Reducing Overthinking

In times of stress, we tend to overthink – to engage in self-stories about who we are, what we are capable of and what negative impacts will eventuate from our situation.  These negative self-stories can lead to a debilitating downward spiral and undermine our capacity to cope with our daily challenges.  It is important to break the cycle of negative thoughts before they become entrenched in our psyche.

Great Meditation on its YouTube© Channel offers a specific guided meditation to help release stress and reduce overthinking.  The meditation focuses on three key areas impacted by stress – our breathing, our thoughts and our body.

Guided meditation to release stress and reduce overthinking

The 10-minute guided meditation offers a simple but effective way to unwind and take control of your thinking and bodily sensations.  The meditation process has three key steps:

  1. Focus on your breathing – the starting point is to become grounded through your breath.  Just observing your breath can be relaxing.  The key here is not to try to control your breathing but notice it occurring in a part of your body – through your nose, in the rise and fall of your abdomen or in your chest.  Adopting a comfortable posture helps you to maintain focus on your breathing.
  2. Observing your thoughts – this entails noticing what thoughts are occurring in your mind without judgment and without entertaining them.  It is important if your mind is blank not to go searching for thoughts because this can lead to overthinking.  The key is to maintain your relaxed breathing while you notice what is going on in your head.  Just let your thoughts pass by and remind yourself that “you are not your thoughts” – they are merely mental constructions.
  3. Notice your bodily sensations – we experience stress in our bodies in the form of tight shoulders, a stiff neck, localised pain or sore arms, legs or ankles.  Your body mirrors the fact that you are uptight in response to stress.  As you scan your body, you can progressively release points of bodily tension by focusing on these areas and letting go.  Deep breathing can assist this process and enable you to end the meditation process smoothly.

There are numerous sources of meditations that will enable you to release stress and free yourself from overthinking.  For example, Great Meditation provides a wide range of meditations for specific purposes on their YouTube© Channel.  Additionally, psycom.net lists links to meditation resources including music meditations, guided meditations, podcasts and meditation apps.

Reflection

The resources available for meditation practice are numerous and are very often free.  The challenge is to maintain regular meditation practice to enable us to destress and stop living in our thoughts. As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices, we will be more able to calm our minds, notice and release tension in our bodies and progressively build the resilience necessary to handle the challenges of work and family life. 

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Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Resolve a Dilemma or Conflicting Polarities as a Leader

Often a leader is faced with resolving a dilemma or deciding between two different options that represent opposite polarities and are supported by different groups of people.  Each of the parties, too, that support opposite perspectives are very ready to highlight the deficiencies of the other party’s perspective and ignore the deficiencies of their own option.  The leader then is confronted with an “either or” situation.  Both options have advantages and disadvantages.

The tendency is for the leader to come down on the side of one option or other because it might appear as the “lesser of two evils”.   But even this solution depends on what priority the leader is assigning to the adverse impacts of the options – for themselves, the opposing groups, for consumers/clients or for the wider community. 

Ginny Whitelaw in her book The Zen Leader suggests that each of us resolves the tension of a dilemma on a very regular basis when we are breathing.  The actions of inhalation and exhalation are polar opposites, and each has advantages and disadvantages.  For example, when we inhale, we can take in oxygen and refresh our blood; when we exhale, we can remove carbon dioxide and relax our body and mind.  Each action – inhale or exhale – when taken to extremes (like holding our breath for too long) can have serious adverse effects on our health and wellbeing.  Neither action is sufficient of itself to sustain life.

Ginny points out that for a leader to lead effectively and in a fearless way, they must move away from “either or” thinking and reframe the issue or problem.  She argues that this involves a flip “from Or to And”.  Ginny suggests that in the tension of a dilemma or opposite polarities lies a creative solution.

How to resolve a dilemma or conflicting polarities

Ginny maintains in her book that the real impediment to moving to the And position (resolving the dilemma), is when a leader or a group becomes locked into one option by overstating the benefits of their solution and highlighting the deficiencies of the opposing solution, while simultaneously underplaying the deficiencies of their own solution and the benefits of the opposing solution.  This occurs frequently in organisational settings when leaders and their managers are engaged in strategic planning involving decisions re product/service offerings, pricing, place of operation, marketing approach or target customers/clients.

