Author Archives: breathenews
Ask my friends. I am easily distracted. I’m also extremely curious and have a ridiculously low boredom threshold coupled with high energy levels. My Chinese astrological sign is monkey which says it all really. Being aware of my tendency to be easily distracted I took up yoga about thirteen years ago . It seemed to work for me.
Yoga tools for the mind
Holding some of the postures, like standing on your head for example, stops you thinking. As soon as you think you fall over. So this was a useful tool to shut my monkey mind up and help me focus better. As I studied yoga more and more I learned that the physical postures are just one tiny aspect of what yoga is about. The more you study you begin to realise that the physical aspect of yoga is just one of the tools to help you sharpen the mind and focus on the present.
Its really tricky to simply sit still and breathe and clear our head of thoughts. Everyone knows its good for us to do that but when we live in a place like London its easy to get distracted and easy to start comparing ourselves with others – people we may perceive as happier, more successful or better looking. Yoga helps stop that needless self destructive internal chatter. Yoga provides us with a range of tools enabling us to focus our attention on the present.
Other tools from yoga, apart from the physical postures, include things like repetitive chanting of a mantra. If you repeat a self affirming mantra in your head over and over you crowd out the negative self destructive thoughts.
Another technique is to start creating a mindset of kindness and compassion to others. If you spend a few moments every day focusing on someone in need or someone in trouble it brings your own problems into perspective. My little sister Jane dart is amazing at this. She’s a nurse and every year volunteers her time to go to Ecuador with a team of other Canadian nurses and doctors to perform operations for people living in poverty and without access to medical care
How yoga toughens us up
Prakriti is the Sanskrit name for nature. Nature throws randomness at us. We think we are in control of our destiny until nature throws wind and rain and illness and good fortune or sadness and pain at us. We think we have control of our destiny until we bump into reality. We create a soft nest and insulate ourselves as best we can from the ups and downs of life. In truth we can only do so much to protect ourselves from what nature has to throw at us.
Most of us try to protect ourselves from what the ups and downs of life by accumulating material possessions. Yoga creates a different kind of insulation. Yoga teaches us that life is random and the only thing that is truly within your gift is to remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of adversity. That’s not to say be naively optimistic but continue to draw on an inner well of joy. Retaining hope, optimism and positive energy is the best way to enjoy the good times and shield ourselves from the inevitable bad times that nature occasional flings our way.
The physical and mental exercises from the eight limbs of yoga train our minds to remain resilient and upbeat as storms crash around us. Patanjali wrote the yoga sutras 2,000 years ago to help us be more like warriors, strong and resilient as nature throws all that it has at us. They teach us to build strength from the inside out.
I’m about to write about personal change in 2014. The problem is that each time I begin to write it sounds utterly hopeless. I haven’t written anything for about 3 months. I only write when I feel I have something to share. When I write it flows. A couple of thousand words in 20 minutes or so. The reason I can write so fast is because when I learn something in psychology or yoga I only pass that knowledge on if I have had direct experience of it. I try it first and understand it through my eyes and ears. Now I feel like I have so much to say but each beginning sounds either patronising, condescending, obvious or textbook. I guess it goes with the subject. When you want to change something its not always apparent what needs changing, or rather which of your many habits or routines no longer serve you. It might therefore be better to consider the idea of change and create a mindset that welcomes change. In this way you are more likely to be open to new ideas.
In 2006 I went to India to learn to become a yoga teacher. The timing coincided with a celebration called Shivaratri a celebration of one of the Hindu gods, Lord Shiva. Hinduism is not the same as yoga, although there are many crossovers. I am not a Hindu and apologies to my Hindu friends for my ignorance but I am fascinated by its ideas. For example I warm to the idea that God is not separate from us but within us, that we are all made of the same stuff, somehow perfect inside and this inner radiance is shared by all of us. The only thing that obscures this radiance is the belief that we are somehow separate from one another, made of different stuff to our surroundings. Our thoughts and feelings manifest separateness but the reality is that we are all joined by this inner radiance.
I saw a lovely quote recently “llness begins with I, wellness begins with we”. Its so obviously apparent that health and happiness stems from connection. My wellbeing is raised when my friends are happy and confident. You might say bullshit. You could argue that this is a very personal mindset that I’ve developed over the last few years and that most people strive to get as much for themselves and maximise their own wellbeing by promoting themselves, perhaps at the expense of others. The research suggests otherwise: Random acts of kindness raise the wellbeing levels more in the giver than the receiver. Volunteering your time to charities has a positive effect on health and wellbeing – people live longer and are happier. Surrounding yourself with happy friends rubs off on you – you get happier. Living in a society with a large gulf between rich and poor has an adverse effect on the wellbeing levels of the rich – perhaps they live in fear of what they have to lose or deep down know at a basic level that if their neighbours are not doing well then they also can’t be truly happy.
I think human brains are hardwired for fairness and compassion. We want to succeed as individuals but we know deep down that this shouldn’t be at the expense of others.
At the end of a yoga class we say the word ‘namaste’, which has a number of meanings but essentially is a recognition of each others inner spark or light. That at our core, we are brilliant and radiant and shiny. I like these ideas. Even if that’s all they are, it is a useful proposition. It does you good to think that we are all radiant and loving and made of the same stuff on the inside. And what’s even better is that the latest research strongly supports the assertion that as I recognise your strengths and goodness, and as I strive to help you out, I actually help myself more.
