Being in the Zone – Away from Social Media

Hugh Van Cuylenburg, in his book Let Go, encourages us to let go of expectations, fear of failure, shame and “addiction to social media”.  Hugh maintains that social media and related devices such as smartphones  are creating  “planet-wide chirping, beeping, vibrating, pixilated opioid”.  The addiction to social media and these devices has intensified with the pandemic and associated lockdowns and other movement restrictions.  Hugh draws on the work of Stanford addiction expert, Professor Keith Humphreys, to suggest that nowadays we need to take a “digital detox” for our personal productivity and mental health.

Hugh is adamant about the need to break the social media addiction not only for its adverse effects but also for its opportunity costs.  Research has shown that social media addiction, and/or obsession with the news, can lead to unhealthy comparisons, depression, loneliness and cyberbullying.   Performing artists Missy Higgins and Tina Turner have both spoken about the adverse effects on their life as a result of being addicted to social media and being unable to handle the negative comments and criticisms.

Hugh points out that one of the opportunity costs of social media addiction is the inability to access higher levels of productivity and happiness.  He discusses the concept of “flow” or “being in the zone” as a form of heightened focus, immersion and productivity, producing extraordinary levels of achievement and productivity.   Achieving flow brings with it enhanced (rather than diminished) self-esteem, happiness, and the pleasure of realising high levels of competence.  Hugh maintains that social media, with its manipulative and addictive character, is one of the greatest barriers to achieving flow.

Achieving “flow”

One of the features of flow is that when you are in the zone, time seems to stand still and you lose track of time.  Hugh points out that this warping of our sense of time is described as “transient hypofrontality”, a condition that can last brief moments or hours.  The transient nature of this condition in a flow context relates to the “temporary suspension of the analytical and meta-conscious capacities” of our explicit framework and system of knowledge capture and storage – in other words, the prefrontal cortex (our rational brain) gets out of the road of our intuitive, creative and spontaneous brain activity.  We experience effortlessness in performance of a task or sporting activity, access our intuitive and creative capacities (without logical intervention) and achieve a level of competence that is rare for ourselves (and potentially for others).   The flow experience enables us to act from a place of “unconscious competence” – a competence level typically achieved only after many hours of practice.

I recall one day playing a game of tennis at Milton with a friend who was a member of the McDonald’s tennis development squad.  We had played each other regularly and tended to alternate as winners of sets.  However, on this particular day that I experienced being in the zone, I won 6-0, 5-0 (he retired at this point).   It was an incredible feeling – all my lobs would land on the baseline; my first serves were often unplayable; and I could effortlessly hit the ball down the line on either the backhand or forehand side.  I was conscious of being in the flow and kept telling myself to enjoy it while it lasted (being such a rare occurrence for me).   A characteristic of flow is the ability to focus without distraction and some of the benefits include heightened concentration, clear and unimpeded thought processes (no negative self-evaluation) and positive feelings such as happiness, joy, elation and gratitude.

Hugh suggests that to access the flow state more regularly we not only need to undertake a digital detox or break from social media and smartphones but also to develop a “preparation ritual” and utilise our “peak and productive times” (e.g. early morning for “Morning People” and late night for “Night People”).  I find that mornings are the most productive time for me so I almost always write my blog posts in the mornings (I wrote a lot of my PhD in the very early hours of the morning before our infant children woke up).  The concept of a preparation ritual needs further elaboration.

Hugh points out that one of the activities that enabled him to achieve flow was running.  So he has a detailed warm-up ritual that takes about forty minutes and he finds that he slips into flow in the middle of his warm-up.  My ritual for writing these blog posts involves firstly seeking cognitive input in some form, e.g. reading an inspiring article, listening to a podcast, participating in an online conference/summit or watching a video presentation (TED talks are a great stimulus).  I will often make notes and sleep on the topic overnight.  I find that my subconscious brain works overtime and in the following morning I often experience flow when writing my blog post – ideas come to me spontaneously; I have a framework to write to; and I “see” cognitive and emotional connections to other things I have written, read or personally experienced. 

My preparation ritual for social tennis is the practice of Tai Chi – done on the day and a number of days beforehand.  Besides developing my reflexes, balance and flexibility, this preparation reminds me to bend my knees, breathe consciously as I play a tennis shot and maintain my concentration. To use a phrase of Bessel van der Kolk, “the body keeps the score” – the Tai Chi practice is embedded in muscle memory so that, for example, bending my knees when playing a tennis shot can happen unconsciously.  Body memory is very real – you can experience this when someone lowers the height of the driver’s seat in your car without advising you of the change, e.g. your very tall son (you go to sit down and find that you land on the seat with a thump as your body expects the seat to be higher – a similar experience happens when someone switches the location of the forks and knives in your cutlery drawer.)

Reflection

Taking time to experience calm and quiet away from social media increases our capacity to access flow and its attendant benefits such as creativity, happiness and fulfillment.  As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices we can experience Calmfidence, achieve higher levels of concentration, and be in the zone more often. 