Ginny proposes a process she describes as a “paradox map” which has four quadrants that participants can work through to find a solution that encompasses the best of both options, while reducing the downsides of each.  This process entails seeking out the resolution of the tension between opposites by focusing on the And.

My colleague and friend Bob Dick has described a similar process over many years which he calls “option one-and-a-half”.  Bob provides a detailed process for a leader to work with a group to resolve conflicting polarities or opposing positions on an issue or problem.  His group process entails identifying the advantages and disadvantages of each option and then employing a creative group problem solving process and voting to come up with a solution that incorporates the best of each option.

As I was thinking about this challenge of moving “from Or to And”, I encountered a situation where my partner and I were trying to decide how to arrange a meeting with a mutual friend who lived on an island about 45 minutes by sea from our location.  I was strongly of the view that we should take a car across in the car ferry because it was convenient, provided independence and enabled flexibility when we were on the island.   My friend argued that the cost of the car ferry would be exorbitant considering we were only attending a lunch meeting and would not need the flexibility of our own car while on the island. 

After exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each solution we came up with the idea of having our friend travel to a location on the mainland that involved a similar travel time for each of us, reduced the costs for us and fitted in with other reasons our island friend wanted to come to the mainland.  The final solution incorporated the best of both initial, opposing options – reduced cost, flexibility, independence and a bonus of being able to extend an invitation to another mutual friend to join our “catch-up” meeting on the mainland.

Reflection

Being able to flip from an “either-or” position to what Ginny describes as a position of “And“, enables us to resolve dilemmas, reduce conflict and identify creative solutions incorporating the best of opposing options.  Underlying the process involved is the ability to move from a fixed position of “being right” to being able to explore the perspective of the other person or group.  This entails mindful listening and the capacity to be open to alternative perspectives and solutions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices, reflection and exploration of alternatives, we can develop the necessary self-awareness, self-management and creative capacity to have the openness and curiosity to achieve the personal flexibility required.

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Image by Dirk Wouters from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Let Go of Tension as a Leader

In her book The Zen Leader Ginny Whitelaw explains that to achieve real change in the way we lead, we need to make a number of “flips” (10 in fact), and one of them is “from tension to extension”.  Each of the flips involve reframing – changing the way we think about our self, others and our situation. 

Tension is mirrored in the body

When we are tense, we contract our body, blocking the flow of energy and our capacity to make a real impact.  The words we use to describe a tense person convey this idea of contraction – “uptight”, “wound up like a spring”, “ready to pounce”.  Tension affects not only our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, it is mirrored in our bodies through muscle pain, a stiff neck, headaches, swollen and sore ankles or back pain.  Sometimes tension can be experienced as overall body pain or fibromyalgia.

The paradox is that we need the process of tension and muscle contraction to be able to move – to move the bones in our arms and legs for instance.  So physical tension and contraction are natural processes and Ginny explains how they function for body movement through her in-depth biophysical knowledge.  She also points out, however, that the problem arises when the process becomes stuck, just as we can become stuck through our tension – unable to move forward, resistant to change, unwilling to explore new ways or unable to see a way ahead.

Impact of tension in a leader

Research has consistently confirmed that our mood as a leader is contagious – if we are negative, we develop a negatively oriented team.  Some of the impacts of tension in a leader are disengagement of staff (through poor leader modelling), withholding of information (for fear of an angry reaction), conflict between staff (a lack of cohesion and common goals) and inertia (absence of positive leadership energy).  So, there are very real costs for the tense leader, including staff avoidance.

Extension: how to let go of tension as a leader

The concept of extension (or expansion) builds on Ginny’s earlier discussion of the flip from “coping to transforming”.  She points out that the concept of moving from contraction (tension) to extension underpins much of Eastern philosophy and martial arts such as Tai Chi.  Contraction constricts, extension releases energy.  The challenge for a leader is to be able to move beyond the feeling of being “stuck” to achieving flow and productivity and engagement.