Another lovely idea in Hinduism is how their many millions of different gods are actually just different manifestations of our higher selves. They do not worship separate individual gods but recognise the godlike attributes we all have. So that when we think of a particular deity we are not praying to a thing that is separate, or better than us, but we are accessing and promoting a useful mindset that promotes our highest self. For example I started with Lord Shiva. One aspect of this deity promotes the idea of change. He can be the violent destroyer, transforming the past, present and future. You can think of him burning everything in his domain, of destroying old habits, thought patterns, attachments to material possesions and old ways of doing things. Hes like a forest fire that allows regrowth and fresh life. When you are able to destroy and burn these old views of the world, you are more able to see the world afresh and when you look deep inside yourself and others, the inner luminence is not obscured by by preconditioning and material attachments from the past.
I use this in my personal life. I tend to over-attach to good times. When I want to access the inner knowledge that letting go allows growth and love to enter your life, I think of the ideal of the Shiva consciousness.
In India on 28th February 2006 I sat with a group of friends by an open fire visualising Lord Shiva and chanting the word “svaha” over and over. In fact for at least six hours. Svaha means to let go or “so be it”. I was constantly throwing away and letting go old stale views of the world. Burning my old prejudices in the fire. As you do this you retrain your brain. You re-fire the synaptic connections between your neurons. You create the mindset for change. You allow yourself to see your own inner radiance and the radiance of others. I think its great to use old ideas and re-fashion them to make them work for you.
As I prepare to go and live back in Australia I’ve got rid of most of material possesions and am using my yoga techniques to create the mindset that embraces change. If you are interested in learning more about these techniques I’ll be running morning meditation classes in January and February so let me know . You can also check out our team of mind therapy experts at www.breathe-london.com/coaching
- your digestion system shuts down – absorbing nutrients takes energy and the body needs the energy for a fight - hence constipation, IBS etc
- your muscles tense ready for a fight – you are braced, your body becomes brittle and armoured - neck pain, lower back pain
- your heart rate rises to pump blood to the major organs of movement - heart rate increases
- hormones secreted constrict blood vessels to enable blood to be pumped to the major muscle groups quickly - blood pressure rises and your face gets red
- the muscles of fight/flight are prioritised – there is a dramatic reduction in flow to non essential areas – like the skin, kidneys and re productive areas - so you wont look good and your bits and pieces wont work so well
- your pupils dilate in order to pick up more information from our surroundings -you look a bit unhinged
- proteins, carbohdrates and fat are stored in your body and during fight flight are mobilised and dumped into the bloodstream to provide energy for the major muscles of movement. They circulate in the bloodstream as amino acids, glucose and fatty acids and can adhere to the constricted blood vessel walls -increasing your chances of heart disease or stroke.
- amino acids are not great sources of energy so during fight/flight the protein in muscles is dumped into the blood stream and then converted by the liver into glucose – this increases diabetes risk and makes it hard for the mega stressed to grow lean muscle mass
- when the fight flight emergency ends the amino acids, glucose and fatty acids are re absorbed, often in fat store deposits – this requires a huge amount of energy to convert from one form of storage - hence we get tired easily and store fat deposits
Physical exercise - say your boss makes you feel small in front of people you might have a fight/flight reaction – you may want to stuff his teeth down the back of his neck. But you can’t so you sit there and take it. Shaky legs because you want to kick him in the chops and angry dilated pupils so you can aim your foot in the right place. So the solution is to be an animal. Be your natural self. Go to the gym and kick the crap out of a punch bag or run, like you are running away from a tiger. Its what your body is made to do
Mind therapies - another way to tackle these thieves is through discussion and observation of thoughts, emotions and actions with an experienced coach. This is where our mind therapies business can help you build a positive internal dialogue which will help you create and nourish your body at the cellular level. I’ve written about this many times – people who are able to develop an internal feel good state (which is not just reliant on fleeting hedonistic events) live longer, are more resistant to disease and infection and find it easier to build strong healthy bodies. Focussing on developing a positive internal world shines through on the outside. As I set out above your skin will glow because blood is pumped to it, your eyes will be soft and gentle and not angry and demanding, and your actions and movement will be measured and considered.
Here is our mind therapies team !!!
Monica Black – Clinical Hypnotherapist and NLP Practitioner
As one of the country’s leading qualified Master Clinical Hypnotherapists, Master NLP Practitioner, EMDR Practitioner, Monica has successfully helped many people
overcome all kinds of conditions and ailments which manifest either physically or emotionally such as weight loss, addictions, building confidence, conceiving etc. She further coaches in mindfulness and public speaking as well as works as a Media Lifestyle Commentator.
Monica is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine, CNHC, GHR, GHSC, ANLP, BATtH.
Contact Monica on 07776230332 or 0207 419 2211 or see her websitewww.hampsteadhypnotherapy.com
Marion Beauregard - Sophrology practitioner
Sophrology is a gentle non-intrusive technique improving quality of life, helping clients feel aligned with their environments, resources and values. Marion has specialised in this cutting edge discipline, working both on the body and the mind, combining breathing exercises, muscular relaxation, gentle movements and visualisations. With a previous ‘life’ in marketing and extensive travelling experience, French-born Marion brings to the UK a new unique therapy practice and is qualified with the International Therapy Examination Council (ITEC) .