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Image by MarieXMartin 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.

Understanding Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

In the previous post, I addressed the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  One of the observations of David Treleaven mentioned in the post, was the need for meditation teachers to develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of people who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Failure to do this could lead to mindfulness activity that generates trauma stimuli leading to re-traumitisation.  Being trauma-sensitive means understanding the signs of post-traumatic stress as well as having the presence of mind to modify mindfulness practices to take account of people’s needs in this condition.

Recognising the signs of post-traumatic stress

Trauma results where a person experiences an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds their ability to cope and deal with the emotional fallout from that experience.  The effects vary with each individual and the nature of the traumatic event. Traumatic events can include the loss of a sibling or parent through death, separation from a parent at a young age, a life-threatening car accident or terrorist event, separation and divorce, a house fire, physical or sexual abuse or a natural disaster.

This variability in the nature and impact of traumatic events, and the individual’s reluctance to disclose through shame or the need to comply with an authority figure, means that it is often very difficult to ascertain whether a person has suffered from trauma and is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to several reports, up to 20% of people who experience a traumatic event together will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trauma can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, perceptions, level of arousal/reactivity and mood.  It can be reflected in behavioural change such as avoidance of a person or location, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, reliving the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks or withdrawal from social contacts or work colleagues.  The attendant emotions could be depression, anxiety and feeling unsafe.  Thoughts of suicide can also be one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The role of memory and embodiment

Peter Levine, in an interview with Serge Prengel, discussed the role of memory in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Peter is the author of the book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Past – A Practical Guide for Working With Traumatic Memory.  His book is ground-breaking in that he highlighted the role of “implicit memory” and showed how to treat trauma sufferers by accessing the “complex interplay of past and present, mind and body”.  He termed his methodology, “somatic experiencing”.

In the interview, Peter stressed that we have several different forms of memory and the ones that are particularly relevant to trauma are episodic or autobiographical memories, emotional memories and procedural or body memories.  Episodic memory, also termed “defining moments” by Serge the interviewer, though low in emotive content are nonetheless impactful. For example, Peter describes a teacher who acted as a mentor to him and instead of blaming him for poor judgement encouraged him to learn and explore his curiosity.  Other mentors in his life as he progressed through his studies modelled similar behaviour.  This, in turn, led him to a career choice as a professional mentor – so the episodic memory acted as a “trajectory” for his progress in life. 

Emotional memories, on the other hand, “though further out of the realm of awareness” are “very powerful and compelling” and shape how we behave in our life.  Some interaction from the past is encoded with a very strong emotion such as sadness, anger or fear.   The emotional memory can interfere with a current relationship when something or somebody acts as a reminder of the past interaction so that we can be overwhelmed with either a very strong negative or positive emotion. 

While emotional memories operate at a deep level, body memories are deeper still.  At one level, they have to do with the acquisition of motor learning and skills, e.g. riding a bike.  At another level, they are determinants of our approach or avoidance behaviour.  Peter gives the illustration of coming across a former classmate more than 30 years after their schooling and finding that he had a strong desire to approach and reconnect with him.  The classmate had been his protector at school when other children tried to bully him – hence his approach behaviour.  An example of avoidance behaviour conditioned by body memory is when someone who has previously experienced sexual abuse actually freezes when touched by a loving partner.

David Treleaven reinforced the relationship between trauma and body memory when he stated in his video presentation that “the respiratory system is intimately connected to our sympathetic nervous system which is totally tied to traumatic stress”.  He pointed to two books by Babette Rothschild that highlighted the close connection between trauma and body memory, The Body Remembers and Revolutionizing Trauma Treatment.   David also explained further why meditation exercises such as mindful breathing can activate trauma stimuli.  He drew on the differentiation between exteroception (body’s perception of external stimuli received through the senses) and interoception (sensing conditions within the body such as deep breathing or tightness of the chest).  Normally exteroceptors and interoceptors integrate (e.g. the external sensation of viewing a sunrise is matched with the internal sensation of a warm feeling in your chest and a sense of looseness in your hands and legs); with trauma sufferers, “the relationship between interoceptors and exteroceptors can go awry”.

Peter Levine emphasised the need to recognise that we have a “fluid identity” – while our identity is shaped by the past, and the interplay of multiple events and interactions, it is possible to gently, but surely, release the embodied memories and progressively unearth the richness, power and sense of connection of an identity not locked into painful memories.  He has dedicated his lifework to training individuals and professionals in understanding the role of the different memories and in learning to use his trauma treatment methodology, somatic experiencing.  Other professionals, through an understanding of the mind-body connection, employ somatic meditation to assist trauma sufferers.

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness as we develop an awareness of the role that memory plays in our own thoughts, emotions, moods and behaviour and learn to recognise the signs of post-traumatic stress in others.  As we develop this heightened awareness, we can make appropriate modifications to our meditation teaching and deepen our own meditation practice and reflection.

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Image – Sunrise over the water, Wynnum, Brisbane

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.