Ginny illustrates the power of extension by a brief physical exercise that involves contracting the muscles in the arms to create movement and then extending them to realise the flow of energy through the extended arm and hand.  She suggests that there are three principles underlying the flip from tension to extension:

  1. Rhythmic movement not relentless pushing or forcing – when we are tense, we break our natural rhythms of sleep, breathing, regeneration and relaxation and we fail to find time to unwind.  Ginny argues that we need to recharge ourselves like we do our phone battery – by plugging into our internal and external energy sources.  She suggests that we take brief breaks of two minutes every 90 minutes (others suggest every hour) supplemented by extended breaks of 30 minutes to undertake exercise or meditation (or Tai Chi) once or twice a day.  We have previously offered the practice of making awareness (and not your phone) your default when waiting, enabling you to tap into the natural rhythm of your breathing and the flow of universal energy that surrounds you.
  2. Develop downward energy flow to offset the tendency to move energy up – the words we use reflect this redirection.  When we are tense, we are “uptight” in more ways than one, when we are opening to expanding and redirecting our energy, we are grounded, calm and begin to “settle down”.  Ginny maintains that we can direct our energy downwards to our hara, our energetic center, through deep breathing and centering exercises that she offers on her Zen Leader website.
  3. Direct energy out, not in – outwards energy is needed to generate a vision, develop and implement a strategy and pursue achievement of goals.  Ginny describes a simple physical exercise to illustrate this energy flow and develop the practice of energy alignment. 

Building on these three principles, Ginny offers a series of reflective questions designed to help us to generate more energy and achieve a better alignment of our energy with our purpose.  She reinforces the power of mindfulness practices to “free up energy”.

Reflection

Many of us are tense as a result of time pressures, work and family challenges and/or the demands of caring for a relative or friend.  We intensify this tension through trying to live up to the assumed expectations of others and own unrealistic expectations.  Tension affects our thoughts, feelings, behaviour and our bodies.  It constricts and diverts our energy leading to exhaustion, frustration and feeling drained.  Extension practices build energy, achieve resonance and encourage engagement.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can free up our energy flow and progressively build our energy alignment.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Go Beyond Just Coping as a Leader

Ginny Whitelaw published a book on The Zen Leader in which she integrates her experience as a senior manager at NASA, a Zen Master and martial arts expert as well as her doctoral study of biophysics and personal experience of life’s challenges and difficulties, including divorce.  She draws heavily on the mind-body connection to provide a pathway for leaders to “lead fearlessly” and in a way that integrates mind, body and spirit.  Her pathway is presented in the form of 10 “flips” which she describes as inverting old ways of thinking through processes of reframing “your sense of self and the world” [imagine “flipping over” an omelette when cooking breakfast!].  Throughout the book, Ginny provides insights, practices, exercises and “takeaways” to help us embed Zen Leadership into our words and actions as a leader. 

From just coping to transforming self and others

The first of the “flips” Ginny introduces is flipping from “coping to transforming”.  For her, coping is reflected in blaming behaviour (blaming others, the system and anything external to oneself), denial or being blind to the reality of a situation and your part in it.  She notes that this unproductive and energy sapping behaviour often has its origins in adverse childhood experiences.  To reinforce this message, Ginny provides an example of a leader who refused to accept performance feedback in coaching sessions but was subsequently able to link his obstructive stance to a childhood trauma. 

Ginny explains that the real breakthrough came with acceptance – acknowledging that the feedback was true, rather than trying to fend it off or rationalise it.  I had a similar experience with a leader that I was coaching who refused to accept the fact that he was defensive, until the fifth coaching session when he acknowledged his counter-productive behaviour flowing from adverse childhood experiences. He unwittingly reinforced the concept of the mind-body connection when he stated that the insight was like a “blow to his stomach”.  As Ginny points out, acceptance replaces anger with joy, “being stuck” with creativity and debilitation with enthusiastic pursuit of solutions to problems and difficulties that previously appeared insurmountable.

Finding the energy to transform self and others

Much of Ginny’s approach is presented within a framework of energy obstruction and release.  For her, leadership is about achieving resonance, both internally and externally. She provides a simple practice to enable energy release and focus when confronted with a problematic or challenging situation.  The practice entails three steps – relax, enter and add value.  The core process is “enter” which draws heavily on Ginny’s deep recognition of the mind-body connection.  Entering entails fully immersing yourself in the situation, including its impact on your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. She describes this process as “entering the eye of the storm” and encourages this approach because from there the only path for your energy is “out” – towards transformation of self, others and the situation.  