Contact Marion on 07929056135 and find out more about her at www.vie-tality.com
Madeleine Mason – Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Relationship Coach
With an MSc and BSc in psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy training and a background in the mental health profession specialising in quality of life, Madeleine brings extensive expertise to PassionSmiths. Having experience in marriage, dating and relationships, Madeleine is passionate about helping people to understand their own needs and getting successful results. She is a member of the British Psychological Society and the International Positive Psychology Association. Contact Madeleine on 07707689900 and find out more about her at http://www.passionsmiths.com.
Daniel Williams – Psychotherapist and Relationship Coach
Trained as a psychotherapist, Dan is highly experienced in working with many different client needs, including couples with relationship issues. With a successful ‘previous life’ in the IT world as well as personal experience of dating and marriage, Dan brings crucial wisdom to the sessions at PassionSmiths. He is registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy. Contact Dan on 07557667137 and find out more about him athttp://www.passionsmiths.com.
Andy Roberts – Life Coach
With an MSc in Positive Psychology and training in Yoga, Andy specialises in stress management techniques including breath work and positive visualisation. With previous experience working in finance, Andy understands the stresses involved with working in the city and combines his psychological and holistic trainings to help people focus on the positive in order to overcome life’s challenges. Andy is an accredited Emotional Intelligence coach. Contact Andy on 07766343931 and find out more about him athttp://www.breathe-london.com/positive-psychotherapy
Dorinda Talbot – Psychotherapist and Mindfulness Coach
Trained in Core Process Psychotherapy, Dorinda combines her psychotherapeutic training with a Buddhism-based understanding of the transformative power of awareness. Dorinda offers open-ended therapy incorporating voice dialogue sessions and mindfulness coaching to bring greater ease, intimacy and possibility into people’s lives. Dorinda’s sessions are useful in dealing with many issues including (but not limited to!) anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, low self-esteem, stress, grief, life transitions, addictions, feeling stuck and lost and emotional management issues. Contact Dorinda on 07949868426 and find out more about her athttp://dorindatalbot.com/
David Lewis – Cognitive Hypnotherapist, Psychotherapist and Coach
David has a comprehensive list of trainings in Hypnotherapy, Psychotherapy and Coaching. Having worked as a psychotherapist at St Thomas’s Hospital from 2005-2010, David brings a wealth of excellent experience to his practice helping people tackle their anxiety, depression and relationship issues as well as phobias, fears and addiction problems. David’s professional memberships include the UK Council for Psychotherapy the National Council for Hypnotherapy. Contact David on 07545871504 and find out more about him at http://changeandmore.co.uk
Love Andy x
A couple of weeks ago I was travelling back from North Wales on a packed Virgin train. It was crammed with the usual assortment of hungover post hen/stag do people plus university and army people returning to their digs or barracks. I had spent the weekend at my little brother Dave’s second stag do and hadn’t slept for two days. As I boarded the train I managed to find the last free seat on the whole train. I desperately looked forward to catching up on two hours sleep on the way back to London
As I sat down I said hi to the elderly lady in the seat next to me. That was my first mistake. She was a talker, and by Crewe we were deep in conversation. For the first 20 minutes it was politeness that kept my eyes open. And then things changed . I told her about my life as a yoga teacher. I told her about how when I was 30 I stopped trying to accumulate money and became more interested in experiencing life and learning new things.
She was born on the beautiful island of Anglesey but had moved to the South of England with her childhood sweetheart. They married at 20 and set up a thriving florist business. They were inseparable. When she described him she glowed. At 80 she looked radiant and beautiful. After 25 years of blissful marriage he died suddenly in her arms in their little shop. She has spent the last 30 years asking why.
I had started the conversation by telling her about what yoga teachers do and what positive psychology was all about. As the conversation proceeded I soaked up her wisdom and my tiredness drained away. Her lesson was so beautiful:
- tell the people you love that you love them, never miss an opportunity for cuddles
- move on quickly – life proceeds in one direction – the people who loved you unconditionally would want you to find new love
- build love inside of you, be happy with your company, don’t be too attached to things or people. Work on self love. Feeling good is an attractive trait and brings good people and things into your life
- fear of change is natural but you have attracted love and positive things into your life in the past and you will do the same in the future
- be who you are now – speak your truth, tell people what makes you happy as well as what you fear.
- be true to yourself and be true to other people – 80 or 90 years on this planet and so many people pretend to be something they are not
- enjoy your career – find the thing you love and just do it
After three happy hours on the train I helped her with her bags and we gave each other a big hug. She was a talker. I’m a talker. I also cry easily so we both had happy tears flowing down our cheeks. We connected as two souls in a moment in time. We both joked that we were terrible with names but neither of us cared about that. I felt her goodness, her energy and her wide eyed curiosity in the world. I turned 45 last Saturday and I want to keep being like that.
I don’t know her name but she was beautiful.
Positive Psychology and Buddhism
Seven years ago when I started studying for a masters degree in Positive Psychology, the thing that drew me in was a headline in a paper “Can you train your mind to be happier?”. That sounded appealing. We all want happiness, none of us want to suffer.
The very basic idea of Positive Psychology is that there are certain practices you can undertake that will help to train the brain to attend to what works well in your life, as well as your friends and colleagues lives. This brain training helps us to overcome evolutionary biases that might otherwise cause us to focus on the danger and deficits in life. Armed with a buffer of positive emotions you are then more likely to make positive life choices and may be better equipped to handle the inevitable loss and suffering that comes our way in life.
Some of the techniques to help focus on the positive have been really useful in my own life and have helped me grow our business. If you want to know more about these send me a mail.
I’ve also worked with great companies and organisations such as Amerada Hess and the House of Commons, introducing their staff to Positive Psychology.
I now have a huge dilemma. The more I study Buddhism, Yoga and Positive Psychology, the less trusting I am of the findings of Positive Psychology. For example much of the research is based on simple self-reported wellbeing questions such as “How satisfied are you with your life?”. I no longer believe that you can truly know your own wellbeing level. People get used to their new circumstances and quickly return to their historical self-reported levels of wellbeing. After all, even the most self-centred person could say they are 9 out of 10 happy. T to truly measure wellbeing you would also need to include life experiences, self acceptance, positive detachment and how much love and positive energy the person radiates to friends, loved ones and the environment.
My other criticism of Positive Psychology is the self and tribe focused nature of the interventions. I’m ok, my tribe’s good and I’m not too bothered about the rest of the world and the environment.
The way I see it, many of the interventions in Positive Psychology (such as keeping a diary of things that work well for you) are at a fairly low level in human evolution.. At their best they help you build tenacity to overcome life’s ups and downs.
Buddhist philosophy does not view emotions as good or bad or high energy or low energy. Buddhist practitioners question whether emotions are afflictive or not. That is to say do they rumble on after the event creating disturbance and imbalance. For example, it’s normal to feel sorrow and grief at the loss of a close friend. The question is whether it continues to disturb the mind long after the event. For example if you lose a loved one who you unconditionally loved and who also loved you, you inevitably will feel loss and despair. If that person truly loved you however, they would want you to return to the default setting of joy as soon as possible.
Life is so short and the Buddhists believe it is normal to experience the full range of emotions in life (and not to avoid or run away from the negative ones). They teach that we should learn to view the world as it is, learn acceptance, learn how to detach, learn to focus the mind on the present and learn to love each other more. Even those people, or especially those people not in our tribe.
A few months ago I wrote about yoga for the first time. It’s taken me so long to get around to writing about this because its so vast and complex. What started for me 12 years ago as a nice stretch in the gym has turned into a tool which has guided and shaped my life. Going back to 1999 I was working for KPMG in a fairly senior position in corporate finance. It’s hard to imagine how doing simple yoga stretches can change a person but I feel it has changed the way my mind works. I’m going to try to explain some of the process (apologies to the many experts on the Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika out there).
The first point to understand is that the physical aspects of yoga you see in a class or a gym, are just one aspect of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written over 2,000 years ago distil knowledge from seekers of knowledge from the previous 2,000 years. Its content is very similar to the foundations of Buddhism. Nowhere in the text does it explain a system for physical exercise. It took another 1,500 years before the physical aspects were documented in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Like Buddhism the Yoga Sutras encourage us to enquire what truth is. However it’s the search for truth that’s important because there is no perfect point of view or perfect observation. In order to illustrate this point I will demonstrate how what we perceive to be truth is an illusion created by our tendency to view and judge our surroundings based on how we have learnt to filter and absorb information
How we perceive the world
We all perceive the world through a prism of past experience. The information that we are primed to observe depends on how we have observed information in the past and what our current mood state is. I’ve written about this many times. For example our ability to see spectrum’s of colour and detail is dependent on how we feel and what we expect to see (or are told to expect to see). I’ve used this example before but check this out if you don’t believe how expectation directs perception http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1D07neiB7HI
In Yoga and Buddhist philosophy it is the misperception of reality which leads to pain and suffering. For example, if I strongly hold to a belief whilst those around me hold different views based on how they see the world, this can lead to isolation, frustration and confrontation.
In Yoga misperception of how the world appears is called Avidya . It is the belief that our view of the world is correct and permanent. This creates separation between people because the view that you will have will be different to mine. Your processing of information will be enabled by how you have learned to perceive the world. Once we’ve made our minds up about “a thing” (say marmite) it’s really hard to experience the thing in a different way.
As soon as I write marmite people think about food types and whether they like or dislike it. I could have used the example of a favourite colour, or whether to vote Conservative or Labour, or whether to believe in climate change or not, or whether to believe Israelis are reclaiming their homeland or invading another’s. These different view points enable humour, gossip and help bring advances in science and the arts. Exploring difference through dialogue is a joy but some people lack the awareness that their view is but one of many.
Amongst other things Yoga teaches us about impermanence and humility. The more we learn, the more we know there is more to learn and the less certain we can be in our beliefs.
Observing many selves within us
In last weeks blog/newsletter I explored how we think and act as often being directed by deep subconscious patterns – bundles of deep lying thoughts and emotions which direct our behaviours.
I’m going to try and explain how yoga practices unbundle these packages of conditioned thoughts and emotions, and enable us to understand how we see the world, and how the world really is, are not the same. We learn to become confident in our uncertainty and this uncertainty drives us to ask others about how they see the world. It makes us more communicative, creative and adaptable to change. In order to observe these deep “packages” that direct our behaviours, we first have to appreciate that when we observe ourselves (thoughts, emotions, behaviours, physical sensations) we are already primed to observe ourselves in a way that is directed by how we feel right now.