This transformative approach of “relax, enter and add value” is in line with many mindfulness practices that involve relaxation and grounding, noticing and accepting what is personally experienced and changing the way you think, feel and act in line with the resultant insights.  To strengthen the ability to move beyond just coping to transforming, Ginny provides a further in-depth exercise that enables you to move from problem thinking to opportunity perception and creative resolution.  She also offers an online course titled Lead with Purpose to enable you to realise your best self as a leader and add real value to the world.

Reflection

As Ginny points out, much of the issue of just coping comes from our habituated, unproductive behaviours that flow from our early life experiences.  Entering fully into the problem situation, instead of blocking the realisation of our part in it, creates the possibility for transformation of our self, others and the situation.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices, insight exercises and reflection, we can come to accept our personal blockages to energy release and free up avenues for creative resolution.

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Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Resonance through Listening: Leadership in Action

In a previous post I discussed leadership as resonance, drawing on the work of biophysicist Ginny Whitelaw.  Fundamental to this concept is the role of a leader as an “energy concentrator” – capturing, focusing and amplifying energy.  This process is a two-way street.  The leader generates energy alignment and amplification through developing a vision, shaping team culture and enabling the transformation of creative energy into innovation.  On the other hand, the leader captures the energy of his or her followers through listening – being in tune with their energy vibration, removing political and organisational blockages and providing energetic support.  This is very much a form of bottom-up management, in contrast to the former way of concentrating energy through vision and culture which is a top-down approach.  Listening, then, is a means of achieving resonance – aligning with and amplifying energy vibrations from followers.

Listening as resonance

A common expression used to describe the act of listening is to say that people who are actively listening in a conversation are on the “same wavelength” – their energy vibrations are aligned.  Ginny, drawing on neuroscience research, maintains that this statement is both metaphorically and literally true – if the leader is actively listening, they are matching the brain waves of the communicator, making a map of the other person’s energy vibrations within their own brain.  This is what Ginny calls “connected communication”.  As she points out, when we are on the same wavelength, we have access to a deeper level of understanding and information exchange.  This is in direct contrast to parallel conversations where there are no connections and people are “talking past” each other.  In Ginny’s words, listening involves a sensitivity to the point that the conversation changes us and has a healing effect.

Disconnected communication – a lack of listening and dissipation of energy

Communication is a form of energy exchange that can be either employed to make things happen or dissipated through failure to listen by either party in a conversation.  In organisations, it is all too common for staff to lose heart and energy when their leader fails to listen, to be in tune with what they are saying.  This can happen in communications about ideas for improvement, expression of dissatisfaction about some aspect of the workplace or work practices or identification of potential risks.  Leaders can tune out through a need to maintain control, through their own busyness or habit of interrupting the speaker or diverting unpleasant or challenging conversations.  Leaders often attempt to solve the problems of followers before they have heard and understood what the real problem is.

Developing resonance through listening

Leaders can develop their capacity to listen effectively and develop resonance – energy alignment and amplification – through mindfulness practices.  These can take many forms as discussed in this blog – such as meditations to address fear, the need for control, resentment or negative self-talk.  A very useful strategy is to reflect on a situation where you failed to listen effectively.  You can ask the following questions in your reflection:

  • What was the situation and the nature of the conversation?
  • What was happening for me in terms of my thoughts or feelings?
  • To what extent was my need for control involved?
  • How did the exchange impact my sense of self-worth or self-identity?
  • What was my mindset in the interaction?
  • What intention did I bring to the conversation?
  • What words or actions did I use to curtail, redirect or end the conversation?
  • What negative impact did I have on the energy of the communicator?

Honest answers to these penetrating questions can enable you to increase your self-awareness, remove blockages to your listening and open the way to develop resonance through effective listening.

Reflection

The way we listen as leaders can build resonance or dissipate energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices in our daily life or reflection on our words and action, we can better attune ourselves to what others are saying – both in terms of the content and significance of their communication. We will be better able to match and amplify their energy and facilitate the transformation of ideas into action.  Mindfulness enables us to be present in the moment, aware of our own emotions and that of others and builds the capacity to self-regulate our words and actions.  Connected communication is a challenge but it is essential to leadership effectiveness as research and our own experience continuously affirms. ___________________________________________

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.