For example, when I examine my own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, there are times when I can observe that I am confident and strong and there are other times when I can feel small and low and abandoned. If I sit still I can observe that I act/think/feel in many different ways depending upon context. In truth I am not one self but made up of many different selves.
This is a really hard thing to explain especially as Western Psychology often fails to explore the idea of multiple self and context. To give you an illustration of how context changes behaviours I’ll give you the example of the good Samaritan study:
In an experiment, a group of students studying theology were asked to take a mock psychology test but at the last minute were told that they had to change venues to do the test. Half of the students were primed with words like “you’d better get a move on because the new venue is a good 10 mins walk away and the exam starts soon”. The rest were told to proceed to the new venue at their own pace. Halfway between the old and the new venue an actor paid for by the study designers pretended to be hurt. It looked as though he had been attacked or had a serious accident. In the study, the number of people who stopped to give the man assistance was significantly less from the group primed with time-scarcity words compared to the other group. And remember these were students studying religion well versed in the story of the good Samaritan – for those that don’t know the story the good Samaritan was a dude in the bible who helped an injured person on the road to Damascus thereby finding God. Just to emphasise the point a little more – the designers of the experiment had arranged that just before the mock psychology test the students had actually received a lecture on the good Samaritan story from their tutors – it was right at the front of their minds but time-scarcity, or the perception of it, changed their behaviours. For more about this study go tohttp://www.spring.org.uk/2009/12/when-situations-not-personality-dictate-our-behaviour.php
So now consider how in a busy city our behaviours/thoughts/feelings/perception of sensations are highly contextual and influenced by our surroundings. The only way to observe these different “packages” of behaviours/thoughts/feelings/perception is to somehow slow the world down to enable us to observe our myriad selves behaving in many different ways.
When I practice self-observation I can observe that when I feel confident and strong I’m more likely to try new things and catch up with friends. I can also begin to observe that this confident outgoing person can become arrogant. When I’m time pressured I can be aloof. I can also observe that certain triggers make me feel insecure and vulnerable. When I work with my charity YourStory I feel kind and generous. These selves are all contained within this thing I think of as me. But each of these selves acts and behaves in different ways depending on context.
Each of us have many selves within. Each nurtured by past and present experience. Each directing our behaviours. Yoga trains us to concentrate the mind to observe these selves and how they impact our actions.
Don Juan, the Yacqui Native American tutor of the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, explains that to perceive the world you have to stop the world. You have to be still to notice that what you observe is what you expect to observe based on past experience. To see the world through fresh eyes is to raise the veil of Avidya or ignorance. To do this its useful to to concentrate the mind so that you can train yourself to begin to observe these selves within and how they influence behaviour. In future articles I will (try) and explain how each of the 8 steps of Yoga help raise this veil of Avidya.
In order to stop the world for a moment you can do a number of things:
- Put yourself in a place of great beauty. A place that shocks the senses. As I write this I’m looking at the Southern Cross in a clear night sky – wonder and awe are great at fostering humility and uncertainty about your views and place within the world.
- Meditate on the breath – in a relaxed state you engage the parasympathetic nervous system and concious thoughts slow. With practice this focus and concentration allows you to observe noisy thoughts from myriad selves that jostle for attention. Meditation practices do not empty our head of thoughts but allow us to observe these thoughts and how they influence behaviours.
- The next step is to be aware that as we learn to observe these different strands of self bubbling to the surface there is no one coherent self. Sometimes we observe packages of thoughts/feelings/behaviours/sensations which are confident and happy, sometimes lonely and sad. With ongoing practice we observe that these different selves may be very different from one another and that there is no one coherent self (accept maybe the self that observes these things).
- With further self-enquiry we observe that these different selves have emerged as patterns throughout our lives.
Each of the eight limbs of yoga seeks to concentrate the mind and lift the veil of ignorance that bounds us to a view of self separating us from true knowledge of our surroundings.
Untying the knot means becoming relaxed with uncertainty and going with the flow rather than trying to think our way to happiness. We get tied up by clinging to our thoughts and believing that they are us. Like everything else they arise and pass away over time. Everything around us is in constant flux and therefore we need to train the mind to be adaptable. In this way we can see the world afresh and remain youthful and vibrant.
In this blog I explore why it’s so important to slow down and examine our emotions, and those of people around us.
Making decisions based on gut instinct
Research over the last 20 years increasingly suggests we perceive our decision making processes to be dominated by logic, when in fact the way we tend to problem solve and reach conclusions is firstly out of instinct, and then through engaging our analytical side to justify our decisions. Malcolm Gladwell turned this topic into a whole book called ‘Blink’
The problem with this decision making process, is that our gut instinct is primed by our ancestral reptilian brain, our upbringing, current stress levels and how we are primed at every moment by environmental factors. Once we have made a decision based on gut instinct and backed it up with thought it’s very difficult for us to change our attitudes – they become entrenched. In order to win friends and influence people it’s vital to appeal to their emotional side to have half a chance of getting them to see your point of view. It’s even better if you can train yourself to be dispassionate about your view point and strive to see things from theirs – in this way, through dialogue, we often find there is a view of the world that lies between us which is a more perfect representation of truth.
How reasoning can be tricked
As small children, we explore the world through our likes and dislikes. In Yoga and Buddhism these early likes and dislikes are described as seeds, or samskaras. According to these traditions, samskaras are embedded experiences that we are born with from past lives. Western psychology agrees that we are born with tendencies or personality types – for example a tendency to be open or closed, agreeable or not etc. We are not born blank slates. As we develop these seeds ripen according to the environment that we grow up in. They are watered with love or hatred, kindness or cruelty.
In the eastern traditions, there are infinite seeds of possibility but we have tendencies to develop in one way or another. In addition to these seeds children adopt the traditions and morals of their parents and peers. We have a tendency to quickly assimilate information from our surroundings about the way society accepts is the “right” way to proceed in life. These samskaras and later learned social behaviours are often buried deeply within our subconscious. At a basic primal level they direct many (if not all) of our behaviours. We bury this stuff deep because in order to function in a fast moving, information packed world, we simply don’t have time to reflect on every decision that we are faced with. Automatic processing is a vital part of being human. We have to rely on gut instincts, but sometimes these gut instincts lead us in a direction that if we stopped and thought for a while, make little sense.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of the rider and the elephant to explore this idea. Simplistically (although it is obviously way more complex than this), the elephant is the intuitive/emotional response part of our reasoning processes and the rider the analytical part.
The following fascinating bits of research demonstrate how easily how instinct can be influenced :
- What the elephant eats and drinks changes the way we think and act – In 2011 participants in a study were asked a series of moral dilemma type questions – for example, should cousins be allowed to marry? What are good time limits for abortions? etc. Prior to being asked the questions, half the group were given a bitter tasting drink and half, a sweet tasting drink – you guessed it! The bitter drink tasters responded to the questions in a more moralistic manner. The elephant was primed to react in a certain way through drink – bitter, don’t like, shouldn’t, don’t do that (Eskine, Kacinic, Prinz 2011) and the others, responded in a more thoughtful and analytic way.
- What the elephant touches, changes the way we think and act – In one study participants who were asked to wash their hands prior to the study gave answers which were more moralistic. - I’m clean, you should be too, behave in a morally upstanding way. (Chenbo Zhong at uni of Toronto 2010) .
- What the elephant smells changes the way we think and act - In another study participants who were exposed to fart smells also gave answers which indicated “higher” or more conservative moral standards – that’s disgusting, I’m experiencing disgust, I’m expecting to be disgusted, that moral dilemma scenario disgusts me, this is my reaction……….
- What the elephant sees changes the way we think and act - In trials, juries are more likely to acquit attractive people and judges give leaner sentences – you look cute, I like you, I’m expecting good things from you, there must be a reason you did what you did. In US elections to the Senate and House of Representatives, those judged most competent according to their pictures won their elections in two thirds of cases – You look dependable, I trust you to do the right thing, You have my vote…. In his research Todorov, found that these gut decisions about looks and competency are made in about 1/10th of a second
- What the elephant hears changes the way we think and act - Priming words set expectations that can confuse us! For example, if you link of a series of words in pairs such as sunshine, prolife, happiness, cancer, love, slug etc certain pairings lead us to confusion. For example we read sunshine and then read slug and feel disgust. It takes us a while to compute this conflicting information. It also depends on our deeply held political views. For example, conservatives view ‘prolife’ as a positive term, liberals, a negative infringement of the right of the mother. Link these words for a conservative and they quickly decide whether they like or dislike the pairing. For a liberal the pairing leads to a different type of thinking ie. ‘I like sunshine but I don’t like the word prolife’ – the rider of the elephant becomes engaged because of confusion ! (Morries et al 2003)
In a complex world, where we often have to make difficult decisions, we should try to get the elephant and the rider considering issues together. In the early part of my career at KPMG, we were often instructed to be logical and analytical. An “emotional” response to a situation was frowned upon. There is nothing more irritating than been told to stop being emotional! But in reality, most of us, most of the time, are making little (and big) decisions based purely on gut feel – simple like/dislike triggers – These are the samskaras which have been watered with love or hate throughout our lives.
Dale Carnegie, in his book “How to win friends and influence people” was totally aware that people tend to make decisions based on these primal like/dislike urges. The elephant makes up his mind and then the rider comes up with the logic to back up that gut feel. Once we have made up a story to back up our gut feel it’s really hard to change our point of view. His advice when trying to influence someone was to “begin in a friendly way, smile, be a good listener, never directly contradict” . He was aware that you need to talk to the elephant, to understand where they are coming from. In this way, with an open heart you may also be in a position to appreciate that the truth lies through dialogue and that is probably somewhere between your points of view.
Friendly dialogue primes the elephant – he’s nice and friendly, I’m expecting to hear nice things, I’m relaxed and open to share ideas.
For those of you thinking that it would be a good idea to somehow train the mind to just be analytical – for the rider to take control and analyse each situation, Antonio Damasio’s research gives the strongest business case for emotional intelligence coaching there is. He studied people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex . People damaged in this area are unable to feel emotions such as joy from beautiful images or horror when shown pictures of gruesome murders. Without feeling, these people were paralysed by indecision. Each of the thousands of choices they had to make every day had to be analytically reviewed. These people made terrible life choices.
Research in this area suggests that although we make very quick gut decisions. These decisions can be reversed if we alternate view points from other people. However we need to absorb and reflect on these alternatives. Participants in a study who were provided with arguments against their decision were more likely to change their minds about a topic if they were given a couple of minutes to consider alternatives – so occasionally we need to sit down and reappraise what our default view of the world is.
Emotional intelligence and yoga
This is what emotional intelligence coaching and yoga does. The practices help you slow the world down and observe your habitual patterns. Yoga also helps you maintain a calm balanced view of the world – Its hard to listen to what your gut is telling you if you are so stressed that your flight or fight mechanism is making every part of your body ache and grumble.
In the next blog I’m going to explore how yoga helps you re-appraise your habitual responses to situations. In the meantime, at work consider your interactions with colleagues and how in order to persuade and influence, you need to have a chat with the elephant in the room.
Emotional intelligence development – engaging the rider and the elephant
To take the MSCEIT emotional intelligence test and take part in our 30 day programme to develop your emotional intelligence email me back and I will send you login and payment details. The programme includes two online psychometric tests (a month a part) , two private and confidential feedback sessions, two group sessions and a 30 day programme to develop skills. 250 (UK pounds) or approximately 370 (Australian dollars) per person
This clip is about soldiers returning from Afghanistan and seeing their dogs for the first time is amazing! Watch this video
I’ve just spent a really happy month in Townsville, North Queensland. Apart from having lovely weather and an abundance of beautiful scenery it is also home to Australia’s army. A chance posting by a friend on Facebook showing the happiness of one dog as his owner returns from service in Afghanistan and a coffee with my mate Kenny got me thinking about how to help returning soldiers. No matter what you think of the rights and wrongs of the Afghan and Iraq campaigns , the returning personnel and their families are heroes. The clip shows just how much love there is for many of our returning heroes.
While there is great sadness for the wrecked lives and wasted years of the Iraqi and Afghan people, there will also be many Americans, Brits, Canadians and Australians who return to empty shattered lives.
During our coffee conversation I thought about all the amputees coming home and also all those who are whole-bodied but might still have had the trauma of seeing roadside bombs rip their mates apart. Such shocks to the sensations slash straight to the core of humanity. To be covered in your best friend’s blood, sweat and shit is such a heightened life experience that it may seem impossible for them to experience the world in a “normal” happy balanced way in the future.
At the same time as the shock, there’s also the loss they feel as they return home and their friends stay on the front line – the sense of guilt at not having to endure the pain any more, the loss of camaraderie, the loss of structure and certainty, the loss of meaning and the loss of hope
Being part of something
Soldiers since Alexander’s time have practiced marching precisely in formation. William McNeil noted as far back as 1941 that something magical happens when you ask people to march together. In studies, people who behave in a synchronised manner with their team members bond closely. Many also report that they feel a part of something bigger. They lose the sense of “I”. The right holistic side of the brain is engaged when we practice in formation. We become more willing to share and sacrifice and feel meaning and contentment.
Mirror neurons fire when we observe those around us behave. For example when I pour a cup of tea and you watch me a part of your brain engages which mimics the action of pouring a cup of tea. So in neural imaging we can observe that area of your brain linked to the physical aspects of raising the tea pot and aiming the tea into a cup being engaged even though you are not actually pouring any tea – you’re just looking at me doing it! When our physical bodies begin to move in unison our brains become more attuned – we start to think, act and feel in similar ways. This can result in bloodthirsty mobs or transcendental uplift. The mood of a crowd is volatile and contagious.
When we become attuned and crowd like we act as a bee hive. We strive for the common good rather than out of self interest. Returning soldiers may loose this sense of being part of something bigger. People are often more able to deal with hardship and suffering when they feel a part of something. When they are alone they may feel a loss of the feeling of oneness – all they may have to focus on are their aches and pains and memories. Any rehabilitation program should therefore address this loss of connection to something bigger.
There are other ways to reduce the sense of separateness from the world. To feel small and insignificant can bring comfort – knowledge that we have a small but important role to play in how the universe plays out. Research suggests that some of the other ways that universal connection can be enhanced are as follows:
- being in jaw dropping scenery – awe impresses on us our smallness and comparative insignificance. It helps us raise our gaze from our own internal mutterings. It re-bases us and helps us focus on what’s truly important in life
- group exercise – there’s something magical that happens in a yoga class when the mats are aligned and people perform the same yoga posture at the same time – it feels like magical synchronicity
- meditation – when you practice focusing on the breath you disassociate from thought and appreciate that thoughts come and go. You begin to observe a deeper expansive connection
- hallucinogenic drugs – Aztecs used the mushroom Teonanacatl for thousands of years as part of their spiritual practices as have many other indigenous communities. People with depression are now being treated with hallucinogenic drugs in trials
- supporting teams – being in a crowd – chanting – singing
All these things make us behave like a bee in a hive and make us connect to that which is outside of our thoughts (and problems).
The importance of touch
In addition to the sense of loss from leaving a group returning soldiers are often also plagued by their memories. One amazing feature of human touch is the connection that is has with a vital neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Studies show elevated levels of oxytocin during and after humans touch each other (and animals). Research in this area also reveals heightened levels of interpersonal trust for people with elevated oxytocin levels. In addition Anthony Lane’s study in 2012 suggested people with elevated oxytocin levels are more likely than a control group taking a placebo to share their emotions with other people. This could be really important in getting returning soldiers to start to open up about painful experiences. In addition, oxytocin has been described as the amnesia drug (Heinrichs et al 2004). Studies indicate it has a role to play in “wiping away” memories. That doesn’t necessarily mean we forget when we touch but elevated oxytocin levels may enable us to see the past with a more optimistic perspective – we can start afresh.
Helping the returning heroes
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs in the US , 11% to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are suffering from PTSD. Roughly 2,413,000 young Americans have served in the Iraq or Afghanistan war, so far. Between 250,000 and half a million of them may be struggling with PTSD and major depression. Add to this the Brits, Australians and other nationalities and you have a big problem for the young people returning, their families and communities
Looking above its clear that these young heroes need to feel part of something again, to have opportunities to express themselves in their own time and to feel the warmth of human touch.
I started with dogs and that’s where I’ll end. In the US Operation freedom paws is a charity to enable returning vets to work with and train dogs.
About five years ago I trained to administer a psychometric test called MSCEIT. This aims to measure a person’s emotional intelligence level. It does this by using an online questionnaire which takes about 30 minutes. The psychologists behind the test spent many years investigating what makes up and defines emotional intelligence. They suggest that it’s the degree to which a person remains open to information provided by emotions (both yours and the people around you) and your ability to incorporate this successfully into your decision making process. Making good decisions which are well communicated, and in tune with those around you, is at the heart of emotional intelligence.
The designers of the test divided an assessment of a persons emotional intelligence into four areas:
Recognising emotions – the ability to observe the physical manifestation of emotions in yourself, others and in your general environment – for example you are shown faces and asked to say which emotion the person is probably experiencing
Using emotions – the ability to match an appropriate emotion to a thought task – for example when the task at hand is creative, perhaps the emotion should be fun and upbeat . Where analysis and concentration is required, perhaps more focused, vigilant emotions are required
Understanding – the ability to see cause and effect relationships as emotions come to the surface – you are able to understand why someone is feeling in a particular way and how the situation may develop based on past and current information
Managing emotions – the ability to use the information that has been observed and incorporate it into successful decision making – this is the ability to blend analytical information with what your emotions and those around you are telling you. In the short term this may be the ability to handle stress – perhaps by counting to 4 or going for a run. In the longer term it means understanding what the emotions in yourself and others mean, changing behaviours in yourself, and facilitating change in those around you.
The test results are back in a few days and give your overall assessment score compared to the average population. It also divides the test results into layers so that you also receive test results on each of the four areas. It is this pattern of results which is of most interest. For example one can imagine a situation where someone is great at recognising emotions in other peoples faces but have no idea how to use, understand or manage this information. Or another situation where a person is great at recognising, using, understanding and managing emotions, but very poor at managing their own emotions to create positive work and lifestyle changes. The permutations are endless!
The good news about emotional intelligence is that unlike a personality type (for example how agreeable you are, or how open) which is difficult to budge, emotional intelligence levels can be increased with training. For example, teachers get better at being able to recognise emotions as they spend their careers observing children (often through the backs of their heads!). We all have these abilities, but to develop them it takes effort and focus. I have given feedback for this test many times and have found it very useful in my own life. You obtain feedback from a coach and are then given a program for developing these skills.
“If there is one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other persons point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own”
Developing your emotional intelligence – I need volunteers!
All you need to do is:
- take the test once initially, and then again in a months time
- after the first test I will give you private and confidential feedback on your results
- I will then get all the participants together to discuss a program for improving your ability to recognise, use, understand and manage emotions
- Over the next 30 days I will ask you to put the training into practice once a day, and to record your experience. This means deliberately using a model of recognising emotions, using appropriate ones, understanding where they came from and managing emotions. There will be just one task or challenge per day
- If you wish I’ll also get you into a buddy system so that each week you can have a telephone chat with your partner or meet up to discuss how each situation developed and what you have learnt
- during the 30 days you’ll be given online tools to help you recognise emotions – for example there are lots of emotional recognition tools out there
- After 30 days you will take the test again, receive confidential feedback and we’ll get together as a group to share experiences
I will also take the test and do the 30 day challenge with a friend. And hopefully we will all be more emotionally intelligent!
The cost for two psychometric tests plus two group workshops and two one to one feedback sessions is £250. If you can persuade work to pay for it that would be wonderful! If you have friends or colleagues who may be interested in improving their emotional intelligence levels in 30 days please forward this email.
To register interest just email me back and I’ll send back payment methods and organise start times.
Next week I’ll set out the business case for why developing emotional intelligence is a good idea. You might think this is a strange order for things – surely its a good idea to set out the argument for something before trying to sell a test measurement and program for change. Not in this case. Its a no brainer for two reasons. Firstly most people have a gut instinct that getting along with people and understanding what they are about is a key component of success at work, in life and for health reasons. Secondly, most of us like to know how we compare to others. The thing about emotional intelligence or any “skill” is that we are notoriously bad at judging our abilities. For example on average most people who drive a car rate themselves as being above average at driving – obviously this can’t be true. And so it is with emotional intelligence skills. If we have poor skills in at recognising, using, understanding and managing emotions we don’t tend to recognise the fact.
Hope you found this useful